Breaking one last barrier

Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride broke a huge barrier in 1983, when she became the first American woman in space. After a second trip into space a year later, she embarked on a long and distinguished career in physics and education, directing the California Space Institute, writing six science books for children, and later setting up her own company “to make science and engineering cool again.” Her special joy was reaching out to young girls with dreams of doing what girls weren’t supposed to do.

And now she is pushing against one more barrier, even after her death. Newspapers and blogs were full of the news of her passing, and most of them incorporated the official obituary released by her company, Sally Ride Science. Very few of them took any notice of the last sentence of the obituary, which quietly acknowledged that Dr. Ride was gay.

In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.

Sally Ride met Tam O’Shaughnessy when they were both 12 years old. After a short-lived heterosexual marriage to a fellow astronaut, Sally entered a relationship with Tam and remained there for the rest of her life — nearly three decades. She is one of America’s greatest heroes, a role model to zillions of little girls, and when she died, all that could be said of the love of her life is that she was a “partner.”

The New York Times published an excellent obituary, going into more detail than most. This passage in particular stood out for me:

Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?

The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.

At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

It took the United States twenty years to catch up with the USSR and finally acknowledge that a woman could, in fact, be an astronaut. In the matter of love and marriage, the nation is once again lagging, this time behind developed nations all over the world. Dr. Ride’s words in 1983 still apply right now — it’s too bad our society isn’t further along.

But the last thing she did was to give her country one more push against that barrier. I wonder if our history books will acknowledge it.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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51 Responses to Breaking one last barrier

  1. Power Wench says:

    Thank you for the remembrance. At the time it meant a great deal to me that a woman almost my age had the grit, determination, and intellect to become an astronaut and fly space missions. Ride, Sally, Ride!

  2. Perhaps my math is faulty here, but I am pretty sure that 2012 minus 27 is 1985, which indicates her partnership with O’Shaughnessy began during her marriage (which ended in 1987), and apparently she never once acknowledged it publicly during her life. She was, without question, an amazing woman who did amazing things, but when people speak of her “impeccable integrity,” I must confess that these two points give me pause.

    • oregon expat says:

      What do you consider “acknowledging it publicly”? Her sister Bear Ride said that Dr. Ride “never hid her relationship with Tam. They have been partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they’ve written books together …. Sally’s very close friends, of course, knew.” So she was out to her closest circle, and after that, whose business was it? Certainly it appears that she was not in the closet, at least, not once she exited her heterosexual marriage. Now, it’s true that she didn’t take out an ad in the New York Times or conduct interviews for the sole purpose of trumpeting her sexual orientation, but I don’t think that was necessary. And since her family also characterized her as a “very private person” who did not tell anyone of her cancer other than family and close friends, it does not seem that a public sexual declaration would have been in character for her. What was in character for her was unceasing advocacy for girls and women in science. That was where she focused her efforts.

      As for the overlap between her heterosexual marriage and her “partnership” with Tam O’Shaughnessy, it would be lovely if all relationships occurred sequentially and life-changing self-realizations only occurred when convenient. Unfortunately for most of us, life doesn’t work that way.

      • Jenny says:

        I think for those reasons it doesn’t necessarily matter that not all obituaries made a big deal about her being gay. If she chose not to speak about her relationship publicly, then it seems fitting that her partnership to a woman be mentioned quietly. Few obituaries make more than a passing note of the partner of the deceased, anyway. I personally took the lack of fanfare about her sexuality this week as a sign that we have indeed come far, as it was acknowledged but, reasonably, not dwelt upon.

    • JR says:

      Re: the overlap of relationships, I agree with OE’s response. Overlaps happen (even without life-changing self-realizations) and I can’t get too worked up about that. I know a lot of good people–myself included, if I may–who have found themselves in similar situations.

      I am in line with the other half of your observation, though, even if I wouldn’t phrase it in terms of integrity.

      Okay, a public declaration wasn’t in character for her, but without it, she left behind a pretty muddied message about the place of women and girls in science. What kind of women and girls can build a career in science? Do I have to pass as heterosexual to be an astronaut? What kind of credibility will I have as a scientist before the public if I’m also identified as a lesbian? I know she didn’t ask to be my role model, but she did set herself up as such for all those girls attending her science camps. Ultimately, they’re left to wonder: If someone as much loved by the public as she was, with as much social power as she had, can’t be open about being a lesbian, what does that mean for the rest of us? She’s always been described as shy and reticent, and I get the desire for privacy (well, I can’t possibly “get” what it means to be so public of a figure), but ultimately…I don’t know. My grief seems to be warring with my disappointment right now.

      • I think you are looking at this wrong. As a woman in science and at NASA there was no possible way for the subject of her gender to come up. She could not deny that she was a woman. But many people, especially of older generations, feel that sexual orientation is a private matter between the person and potential significant others. I think we need to ask what does it say about our society that people of such universal renown don’t feel comfortable being open about their private life.

      • fireandair says:

        What?! SHE left behind a muddied message? Not the forces that surrounded her and that pretty much made her have to hide a part of herself? SHE is the one who created the message that girls have to be extra-extra-extra-perfect — and that heterosexuality is part of that perfection — even to have a hope of hell of managing a scientific career? SHE is the one to blame for that? SHE created all those messages?

