"A Space of Their Own: Women, the American Space Program and the Emergence of Star Trek" by Rita Kaszás
Rita Kaszás holds a BA in English Studies, graduated from the University of Szeged. Currently she lives in London, UK. Email:
The title, ’A Space of Their Own’ refers to the women in science and space both on and off-screen. My intention is to break the traditional gendered misbelief, according to which women cannot be equals to men in many aspects, especially when it comes to the scientific field, in this case, the space program. Throughout the history, women have always been considered weaker than men and not just regarding the physical strength. It was believed that they are unable to perform any kind of work that requires muscular strength or even intellectual thinking. Of course, history has challenged this false statement thousands of times. (e.g. famous female scientists, artists, doctors, mathematicians and politicians). A great example of women’s progress in this is represented by WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, a regional public radio network which has a special program, the Women In Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that provides useful information about the role of women in science and technology. The Sounds of Progress (2008) tells stories about several historical women pioneers in STEM, who made memorable discoveries, yet maybe unknown for the world. The twenty-six 2-minutes long broadcast material is narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who is well-known for her famous role as Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001). Sounds of Progress is a good example of reality merging with fiction. Janeway is the first female captain and the lead character of a Star Trek series, Voyager. She has broken ground in the filmic representation of female space leadership by maintaining her feminine qualities. Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway can thus be considered a great role model for all women.
In this paper I will discuss the position of women in the American Space Program during the 1960s. I will compare women astronauts’ real life with their position in the visual culture of the sixties as seen in the cultural hit TV series, Star Trek. In the first part of the paper I am going to introduce the story of Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13, a case in NASA’s history that the space agency is not very proud of and which it tried to silence and forget. It was about NASA’s inability to consider women as equals for the space program.
The American Space Program was one of the priorities in the sixties. Space, as the final frontier, the symbol of masculinity and male power was a world to which women could not gain access in the male- dominant era of the sixties. Through the story of Jerrie Cobb, America’s first female astronaut, I will show how this incredible woman challenged the traditional social order, the roles of women and their capabilities. Unfortunately, the gender roles of the sixties of America did not allow her to fulfil her dream and write history by becoming the first woman in space. This is part of the paper focuses on America’s first female astronaut’s achievements and her struggles against NASA’s male-dominant policy.
The second part is going to talk about the presentation of women in Star Trek. The show was different in many ways in terms of gender relations. The second topic centres around four women, all of them representing different roles and attitudes towards the treating of women in the sphere of the male domain: ‘Number One’ from the pilot episode, who’s character was deleted after the pilot and transformed into the character of Nurse Chapel, then Yeoman Janice Rand, who was the personal secretary and assistant to the captain, and finally, there is Lieutenant Uhura, an African- American woman who was one of the most prominent regular characters on television in a major role.
For my research, I used Margaret A. Weitekamp’s essay, “The ‘Astronautrix’ and the ‘Magnificent Male’: Jerrie Cobb’s Quest to Be the First Woman in America’s Manned Space Program” in which Weitekamp focuses on Geraldine “Jerrie” Cobb, the first American woman pilot, who passed the same physical and psychological examinations developed for NASA’s male astronauts. Although she was qualified and experienced in aviation and had the physical ability to endure spaceflight, Cobb was grounded. She was not allowed to fly outer space because of the threat she caused by transgressing the strict domestic roles of women in the male dominant society of the sixties. Weitekamp’s aim is to offer the reader a complete outlook on the cultural and political factors behind NASA’s policy to exclude women from spaceflight. The struggles of Cobb for women’s equality are in the main focus of her essay. She includes personal quotations from the male astronauts and from Jerrie Cobb herself, which give a special personal touch to the story.
I am going to analyze these cultural factors and the woman’s achievements, too. I agree with Weitekamp’s perspective and aims to prove the greatness and importance of Cobb. The way and style she introduces the reader to the story mirrors the imbalances of the sexes in America. I am going to use her structure of thinking when writing my own because I find it easily understandable and easy to follow.
The second resource I used is Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (Gender Relations in the American Experience) which is another source from Margaret A. Weitekamp with which I completely agree and find it more than useful. The book is about the thirteen aspiring women who hoped to become astronauts in the American Space Program in the 1960s. These women were pilots, they were suitable candidates who passed all the required physical tests, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) withdrawn its permission to continue their testing programs. By crossing the gendered limits of the sixties, they challenged the role of women and their capabilities. The writer collects an array of rare documents and interviews, including details, quotations and stories from the women themselves. She offers a perspective on the social, cultural and political background that restricted women pilots from becoming astronauts.
My other book of resource is Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot written by Jerrie Cobb. She talks about her different adventures in life. The story begins with her childhood years and follows through the stations of her life: her early pilot years, the dangerous jobs she had, the space program and finally her life-long commitment to the people of the Amazon jungle are the major stages she talks about.
Throughout history women have always had fewer social and legal rights than men. Motherhood and maternity were considered as women’s major “professions” and social role, as well. Nobody questioned this social order until the very beginning of the 19th century. That was the time when the first wave of women’s movement appeared. Women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley were the pioneers. “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it and there will be an end to blind obedience…”1 These words are from Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest thinkers who thought that women should be given the same rights for education as men. The right for education, the intellectual freedom was the first equal right with men that the early women wanted to achieve. In the 20th century, they fought to reform the opinion of the traditional views of women’s role in society. Women’s other major demand came when they experienced what it is like to work outside homes. During World War II, women were working in the factories, helping with the creation of different war supplies. At the same time, they earned their living and establishing their own financial independence. Six million women entered the workforce in the US and they produced munitions and war materials. These women replaced men who went to fight in the war. In other words, they were doing the men’s job. There was a feminist symbol that appeared on posters and magazines which symbolised the growing economic power of women. It featured Rosie the Riveter, a very strong woman with a standing fist saying: “We can do it!” She became an icon of female strength. When the war ended, women had to go back to being housewives again. They gave up their jobs but it was way too late. They had already experienced the feeling of being self-supporting and they realized that there is much more out there than just being housewives.
New changes became more prominent during the sixties. The second part of the 1960s was the period of radical change. Several political and social issues took place in America, such as the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, the questioning of authority and the government, anti-Vietnam war protests and the demand for peace. The issues of freedom, the rights for women, and the demand for the acceptance of homosexual and minorities also became serious issues. It was the age of the “flower power” and hippy movement. But years before many of these changes happened, there had been signs that indicated a forecoming climax in women’s liberation.
In the second half of the twentieth century in America, woman’s world was confined to her own body and beauty, the charming of man, the bearing of babies, and the physical care and serving of husband, children, and home.2
In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, in which she emphasized that women believe in a false system which requires them to create their identity and find the meaning of their lives through marriage and motherhood.
As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – Is this all?3
Friedan says that the system has to be changed in order for women to achieve freedom. “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.”4 In the sixties more and more women decided to work. But new problems appeared. If a man and a woman wanted to apply for the same job, it was the man who got it. Men enjoyed the priorities of being taken first. “The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.”5 These are the famous words of Bella Abzug, an American Congresswoman and leader of the women’s movement. She fought against the discrimination against women who wanted to achieve higher positions. In 1963, the Congress gave green light to the Equal Pay Act and one year later, The Civil Rights Act prohibited the discrimination based on sex too, which was an important step towards the equal treating in the public sphere, yet the traditional gendered thinking about women’s place remained the same.
