What we call “news” is so warped. Hard to say why, but you know it is true. Here is a story to warm your heart – and remind you that the pathbreaker for many professional women was not Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama, Biden, or any other credit-taker. It was none other than Ronald Reagan. Reagan? Yes.
You will know that Reagan put the first woman on the US Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor), but did you know he was the first president since Eisenhower to place a woman in his cabinet. He appointed four high-ranking women, Elizabeth Dole (later presidential candidate), Margaret Heckler (HHS, loved the jellybeans), Jeanne Kirkpatrick (UN Ambassador scholar extraordinaire, former teacher of mine), and Millicent Fenwick (who, if memory served, smoked a pipe).
But this month is the anniversary of another first for women – which Reagan made possible. Former Challenger shuttle astronaut, Sally Ride, became the first woman astronaut in 1983.
Ronald Reagan made a point of expanding on her accomplishment in a national radio address, saying she was “another example of the great strides women have made in our country.”
And she was. She was a physicist who could have done anything. She was so good at tennis that she was number one at Stanford. Billy Jean King urged her to go pro, but she had other plans. In time, she would prove women could do anything – and started that process by getting selected one of 35 from 8000 applicants. Training for a mission, she perfected a robotic satellite rescue arm.
The 1983 Challenger mission commander, Robert Crippen, did not care whether she was a woman – he wanted her because she was the best physicist/engineer in the lot, knew her job better than anyone. She went. She flew again two years later.
Life is full of sad, curious, unfathomable ironies. Three years after her first flight on Challenger, she was on the investigation team – helping unpack the worst space disaster in American history, the Challenger explosion in 1986. Reagan spoke – and said that crew had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” None of us alive now, who were alive them, can forget the day.
Ride was all about empowering young women, and especially in math and science. She did with enthusiasm. She was both a product of and a believer in the American Dream. She was never one to make excuses, make a symbol of herself, question the power of one person to change history – with determination, hard work, merit at the core, and a dream.
Maybe that is the merger of Reagan and Ride, the principle that binds them – and should lift, empower, and bind us. They both believed in the American Dream. They believed that one person can make all the difference. They asked no more than a chance, and once they had the chance, they never let go. What is more, as a matter of who they were, they pulled others up and along – Ride inspiring other women to go into space, Reagan inspiring young conservatives to believe in their country.
Let it not be said, on this 38th anniversary of Ride’s ride into space, that we are not a nation that dreams big and makes those dreams come true. We were in their day, we are now, and with fidelity to the past and future, no one reading this – man or women, scientist or political thinker – should doubt we can be.
Sometimes, you just have to forsake the news and believe – in the beauty of America.