The Space Race was the competition between the US and the Soviet Union between 1957 and 1975 and aimed to develop different spacecrafts and raced who will send them into space first. The projects included the exploration of outer space with artificial satellites. The other aim was to send people into space, and also to successfully land them on the surface of the Moon. Being two poles of the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union was trying to outperform the other in advanced space technology and achievements. Why was it so important to be the first one to conquer space? Controlling the skies was of huge importance because it was believed that the country which controls space would ultimately control the entire world. The Soviets started this competition by successfully launching the Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite in 1957. America’s answer was the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. From that time, the astronauts became the centre of America.
America started to select the first astronauts in 1959, and it was obvious that they be male candidates. Space has always been seen as the male domain. An astronaut represented power and masculinity. They were the ‘space cowboys’, who conquered the ‘final frontier,’ just like the first pioneers who gained ground on the wild frontiers of the Westward expansion. A space traveller represented his nation, the strength of the country and its prestige. The astronaut was a cultural icon of a powerful patriarchal society. That is why some political powers, together with the space agency decided that America could not afford itself to be seen as a ‘weak nation’ by allowing women to the prominent position of an astronaut. Fortunately, not everyone shared this idea. There was one visionary who foresaw women’s presence in the space program. He was William Randolph ‘Randy’ Lovelace II, an American veteran of the WW II and physician who co-invented the high-altitude oxygen mask for pilots in 1938. With his groundbreaking invention he saved the lives of the pilots in life threatening situations.6 In 1958, he was appointed the chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science. As head of the department, he played a major role in selecting the astronauts for the Mercury program. In 1959, he decided to select women in order to determine the physical suitability of them for the astronaut training program. This was a secret experiment which compared women’s qualifications with that of the men’s. Lovelace was kind of sceptic about the pre-established stereotypes concerning women’s lack of capability, physical power and lack of gutsiness. There have been so many prejudices related to women so that it was a great step on the part of Lovelace to hold on to his belief. Science has always been the field where women had to prove themselves worthy of being credited. Lovelace was afraid of the fact that if society discriminates women from the scientific fields, it would lead to the loss of skilled people. So he chose his first female candidate carefully.
This is where Jerrie Cobb’s story begins. Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’ Cobb is a trained aviatrix who has world aviation records and has received numerous honours. She was born in 1931 and from a very young age she fell in love with the sky. “From age twelve on there was never any doubt about where I would spend the rest of y life. The sky was the only place I felt really at home… Being a pilot had always been my dream.”7 She was twelve years old when she first flew in her father’s open-cockpit biplane. Her father was Colonel Harvey Cobb, an Air Force officer who encouraged her flight ambitions from the beginning. At the age of sixteen she started to fly alone. On her 18th birthday, Jerrie received her Commercial Pilot’s licence and became a Certified Flight Instructor. “Also I have Certified Ground Instructor Ratings in Civil Air Regulations, Navigation, Meteorology, Airframe and Engines. But I have no flying job.”8 She was a member of a women’s softball team and played for the money to buy her first airplane, which was a World War II veteran machine. Before the age of twenty-one, she was teaching the men to fly airplanes, delivered military fighters and bombers to different parts of the world, and Cobb was on her way to become one of the top pilots of the world’.9 Jerrie wanted to work as a pilot but nobody wanted to hire a girl, so she was rejected. “You may have all the licences and ratings in the world, and ten million hours of flying experience, but no airline passenger will ever fly with a woman in the cockpit.”10 This was said by one of the interviewers at a job interview. Cobb was disappointed but did not give up and she occasionally found temporary jobs as a flight and ground instructor until a male ‘real pilot’ was hired.11 She was 21 when she had a job that was very perilous that none of the male pilots wanted to do it. The job was to deliver airplanes, military fighters to the Peruvian Air Force. It was a dangerous and dirty job and the routes were very risky. She was once caught in Ecuador by soldiers and was accused of being a spy, was put into a military prison but soon was set free. The young girl was never afraid to take risks. She was still in her twenties when she set new world aviation records for absolute altitude, distance and speed. Cobb was given several awards and honours, such as the Pilot of the Year (1959) and the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement. By 1960, she reached the 10.000 flying hours. Today she owns 4 world aviation records and she has flown sixty-four different types of aircrafts. Jerrie Cobb became one of the top pilots of the world. When America began selecting the first astronauts in 1959, the 27 years old Jerrie was picked by the Lovelace Clinic to be the first woman to undergo the same physical and psychological testing as the Mercury 7 male candidates. She got into the 2 percent of men and women tested for astronauts and she successfully passed the same eighty-seven tests that were ordered for the military male pilots. What is more, she outperformed men in almost every test. She endured the tests of heart rate, the electric shocks, lung capacity, the pain and loneliness levels, the noise tolerance, the sensory deprivation tank and several other hard physical examinations. As the officially documented biography of Cobb at the Congressional Hearing (held in Washington in 1962) says that
[The] psychological and psychiatric examinations passed included a 9 hour and 40 minutes, record stay in “profound sensory isolation” in water, which tests the subject’s mental resources during deprivation of the five basic senses of sight, hearing, taste, feeling and smell while in a simulated weightless environment.12
She was spinning and was isolated in a water tank in order to measure the resistance to sensory deprivation and vertigo. She underwent several x-ray shots, which is very dangerous because in high doses it can cause cancer and other dysfunctions. There were numerous exhaustive stress tests and even a crucial experiment which was about injecting ice water into her inner ear to cause loss of equilibrium.
Women had fewer heart attacks than men did. Scientists even speculated that women’s internal reproductive system might be better protected from radiation or vibration than men’s reproductive organs were. Moreover, women offered the same skills as men did, but in smaller physical packages since, on the average, women are lighter and shorter than men are. A smaller spacecraft for a more compact occupant would be easier to engineer and less expensive to fly.13
Jerrie Cobb became the first American woman who successfully passed all the required tests, and she happened to be “America’s best hope in beating the Russians, who were already talking about launching a woman into space”.14 Even President Kennedy said that
I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind.15
Beating the Soviets in the space race was the most important issue during the time when the Lovelace experiments were going on. Doctor Lovelace announced Cobb’s results at a conference in Stockholm in 1960. Not much later more women were recruited. The tests were paid by the world-famous pioneer aviatrix, Jacqueline Cochran, who was a good friend of Lovelace and she supported his efforts and “paid for candidates’ lodging and meals while they were being tested”.16 After the search, twelve other women were found qualified for astronaut training. They became the Mercury 13 team, or in other words, the FLAT: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. The members were Jerrie Cobb, Wally Funk, Irene Leverton, Myrtle “K” Cagle, Janey Hart, Gene Nora Stombough Jessen, Geraldine “Gerri” Sloan Truhill, Rhea Allison Hurrle Woltman, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich and Jean Hixson. Despite their qualifications, skills, and physical ability they were permanently grounded. In the opinion of NASA officials, by taking women as potential astronaut candidates they risked a public relations debacle by distracting public attention from the new mission.17 In the meantime, ordinary citizens sent letters to the agency inquiring about women’s position in space. Due to the increased public debate about this issue, NASA decided to end it by finding a rationale for the exclusion of women. On September 12 1961, the thirteen women pilots were told that NASA was not interested in their training, only a few days before their spaceflight simulation tests. They all received a telegram which said:
Regret to advise arrangements at Pensacola cancelled Probably will not be possible to carry out this part of program You may return expense advance allotment to Lovelace Foundation c/o me Letter will advise of additional developments when matter cleared further = W Randolph Lovelace II MD18
What makes this situation worse is that many of them quit their jobs for the chance to become astronaut trainees. Why was their training cancelled? Because by the very presence of these women, they opposed a culture that wanted them to be pretty and charming, to serve their husbands, bear and raise children and clean the house that is, to be confined to stereotypical gender roles.
After a two days long Congressional Hearing held in Washington in 1962, where Cobb and Jane Hart both testified, women successfully proved that they brought valuable talents into the program, and they wanted it to be continued. The hearings dealt with the issue of discrimination based on gender two years before this discrimination became illegal by law. Cobb and Hart showed all the biographies of the women who had passed the Lovelace test.19 They presented the committee the tests that these women had to undergo, with their outstanding results.
One of the congressmen asked her how she could be brave enough to go into space when he had overheard her saying before the meeting that she was “scared to death” of appearing before the panel. Cobb deftly turned the pointed question to her advantage, answering to appreciative laughter that “going into space couldn’t be nearly as frightening as sitting here.”20
During the two days of the hearings, several similar comments and questions proved that Cobb and the other women were not taken seriously. On the second day, the stars of NASA, John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit Earth, and Scott Carpenter testified that women do not have a place in space. Glenn was joking, that “My mother could probably pass the physical exam that they give preseason for the Redskins, but I doubt if she could play too many games for them.”21 A famous photograph captured Cobb “as she slipped her feet out of her high-heeled shoes under the table.”22 This one moment of not following the etiquette rules was enough for years to ridicule and paint a false picture of the inefficiency of military women.23 This manipulative picture was used to undermine Cobb’s testimony and message about the importance of female participation in the space program. Glenn and Carpenter declared that all astronaut candidates must be jet test pilots before becoming astronauts. They argued that astronauts have to make quick decisions in serious situations: they have to be able to take manually control of the aircraft in case of malfunction, and to stay calm in all cases. These are skills that a military jet test pilot learns in combat and in their opinion, it is not something that ordinary pilots like the Lovelace women – disregarding their qualifications and experiences – can be able to do. The paradox in this case is that in 1962, no woman could enter military jet test pilot schools because the Navy barred women from flying jet aircrafts. It is clear that the military forces and NASA worked together on deliberately keeping women out of the space program.
Indeed, the only woman who could be categorized as a jet test pilot at this point was Jacqueline Cochran, who had broken the sound barrier in 1953, when her husband’s financial interest in the aircraft’s manufacturer opened the opportunity for her.24
Glenn and Carpenter continued opposing Cobb and Hart by saying that including women in the space program would damage the agency’s status. NASA kept desperately on sticking to the jet test pilot concept because that status supported an astronaut’s iconic image. The point is that the image of the astronauts was to be threatened because women who passed these tests challenged the traditional social order by stepping into the men’s realm. And even more: Launching a woman into space challenged the masculinity of space itself. The officials of the space agency thought that allowing a woman into space would undermine America’s powerful image and would not serve as an impressive answer to the Soviets’ first successful space launch. A joke about female astronauts started to spread among the men. They referred to the women as “120 pounds of recreational equipment.”25 The testimony of Glenn was obviously the final point that revealed what it is that really hiding behind NASA’s decision to exclude women:
I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.26
That was the point when Jerrie Cobb realized that her dream was lost. Glenn did not say that women are not able to perform the required duties or that they are not capable of the physical tasks or that they do not have the knowledge for this job. He said that women cannot be astronauts because they are women. And women’s place is at home and not in space because it is how the social order works. Just to compare some data, at the time of the hearings Jerrie Cobb had spent over 10.000 hours as a pilot, while John Glenn only 2.500. NASA failed to treat women the same way as men because the so-called ‘weaker sex’ did not get the same opportunities as their male counterparts. One year later, on 17 June, the Soviet Union overcome the US by sending the first woman to fly in space; she was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.
In 1963, after the Soviets’ launching of a female astronaut, a NASA spokesman referred to it as “just a publicity stunt.” Another NASA spokesman said bluntly, “Talk of an American spacewoman makes me sick.”27
By allowing a woman to space, the Soviet Union beat the US in the race. By this the Soviets acknowledged that a woman is as valuable as a man and that they share an equal status. The whole situation got the media’s attention in 1963, when Clare Booth Luce, an American journalist, social activist and congresswoman published an article about the Mercury 13 program, in which she criticized the American space agency for its wrong decisions. She praised the Soviets for their groundbreaking step to send a woman to the outer space.
Jerrie Cobb did not want to accept the final decision about her rejection. She was very disappointed but kept on fighting by using public occasions to speak up. She challenged NASA’s judgement and criticized the agency. But without political help and the help of the general public she was not strong enough to achieve her goal. She decided to start a new life as a missionary pilot in the Amazon jungle. She was serving native people there by bringing medicine and vaccines for them by her own plane, “Juliet”. She was doing this missionary work for 34 years and always said that only one thing could take her from the jungle, and it was space travel. She has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize for her humanitarian work. Jerrie also received the Harmon Trophy as the top woman pilot in the world. But she never entered the world of space. On the day while the whole world was watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the surface of the Moon through TV, she began her journey in the jungles of Southern America.
Patting Juliet as I climb down to the jungle floor, I slip into my damp hammock still tied under her left wing, covered up with an old mosquito net, and sleep like a baby, the rest of the night that man walked on the moon.28
Jerrie Cobb is still waiting, at the age of 77 to fulfil her dream. But history repeated itself again many years later. John Glenn went back to space in 1998 at the age of 77 as a candidate for aging studies. It was suggested that the most logical step would be testing an older female too, and while Cobb has had a similar medical profile as Glenn, she undoubtedly would have been the perfect candidate for the same test. NOW (National Organization of Women) started a campaign program in 1998 to send Jerrie Cobb to space. They petitioned for her space flight to NASA but as it happened 35 years ago, NASA rejected her again with the excuse that “at the current time, NASA does not have plans to fly a series of older individuals into space”.29 Despite still adverse attitudes, Cobb will not give up fighting for the chance she deserves more than anybody else.
Jerrie Cobb and the other women were pioneers. They are role models for women by helping to break the stereotypes of what women are capable of doing, and their story is still an inspiration. Only after the Civil Rights Act (1964), when social and political changes were implemented was NASA forced to allow women into the space program. Quite late, in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and the first one in orbit, too. Up to these days, more than three dozen women have been to space. Colonel Eileen Collins, an Air Force Lt. Colonel became the first woman Shuttle Commander, the first female commanding a space mission in 1995. Seven of the original Mercury 13 astronaut candidates reunited for her launch at Cape Canaveral in 1995. Today we can find women engineers, biochemists, space station commanders, physicians, astronomers, flight engineers, geologists, chemists, mission specialists and last but not least, test pilots working next to the men at NASA, who ultimate had to recognise the equality of genders.
After introducing the real situation of women in the American space program, I am going to shift to the representation of women in the visual culture of the sixties of America. Star Trek has been one of the most important cultural TV shows of the United States of America in the last fifty years that mirrored the space program of the country.
Star Trek is not simply a far-out science fiction program – it is a science fiction program that reflects the America of the 1960’s. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, during one interview is quoted as saying: “I have no belief that STAR TREK depicts the actual future – it depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that” (Interview 6). And David Gerrold, a writer for the series, says in his book that “[the] stories are about twentieth century man’s attitudes in a future universe. The stories are about us.” 30
The first TV series of Star Trek was running from 1966 to 1969, and during the 3 years the creators in almost every episode dealt with social, political and moral questions in topics like discrimination, sexism, racism, feminism, war and peace, slavery and ‘what is right or wrong’, basically all the important issues raised during the 1960’s historical movements. This was the time when the mood of the Cold War was haunting the American people. The show gave a positive picture of humanity’s future. Star Trek showed the viewers that is possible in the future for many different races to work together in peace and cooperation. Gene Roddenberry created a diverse ethnical crew: the character Uhura was African-American, Mr Sulu a Japanese American, Scotty was Scottish and Mr Spock, an alien, half human/half-Vulcan. Later a Russian crewmember was added, colleague Ensign Chekov, who joined the crew in the first episode of the second season. This was a clear reference to the Soviets in the era of the Cold War. Roddenberry sent the message that America is inclusive and democratic, including its actual enemies. Women and black people were shown in this sense as valuable and respected science officers and medical staff aboard the starship.
Star Trek was aired during the sixties and it is very interesting to compare the fictional situation with real facts surrounding them. The show influenced NASA in many aspects. As Constance Penley puts it, “Star Trek is the theory, Nasa the practice.”31 In the mid-seventies, President Ford received many letters by the film fans who wanted to name the first American shuttle Enterprise, after the famous starship of the series. The Enterprise is the symbol of cooperation, adventure and peaceful future. The famous motto of the original series says: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” This is all actually what NASA wanted to achieve and present to the world. President Ford convinced NASA to use the name and several of the show’s actors attended the event of the Enterprise’s launch.
Fiction soon had started to affect reality. Star Trek influenced the life of many people, who later became astronauts. For example, Dr Mae Jemison, who was the first African-American woman in space, said that she wanted to become an astronaut because of Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Lt. Uhura as a communication officer aboard the Enterprise. She even invited the actress to her first launch. Dr Jemison was a science mission specialist who flew on her space mission in 1992. Jemison is the first real astronaut who got a role in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Star Trek’s attitude towards women was progressive from the very beginning. Star Trek predicted a world where women are independent and competent, who are capable to achieve their goals and have equal rights with men. However this full equality was not as it appeared at first because the leaders of the network had strict rules regarding strong women presence in a TV show during those times. Many books and criticisms on Star Trek and the question of gender talk about how the series was sexist in ways of representing women; in many cases showing their character one-sided, reducing women to the roles of beautiful aliens in sexy clothes. Indeed, the female officers were dressed in miniskirts and boots; all women were seductive, generally gorgeous aliens with whom Capt. Kirk fell in love with in almost each episode. Only a couple of essays praise the few memorable and groundbreaking female characters, who made the women of the time realize the qualities and made them believe that there is hope and chance to achieve that freedom they see on the television screen.
In the following I am going to concentrate on four women from the original series of which three completely proved that women are indeed equal to the men regarding their abilities, professionalism and excellence in the scientific field. Women characters’ situation is two-sided in the series because while they are presented as equal to men, many of them still have the traditional gendered qualities and roles (caretakers, nurses, assistants). Of the four women, two of them are in this category, while the other two had broken ground because of their position of authority in the series.
My first character to examine is Number One, who belongs to the group of authoritarian women. Number One, who was never given a name, was the female first officer aboard the Enterprise under the command of Captain Christopher Pike. The character was played by Majel Barrett. We meet Number One in the pilot episode, “The Cage” (dir. Robert Butler, 1964, original broadcast in 1988). According to Star Trek Compendium, “she was a strong, cool, almost emotionless character, she was intended to have experience and knowledge of ships’ operations superior to that of the Captain”.32 She is a very strong female character, second in command and has priority over all the other male crewmembers. Pike called her "the ship’s most experienced officer" which shows his respect towards her. In the episode, when the captain decides to go down to the planet Talos IV to find out what happened to the ship Columbia, he wants her aboard the Enterprise in case anything happens to the team down the planet. He knows that she has the qualities of a leader and that she is the best experienced of the crew who is ready to maintain order and can keep her cool in serious situations. It is interesting to analyze one scene in the episode. When the captain is reported missing, the officers aboard the ship try to find out how to save him. There are four men, including the doctor and Mr. Spock and two other male officers all looking at Number One, waiting for her decision about the rescue plan. She has the final word, prior to that of Spock, which is significant in contrast to the later development of the series. In the end of the episode, when the captain wants to offer himself for the Talosians so in exchange they let go his two women crewmembers, Number One chooses another option. She sets her phaser gun to overload and shows the aliens that the humans are not the type of species that can live in captivity. She knows that it can work and can threaten the aliens. She does not let the captain sacrifice his whole life for her or the other woman. Her idea was way better than the captain’s and Pike acknowledges it. This shows how intelligent she is and that she has the guts to stand up and do what usually females would never do or say. Giving such power to a woman in the sixties was a huge step on the part of Roddenberry; it is just like Randolph Lovelace’s idea to select Cobb for the astronaut testing. They were the two visionary men who foresaw women’s presence in the scientific arena.
Number One was said to be emotionless however she was not at all. When the Talosian tells Pike that “The female you call Number One has the superior mind and would produce highly intelligent children. Although she seems to lack emotion, this is largely a pretense. She often has fantasies involving you…”, you can see her reactions. She feels shame and worry and she is hurt by the statement. She was also hurt when at the beginning of the episode Pike makes a comment about her. When he dismisses his new female yeoman he says to Number One that "I just can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge." She immediately turns to him with a strange look upon her face, so Pike quickly answers: "No offense, Lieutenant, you’re different, of course". That is the moment when one can clearly see that she is hiding and controlling her anger and hurt. She realizes that the captain does not look at her as a woman in general but sees her as a valuable officer. It seems that in order to become accepted and equal to the male officers, she had to give up her womanhood. She cannot be a woman and an officer at the same time. Later she has to swallow one more insult regarding her femininity, when Vena says about Number One that “They’d have more luck crossing him (Capt. Pike) with a computer.” She is able to keep her composure and reply her with a smart comment. Her attitude in hiding her feelings and internal struggles was way too much for the NBC executives. Francesca Coppa in her essay, Women, Star Trek and the early development of fannish vidding argues that
Number One’s character—“highly intelligent,” “seems to lack emotion”—marks her as the original of Spock. Moreover, the aliens tell us two things about Number One that many female fans also believe to be true of Spock, and perhaps more crucially of themselves: that her lack of emotion is largely a pretense, and that behind her controlled, professional demeanor lies a sexually desiring subject. 33
She did not behave like a “real” woman who is sensitive, emotional and relies on a man, so she had to go. The censors told Roddenberry to cut this character off because the world is not ready for such a powerful woman in an authoritative position. This was not the only change he had to make to guarantee the green light for the series. He had to feminize his female characters by changing their black trousers to fashionable miniskirts and boots, namely the fashion of the sixties. Roddenberry had a vision about a positive future where women share an equal status with men at the workplace, where they do not have to wear distinctive clothes or “girlish dresses” just because of their gender. But he knew that he had to agree to the changes so the show could get a second chance with a second pilot. Almost every character, including the captain, was recast or replaced. That is how William Shatner became the legendary Captain Kirk. The producers wanted to cut Spock’s character too but Roddenberry was adamant. He cut Number One off but he insisted on keeping Spock. Barrett jokingly stated that Roddenberry “kept the Vulcan and married the woman, ‘cause he didn’t think Leonard [Nimoy] would have it the other way around.”34 Mr Spock was also put in a major role as the first officer, best friend and advisor of the captain. The executives loved the new changes and they gave it a go. While Number One’s character was erased, the actress who played her returned to the series as Nurse Christine Chapel. As Francesca Coppa puts it, not only was she recast, but Roddenberry fell in love with her. He married Majel Barrett and this is how Number One became “the first lady of Star Trek.”35
Chapel’s character was the total opposite of Number One, both in appearance and in status. Instead of the cold headed, serious and dark haired first officer she was turned into a blonde, very feminine nurse. Being a nurse equals the traditionally accepted, caretaker role of women. Now she was the one to be rescued instead of being the one who rescues the others. Although she was brave, intelligent and professional, one can clearly see the transformation. This is what NBC producers wanted on screen. Chapel was a regular cast member who appeared in almost every episode. The main story involving her is featured in the episode What Are Little Girls Made Of? (dir. James Goldstone, 1966, season 1). We learn that she gave up her career in biology, research medicine to find her long- lost fiancé, Dr. Roger Korby. In the episode she finds him, but at the end we find out that he is not the real Korby but just an android. Her mission is ended but she decides to stay with the Enterprise.
As the series developed it became clear that she is well- respected by her crewmembers for her professional knowledge. In the episode The Changeling (dir. Marc Daniels, 1967, season 2), she plays a major role in the re-training of Lt. Uhura who was attacked by an alien force that erased her memory. Another major episode concerning her medical knowledge was the Journey to Babel (dir. Joseph Pevney, 1967, season 2), when she assisted on the operation of Ambassador Sarek, the father of Spock, who is one of the most prominent people of the planet Vulcan. The only weakness of the character which makes her vulnerable is that she is in love with Spock. She tries to hide it but in the episode, The Naked Time (dir. Marc Daniels, 1966, season 1) she admits her feelings and he rejects her. While Number One was like the original of Spock (the cold-headed, logical and emotionless Vulcan), now this character is in love with him. This marks the total transformation of her. In Return to Tomorrow (dir. Ralph Senensky, 1968, season 2) Nurse Chapel plays a major role in sabotaging the murders of Spock and the captain. She is involved medically too but her greatest achievement is that she kept Spock’s consciousness in her own, preventing it from destruction by the enemy. Chapel says: “We shared consciousness together.” This is a strange experience and one can interpret it as the intimate joining of the two. During the 5 years mission nothing happened between them, although Christine expressed her feelings again in Amok Time (dir. Joseph Pevney, 1967, season 2) and this time Spock rejected her firmly, making her realize that is never going to work between them. Nurse Chapel’s character seems at first sight that she is just a gorgeous lady for the audience, especially the male audience to gaze at but if we analyze her achievements and the way the other officers treated her, it becomes obvious that she is more than that. She faces dangers several times but can always act bravely and stand her ground. She was a progressive character, during the years she completed her medical degree and became a doctor, and a few years later she was promoted to lieutenant. Christine Chapel was a professional, good at her job and we can say that she was the perfect example for the “smart blonde” girl.
There is another example for the blonde girl type but in her case she is the opposite of the smart blonde. Yeoman Janice Rand, played by Grace Lee Whitney, was not as progressive as the other women in the paper. She is the type of woman that represents the traditional gendered duties and qualities of a woman of the sixties. Rand’s character appeared in only eight episodes during the first half of the first season. “Eventually, the character was written out because Ms. Whitney’s bout with alcohol and diet pill addiction”.36 But it may not be the only reason for her to leave the show. It is likely to believe that her character was only limited to the role of being the captain’s personal desire and there was no way for the character’s development. Rand’s improvement developed mainly after the series had ended. She appeared in three Star Trek movies and we see her once again in episode Flashback in Star Trek Voyager (dir. David Livingston, 1996, season 3). Yeoman Rand was the secretary and personal assistant to Captain Kirk. This is the job that most women had in the years of the series. She was the “girl next door” type woman, the thin, blue-eyed, tall, long-legged blond, who was beautiful outside but the audience did not get the chance to see much of her intelligent, smart and professional side. Rand’s duty was to serve Kirk like a maid and to take care of his physical well-being. She wants Kirk to look at her as a woman and not just an officer. Janice had a crush on Kirk and he knew it but never acted on it. In The Naked Time (dir. Marc Daniels, 1966, season 1) he admits to Spock that she is beautiful but he is not allowed to feel anything for her. He is the captain and she is his officer, a personal relationship is out of the picture. The yeoman’s presence can be explained through Laura Mulvey’s feminist film theoretical essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published in 1975, where she talks about the need for a new type of re-imagined representation of women in the cinematic world. She argues that the female characters of the classical Hollywood cinema (1950s and 60s) were the objects of the male desire. Laura Mulvey says that while men are the active ‘bearer of the look’, a “woman appears as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man.”37 According to Mulvey, “women are erotic objects on display, providing visual pleasure for the heterosexual, male, voyeuristic spectator.”38 A female character can never affect the happenings in the plot and she is only there as a sexually desirable object. This theory works perfectly in Star Trek’s representation of Yeoman Rand. That is why she was not progressive and failed to improve. In Voyager’s episode Flashback (dir. David Livingston, 1996, season 3), we see her as Lt. Commander of the U.S.S. Excelsior under Capt. Sulu’s command but this happened only in the 1990s so it is not relevant in the examination of the sixties. Whitney loved the way her character was created, according to an interview, “[she] not only loved the outfit the show gave her to wear, but also the roles the show had for her – she thought that ‘[when] we put legs into the format I think that helped sell the series’”39 If the actress of my next character would have thought the same way, she may would never have written history.
Not only Star Trek’s but also television’s most prominent female character of the time was Lt. Uhura, the most memorable female officer of the Enterprise. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura served as the communication officer aboard the ship. She is fourth in command, serves on the bridge and she has the highest rank among all the female officers. The character was played by Nichelle Nichols, an African-American actress who had a lot to do with her character’s status. Nichols knew Gene Roddenberry before because she got a guest star role in the TV series, The Lieutenant, which was written and produced by him. Later she was told by her agent that Roddenberry was doing Star Trek and that she should try to get a role. Uhura’s character did not exist at that time, in fact Nichols had to read the part of Spock at the audition. She was told that the character is not a female and that the Mr Spock character was already given to Leonard Nemoy. They told Nichelle what the essence of that character was about and asked her to take the basis of the Spock character and create her own version of it. She did and everybody was impressed by what she came up with. She got the inspiration to this character from a book she was reading at the time. The book was called Uhuru (meaning “freedom”) and it was a treatise about Africa. It was her who invented the back story of Uhura. Later on Roddenberry did not even want to decide about the first name (Nyota) of the character without asking Nichols’ opinion first. (source of information: “Uhuru – Divine Diva” from Star Trek DVD)40 Her name, Uhura, is in Swahili and it is the feminized form of the word “freedom” while Nyota means “star”.
… a name that is unmistakably associated with the civil rights movement sweeping over and transforming America, Roddenberry intended to identify his program with the evolution of humanity beyond racial discrimination and skin-color discrimination.41
Roddenberry found “Uhuru” too harsh so Nichelle told him to make it Uhura, a more sensitive version of the word. This is beautiful and very symbolical because Swahili is the lingua franca of East-Africa, and has become the predominant African language. “Star” and “freedom” as the name of the first African-American woman on TV as a lead character in the years of the sixties when racism was a very serious issue. This was a cornerstone in television’s history.
Uhura is like a shining star in the darkness of space. She is a very graceful, multi-talented, dignified, beautiful and highly intelligent woman. Everybody respects her for her professionalism and she gets along well with the crew because of her warm and good nature. She is a kind of mediator for the crew, who can say whatever she wants even to the captain. She has the right and courage to speak up when she disagrees with something and Kirk listens to her and does not dismiss her opinion. Once she had a heated argument with Kirk but they regretted it immediately after and he apologized for being rude (The Naked Time, dir. Marc Daniels, 1966, season 1). In her case it is right to say the common statement that “Behind every great man there’s a great woman.” Uhura always acts like a true lady with grace and poise, and even her nails are always perfectly shining. Some critiques say that she is also an example for the sexy object-type women in the series but she is definitely not serving that purpose. In contrast to Yeoman Rand, Lt. Uhura is a real subject instead of being just objectified for the male gaze. She is brave, powerful and persuasive. Uhura is not only a communicational professional but she can also repair her own communicational station (Who Mourns for Adonais?, dir. Marc Daniels, 1967, season 2) and she can pilot the ship in case of emergency (The Naked Time, dir. Marc Daniels, 1966, season 1 ). She loves singing for the crew, and Spock also taught her how to play the Vulcan harp, which she plays on a professional level. To make Uhura sing was another idea from Nichelle Nichols because she wanted to give softness to the character’s professionalism and excellence. In The Conscience of the King (dir. Gerd Oswald, 1966, season 1) she sings about her love for someone in her life which gives another dimension to the character’s mystique.
Uhura is not a stereotypical woman who is not capable to achieve or do anything without a man beside her. She can take good care of herself, and she does not need to be rescued. She admits to Kirk once that she was afraid but she did not start to panic. “When you’re out in space, in a dangerous situation, you’re not going to have some female that goes, ‘Ooooh, Captain, save me, save me!‘”42 One of Uhura’s most famous scenes is maybe the “knife scene” in Mirror, Mirror (dir. Marc Daniels, 1967, season 2). When she, the captain, Scotty and Bones became trapped in an alternative universe where an evil Sulu commands the bridge, it is Uhura’s task to keep his attention off his board while Scotty activates the transporter, so they can be transported back to their own universe. Kirk fully trusts her with the fate of the mission and he counts on her. Even when she hesitates for a moment Kirk calms her and says that she can do it and everything is going to be okay. "Uhura, you’re the only one who can do it. I’ll be right there." Sulu’s desire for Uhura is obvious and she uses this as an advantage by charming him, diverting his attention from his post. As soon as they succeed in transferring the power to the transport station, she slaps him hard on the face and defends herself with a knife. She is fierce and seductive, uses her feminine qualities to hold all the power in her hands and to have control over Sulu. Uhura saves the day. In 2267 her memory was erased by an alien and she had to learn everything right from the basics. She is insistent in learning fast because she wants to return to her post as fast as she can. She is a persevering woman for whom duty and loyalty means everything. When the original Enterprise was re-assigned to the Starfleet Academy Uhura was assigned to Starfleet Command on Earth where her duties included giving lectures. During this time, in 2284 she was promoted to the Commander rank. Uhura was taking part in one of the Federation’s major peace treaties at Khitomer. She returned to serve on the U.S.S. Enterprise-A, at Kirk’s special request to have her back on the bridge before they attend the Khitomer Conference in 2293, the first successful peace negotiations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
Uhura’s character is not only important because of the fact that she is a woman in a major role but because of her being a black woman in a major position among the white heterosexual male crew. The network producers were anxious about having a black woman in such an important role and they asked Roddenberry to keep the character in a minor position.43 Star Trek has always been progressive and open about the serious issues of minority, ethnicity and the racial question. About this, the utopist Gene Roddenberry was very concerned. In The Savage Curtain, which is the last episode in which Nichelle Nichols appears, (dir. Herschel Daugherty, 1969, season 3) an alien life form adopts the human form of Abraham Lincoln and when he meets Uhura he makes a comment about the woman which is intended to be charming but it could have been taken as an insult at the same time:
LINCOLN: What a charming Negress. (Kirk and Uhura give him a serious look) Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property.
UHURA: But why should I object to that term, sir? In our century, we’ve learned not to fear words.
The series was realistic about history and was not afraid to show how people were thinking back in the old days. “In our century, we’ve learned not to fear words.” Her response shows dignity and she knows that she is much more than some “property” that one can hold. It is interesting how differently treats Uhura’s generation the question of racism, which is a great teaching example for the people of the time (even for our generation).
Nichelle Nichols wanted to quit the show after the first season because of the limited lines and actions she was given. Usually, her role was reduced to the line of “Hailing frequencies open, sir.” She described her character in an interview as "a glorified telephone operator in space".44 So, the actress decided to leave the show and return to the theatre, but on a civil rights event she met Martin Luther King Jr and that day changed her life forever. Nichols tells the story of that famous meeting at a special tribute to Star Trek, called “Star Trek: 30 Years and Beyond“ which aired in the United States on October 6, 1996. It featured many famous people as speakers, such as Nichols, Avery Brooks (the lead character of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Buzz Aldrin and Dr Mae Jemison.
Dr King told me that Star Trek was one of the few shows that he and Mrs King allowed their little children to watch. He said that Uhura, my character, was so important because she was in the first fully integrated cast that portrayed men and women truly as equals. When I mentioned that I was going to leave the show, Dr King said: “You can’t do that!” He said “Your character is the first non-stereotypical role on television, and is in a position of authority. People who don’t look like us see us for the first time as we should be seen. As equals. Don’t you see? Star Trek has changed the face of television.”45
She stayed with the show and did not regret it. Nichelle wrote history by featuring in television’s first interracial kiss between Uhura and Capt. Kirk in the year 1968. The scene caused a huge controversy because it had never been shown that a white man kisses a black woman. The Southern TV stations even refused to air this episode, Plato’s Stepchildren (dir. David Alexander, 1968, season 3) “and it was banned in England for almost 25 years”.46 However, the kiss was not romantic at all because they were forced to kiss by a mind controlling species. The network censors only approved this kiss because it was against the characters’ will. This one scene included so many social taboos, the forbidden and hidden fantasies that had been there for centuries. This kiss showed that the world did not come to its end by having a black woman and white man kissing. This kiss was a huge step in history but still it contained the hierarchy of society, the superior position of the white man. The philosophy of Star Trek and its creator was to remain in the middle, give something new and groundbreaking, to show equality but also to balance it not to go too far. This is clear in the kissing scene: They kiss but none of them feel good during it.
Many critics and readers argue that Kirk would not have been so hesitant to kiss a beautiful alien or a white woman but it was Uhura, his officer, a black lady whom he knows well. I agree with that they are taboos for each other, mainly because she is his officer and the hierarchy and the rules of the Federation do not really approve a relationship between crewmates, but it is unimaginable to think that they never noticed each other’s good looks, and that they never fantasized about the other. She is a beautiful woman and he is the ladies man. The problem with the kiss is that they were forced by a stronger power, the audience was watching like in a theatre, they were the puppets of the aliens’ crazy imagination, and the whole thing was not about that they are not attracted to the other. If it were not this situation, why could it not be an actual scenario someday in the future? Uhura confesses that whenever she was afraid on the Enterprise she saw him on the bridge and heard his voice and all her fear was gone. And now she is “trembling” but not because she is afraid. I think this is the proof that she accepts the kiss and more, that somewhere deep inside she has always longed for it.
Years after the series, Nichols was employed by NASA to help to recruit women and African-Americans for the space shuttle program. “For ten years later, Uhura and I would recruit the very first woman and minority astronauts for NASA’s space shuttle program.”47 As it has been written before, Mae Jemison was inspired by her and decided that she wanted to become an astronaut because of her. Next to Jemison, Guion Bluford, who was the first African-American astronaut and Sally Ride said the same thing. But not only did she inspire future astronauts but a famous actress too, who was just a little kid at the time of the series. Whoopi Goldberg named her as the reason why she became an actress. When Goldberg was very young she became a fan of Star Trek because in the sixties there was not another TV show that featured a black woman in a position of power, and this had a huge impact on her future life. She was a big star in Hollywood when the second Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (created by Gene Roddenberry, September 28, 1987 – May 23, 1994, CBS) was started to air and she decided to get a role. She was writing for the show runners to write her a role but she was always rejected. Then she personally went to Gene Roddenberry and he asked her why she wanted to be in the show.
Gene said, ‘Well, I’ll just ask you one question and I’ll make my decision on that. You’re a big screen star, why do you want to be on a little screen, why do you want to be in Star Trek?’
And she looked at him and she said, ‘Well, it’s all Nichelle Nichols’ fault.’
That threw him, he said, ‘What do you mean?’
She said, ‘Well when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,’ and she said, ‘I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!”’ And she said, ‘I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be on Star Trek.’
And he said, ‘I’ll write you a role.’48
This is how Whoopi Goldberg became Guinan, the mysterious and very wise woman of great experiences, the only survivor of her species who runs the Ten Forward, the bar on the Enterprise. Captain Picard often asks her opinion on difficult issues. She is the type of character that everybody can turn to when his/her spirit needs a lift or just needs a good conversation.
These are only a few examples of how many famous people were inspired by Nichelle Nichols, not to mention the thousands of children, young women and black minorities all over the world. Of the four women mentioned Uhura is the most memorable. The original Star Trek broke ground with the representation of women and black women especially in equal positions.
The traditional gender roles have always been in the centre of questioning. Women’s position in society for long decades was the role of mothers, caretakers and homemakers. But with the awakening of the women’s consciousness, many of them started to realize that there is more out there than motherhood. Women have always been looked at as the weaker sex, people who are not able to perform any kind of activity that requires physical strenght or intellectual thinking. This gender discrimination was the driving force behind women’s will to become liberated and being treated as equals. With the beginning of the sixties many social, cultural and political changes happened in the United States. Women’s liberation started to emerge.
In the era of the Cold War, one of the major issues was the space race between America and the Soviet Union. Well-known gender differences can be found in NASA’s male-dominant policy. Jerrie Cobb was the first American woman pilot who underwent and successfully passed all the same physical and mental examinations as the original male astronauts, the Mercury 7. Cobb is an experienced aviatrix who has numerous honours and awards. She was picked in 1959 to become the first American female tested for astronaut training. She had all the qualifications and physical ability to become an astronaut but because of her gender she was excluded from the program. Another twelve female candidates passed these tests and their results were unbelievably high. They outperformed the men in almost every tests. The space agency was afraid of the effects of including women in the space program because that would have transgressed the traditional social order, so it left no room for women’s participation.
At the official hearing where the issue of possible female astronaut candidates was raised and discussed, the political powers, hand in hand with NASA testified their growing concern about the presence of “the weaker sex” in such an important field of power as space. The reason is that space has always been the male’s domain. Space symbolizes male power and the astronaut is the symbol of his nation, representing its power and status. Especially in the Cold War era it was the most important for the US to maintain the powerful image of the country. The NASA officials thought that presenting that a woman can perform the same duties as a male astronaut, that they can do the men’s job would mean that it is not a difficult job and this would underestimate the masculinity of space itself. Through introducing the story of Jerrie Cobb, her achievements and struggles for the equal treating in the scientific field, we gained insight to the tradition of American manned space program and also to the great importance of these women pioneers.
While Jerrie Cobb is the living example for how the masculine domination of the sixties era effected the women who longed for higher statuses and acknowledgement in the men’s realm, a television show about a possible future dared to make the “giant leap” and introduced women in equal positions with the men. The vision of Gene Roddenberry about a positive future included women in much more liberated roles than it was the real situation in the sixties. He is considered to be one of the most radical writers of feminist TV shows of all time. He was definitely the first one who changed the face of television in 1966 when he wanted to give a more positive view of women. Gene Roddenberry was similar to Randy Lovelace in the sense that he not only wanted but made women much stronger than it was imaginable in the 1960s.
Although he had to limit the female roles because of the censors and the public, he managed to slip through their fingers sometimes and could create memorable and television historical moments. First he started with his idea to put a woman into second command who knows more about the ship than the captain himself does. The network officials thought that showing a woman of high intelligence in authoritative position would be too much for the people of America and that they would not be able to identify with the character. They forced Roddenberry to cut her off and create a second pilot with some other modifications. Those modifications included dressing the female characters into miniskirts, full makeup and big eyelashes instead of the black trousers and simple look. Number One was transformed into the completely opposite character of Nurse Christine Chapel. Even her name indicates purity, innocence and virginity. While Number One was a dark haired, strong, military woman, Nurse Chapel became a blonde, feminine and very sensitive caretaker. While she is an example for the ideal woman of the sixties period in America, she is more than that because she enjoys equality and has a profession with high prestige. Star Trek not only dealt with the gender issues but with race too. The show succeeded in solving the other major problem of the US by introducing a black female communications officer who is the highest ranking woman aboard the starship. Of course the censors did not like the idea of a black woman next to the white male crew but Roddenberry wanted this character and insisted on keeping her, although agreed to limit her actions and keep her in a kind of a minor role. Lt. Uhura’s role was very new on television and the public’s reaction was mixed but more than positive. It is true that the way Roddenberry imagined the future equality of the sexes was limited but undeniably, his vision about the importance and inevitable role of women in higher positions, authority and excellence were the reasons why so many women became obsessed with the show and joined its fanbase. The reason is that the freedom that the viewers saw in the show was not available for the women of the time.
The second Star Trek series, The Next Generation (created by Gene Roddenberry, September 28, 1987 – May 23, 1994, CBS) was a big step by changing the famous motto of Star Trek “Where no man has gone before” to “Where no one has gone before”. With one tiny word modification the show acknowledged the gender equality.
The new series featured more women in authoritative positions, however still in caretaker roles, such as the Counsellor and the Chief Medical Officer. Doctor Beverly Crusher is many feminists’ favourite example of the perfect woman because she is a professional doctor, a scientist of research medicine, a dependable officer of high ranking and a single mother at the same time. Beverly as a Commander often has the night watch on the bridge, goes on away missions and completes even dangerous secret missions. The actress who plays her is Gates McFadden whose physical attributes, her special beauty resembles the iconic Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo. It is not surprising then that Beverly has huge interest in art, especially stage art and dancing. Guinan’s character is also a caretaker because she is good at listening and giving wise advices, similarly to Counsellor Deanna Troi. What is a major difference to the original series is that while the non-major female characters of the original were mainly possible love interests, all the women of The Next Generation (TNG) were treated with much more respect and appeared in more important roles.
The third series, Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) went even farther and introduced a black Commander as head of the space station in the leading role, Comm. Benjamin Sisko, and what is more, his First Officer and right hand was a woman, Major Kira Nerys. Kira is the second in Command, a very tough woman who has been a fighter in all her life. When the Cardassians, the enemy of her people occupied their homeworld, the Bajor, she became a freedom fighter in the resistance. After the war, she was assigned to the space station as a military attache for Capt. Sisko and the Federation. Kira has special strategic skills and a powerful commanding style. Besides, she is a very spiritual person and at the end of the series she finds her true love and her life becomes complete. The Chief Science Officer is Jadzia Dax, who has a complex personality because although she looks like a young woman, Jadzia has the experiences of seven lives, since she shares her body with a very wise and old worm-like creature, whose memories and experiences are all shared with Jadzia. None of Kira and Dax are humans which was new in contrast to the previous leading casts where next to the white human leading man there were the white human women. Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001) is the fourth of the franchise and it is the only series that featured a female captain in the leading role, Capt. Janeway. As Kate Mulgrew describes her character,
Captain Kathryn Janeway is the quintessential woman of the future….both commanding and discerning in her warmth; she’s authoritative while remaining accessible. Beneath her extraordinary control runs a very deep vein of vulnerability and sensitivity…49
Kate Mulgrew looks very much like classical Hollywood’s greatest star, Katharine Hepburn. Both her appearance, her high cheekbones and her deep voice resembles Hepburn for which Kate Mulgrew has always been likened to her. The name of the character, which was originally Nicole (the role was first given to Geneviéve Bujold but she quit the series after the second day and Mulgrew replaced her), was changed to Kathryn for Kate Mulgrew’s request. The name ‘Kathryn’ means pure, full of life and confident which are true characteristics of the captain. Although Mulgrew says that the other Kate [Hepburn] played no role in her defining of Janeway’s character, mainly because she has never really liked the actress, but the connection can still be found. It seems that the most important female characters of TNG and Voyager are somehow connected to Hollywood’s most ravishing divas. Both Garbo and Hepburn were exceptional women of the Hollywood era because they liked to dress in men’s clothes, with which they reformed fashion and projected a slight of masculine attitude in their femininity. This aspect can be found in Capt. Janeway too.
The other women of Voyager are strong females too. Her Chief Engineer is the young half-human/half-Klingon woman B’Elanna Torres, and the person in charge of the astrometrics is a compelling female too. All the women of Voyager, and not only the main cast, are professional, brave and intelligent who are the best in their jobs with great knowledge and strength, and they are all experienced in martial arts and can defend themselves in any time. They are enjoying their femininity, and most of them live in a relationship and have families aboard the ship. None of them have to give up their womanhood to become excellent officers, contrast to Number One, who did not have the chance to embrace this kind of complete liberation of her sex.
We could see the huge gap between the presentation of women in the 1960s and that of in the late 80s and 90s. The improvement of their filmic representation mirrors women’s growing liberation and independence in the real life. Reality will always influence fiction and it works vice versa so it is not just coincidence that for example, science fiction’s first female president in leading role, President Laura Roslin (played by Mary McDonnell) of the re-imagined hit series Battlestar Galactica graced the screen when former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton became more involved in the political life. The society of our generation embraces this very powerful woman (Roslin) as the leader, or we can say “mother” of the human race, which could not have been imaginable twenty or forty years ago. Society has come a long way in embracing female authority both on and off- screen which can make us hopeful for our future.
I would like to thank the wonderful Ms Nichelle Nichols for reading my thesis and giving me instructions and a special insight into this era and her experiences. With her guidance I hopefully managed to correct what needed to be corrected. I learned that just because something is written in a published work, to use Nichelle’s words, “it does not make it true”. My thesis is dedicated to Nichelle since she has always been a great influence and inspiration for me.
1 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; with strictures on political and moral subjects : “Chap. II. The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character”, 21. (Boston: Peter Edes for Thomas and Andrews, 1792), available: http://www.bartleby.com/144/2.html, (published in July 1999), access: 28 February 2009. ↩
2 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York,  1971 ), 31. ↩
3 Friedan, op.cit., 11. ↩
4 “Betty Friedan”, in Heroes for a Better World, available: http://www.betterworldheroes.com/pages-f/friedan-quotes.htm, access: 4 November 2008. ↩
5 “Bella Abzug”, in Heroes for a Better World, available: http://www.betterworldheroes.com/pages-a/abzug-quotes.htm, access: 4 November 2008. ↩
6 “International Space Hall of Fame At The New Mexico Museum Of Space History”, in New Mexico Museum Of Space History, available: http://www.nmspacemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.php?id=19, access: 08 February 2009. ↩
7 Jerrie Cobb, Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot, (Florida: Jerrie Cobb Foundation, Inc., 1997), 19. ↩
8 Cobb op.cit., 32. ↩
9 Cobb, op.cit., 5. ↩
10 Cobb, op.cit., 33. ↩
11 Cobb, op.cit., 32. ↩
12 Cobb, op.cit., 154. ↩
13 Margaret A. Weitekamp, “The ‘Astronautrix’ and the ‘Magnificent Male’: Jerrie Cobb’s Quest to Be the First Woman in America’s Manned Space Program.” In Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s, Avital Bloch and Lauri Umansky, eds. New York: New York UP, 2005, 11. ↩
14 Martha Ackmann, “Wally Funk is still determined to get her shot at space…”, 2, available: “http://www.scs99s.org/Profiles/WallyFunk.pdf”>http://www.scs99s.org/Profiles/WallyFunk.pdf”:a href=“http://www.scs99s.org/Profiles/WallyFunk.pdf”>http://www.scs99s.org/Profiles/WallyFunk.pdf, access: 24 February 2009. ↩
15 Ackmann, op.cit., 3. ↩
16 Ackmann, op.cit., 2. ↩
17 Margaret A. Weitekamp, “The ‘Astronautrix’ and the ‘Magnificent Male’: Jerrie Cobb’s Quest to Be the First Woman in America’s Manned Space Program.” In Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s, Avital Bloch and Lauri Umansky, eds. New York: New York UP, 2005, 15. ↩
18 Margaret A. Weitekamp, “Right Stuff, Wrong Sex”, (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 117. ↩
19 Weitekamp, op.cit., 145. ↩
20 Weitekamp, op.cit., 146. ↩
21 Weitekamp, op.cit., 150. ↩
22 Weitekamp, op.cit., 148. ↩
23 Weitekamp, op.cit., 145. ↩
24 Weitekamp, op.cit., 148. ↩
25 Weitekamp, op.cit., 121. ↩
26 Weitekamp, op.cit., 151. ↩
27 Constance Penley, Nasa/Trek Popular Science and Sex in America (USA, New York: R. R. Donnelly & Sons, 1997), 55. ↩
28 Jerrie Cobb, Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot, (Florida: Jerrie Cobb Foundation, Inc., 1997), 222. ↩
30 Interview 6 is cited originally by Allan Asherman, In The Star Trek Interview Book, (New York: Pocket Books, 1988), Quoted by J. William Snyder, Jr. “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s” (1995) available: http://www.sixtiescity.com/startrek/sttosmain2.htm, access: 09 January 2009. ↩
31 Constance Penley, Nasa/Trek Popular Science and Sex in America (USA, New York: R. R. Donnelly & Sons, 1997), 19. ↩
32 J. William Snyder, Jr. “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s” (1995) available: http://www.sixtiescity.com/startrek/sttosmain2.htm, access: 09 January 2009. ↩
33 Francesca Coppa, Women, Star Trek and the early development of fannish vidding, Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 1 (2008) available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/44/64, access: 27 February 2009. ↩
35 Francesca Coppa, Women, Star Trek and the early development of fannish vidding. available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/44/64, access: 27 February 2009. ↩
36 Original quote by Allan Asherman, in The Star Trek Interview Book, (New York: Pocket Books, 1988), Quoted by J. William Snyder, Jr. “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s” (1995) available: http://www.sixtiescity.com/startrek/sttosmain2.htm, access: 09 January 2009. ↩
37 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Fourth Edition, Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992), 756. ↩
38 Réka M. Cristian, “Gender and Cinema: All Sides of the Camera”. In Réka M. Cristian and Zoltán Dragon. Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories, (Szeged: JATEPress, 2008), 90. ↩
39 Original quote by Allan Asherman, in The Star Trek Interview Book, (New York: Pocket Books, 1988.), Quoted by J. William Snyder, Jr. “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s” (1995) available: http://www.sixtiescity.com/startrek/sttosmain2.htm, access: 09 January 2009. ↩
41 Michael C. Pounds, Race in Space: The Representation of Ethnicity in Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, (Lanham, Maryland & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999), 96. ↩
42 J. William Snyder, Jr. “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s” (1995) available: http://www.sixtiescity.com/startrek/sttosmain2.htm, access: 09 January 2009. ↩
44 ibid. ↩
48 “Whoopi Goldberg”, in Interviews/Nichelle Nichols, available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/st/interviews/nichols/page4.shtml, access: 24 February 2009. ↩
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