        “If someone as much loved by the public as she was, with as much social power as she had, can’t be open about being a lesbian, what does that mean for the rest of us?”

        And I’m sorry, but how is SHE the one who is to blame for this message that the girls are left to wonder? SHE left them to wonder this? Or did she simply try her best to negotiate a nasty setup that was created to stymie ALL female ambitions?

        Jesus, what else do you want this woman to do? She went into space, created a science foundation for little girls, spoke on her experiences, helped to investigate not one but two shuttle disasters, got a PhD … and you’re Disappointed In Her because she didn’t also singlehandedly solve all bigotries and prejudices levied against women and lesbians? What else do you want her to do to balm your Disappointment™ — solve world hunger and cure cancer?

        She had to deal with an entire culture’s vast, implacable pressure against her to succeed as a woman and as a lesbian. To blame her for that pressure because she didn’t cope with it in a sufficiently perfect manner is absolutely unbelievable. I cannot believe that you are effectively accusing her of bigotry and responsibility for “letting girls wonder” something because she didn’t cope with other people’s bigotries in a manner that singlehandedly made them all vanish.

        She left behind a REALISTIC message, not a muddied one. That message is that coping with an entire society’s dislike or you and their immovable belief that you have no business achieving is HARD … but that achievement can still be accomplished.

        Unfortunately, she also seems to have revealed the unpleasant truth that the “disappointment” of other women will greet a brilliant woman’s achievements, no matter how great, and no matter how well you navigated a minefield not of your own creation.

    • Sarah D. says:

      I don’t see a lack of integrity in her decision to remain private. She didn’t lie. She was already a role model in one way and maybe figured that was enough to concentrate on. One person can’t do absolutely everything and shouldn’t be expected to. She was a great person, she did enough, and I’d still say her integrity was impeccable. I respect your “pause,” but hope you won’t get caught up in it. (I say this as a staunch and active supporter of gay rights.)

  3. Even though, by all accounts, Ride was extremely private about her personal life, her marriage to Steve Hawley was a public fact about her, something *everybody* knew (or could find out in one quick Google search) whether it was their business to know it or not. Marriage is always a public thing, universally and freely acknowledged … if somebody were to (legally) marry and tell no one but her family and closest friends about it, wouldn’t the world think that was very, very strange? But identifying her partner and lover of decades as “a close friend” to all but her inner circle, well, that’s just being “Norwegian” and “a private person” and it’s “nobody’s business but her own.” I’m not saying it wasn’t her right to do so, I’m just saying that “impeccable integrity” has a particular meaning for me. And like her, like you, like a lot of people, I wish our society were farther along than it is. I think we can agree that it would be lovely to live in a world where nobody has to “come out” because nobody ever has to be (hidden) “in” to begin with.


    It is indeed a tragedy our society isn’t further along. And it’s a tragedy that those words she spoke almost three decades ago STILL apply today.

    May Dr. Ride rest in peace knowing that even in death, she inspires introspection.

  5. fireandair says:

    I envy all the Normal People™ out there who have never had to balance following their life’s calling with acknowledging a truth about themselves. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and there is NO “right way” to walk it, so please keep your I-would-have-come-out-better smugness to yourselves. Ride did the best she could with what she had at the time — and seeing as how she had a decades-long happy, fulfilling relationship, a loving family, and a career with a list of achievements are long as your arm, her best was pretty damned fabulous. I hope more little girls are inspired to be as imperfect as Sally Ride!

  6. Lyn Leahz says:

    Thought provoking article! Thank you!

  7. really great post. I was so sad to hear about Sally Ride. I was 12 in 1983 and I always remembered her and looked up to her, even if I didn’t want to be an astronaut and I wasn’t the greatest science student. Congrats on the FP.

  8. oregon expat says:

    Shaw Pro Photo and JR: You might be interested in Andrew Sullivan’s posts on this topic — he shares your opinion but jacks it up by a factor of about 12, calling Dr. Ride a freeloader on the efforts of civil rights activists, and likening her to Mary Cheney (except worse, because as he says, at least Cheney is out).

    His readers have vehemently dissented, and being Sullivan, he posts the dissents (though he can’t resist rebutting every one of them). Here are the dissents — take a look at the last one especially. It’s from a woman who idolized Dr. Ride as a little girl, and realizes as a grown woman that had she or her parents known then that Dr. Ride was a lesbian, her idolization and subsequent interest in science would never have happened. More to the point, it wouldn’t have been allowed.

    It makes one wonder just how much of Dr. Ride’s incredible influence on young women in science would have been lost, had she made an issue of her sexuality while living.

    I would also like to point out that Dr. Ride has publicly come out — in death. She knew she was dying; her obituary was planned. Her partner Tam must have agreed to this, because she has just been very publicly outed herself. They could have left that tiny little mention out of the obituary, and the world would never have known. Instead, they chose to make a statement.

    I sincerely hope that Tam O’Shaughnessy is not reading blogs or news magazines right now. The judgments — and in many cases, the outright vitriol — being directed against Dr. Ride for not coming out earlier would surely break her heart.

    • JR says:

      Okay. Clearly not the place for me to be thinking out loud, or in print, as the case may be. My emotions have bounced all over the place, hitting all three points raised by xenatuba plus some, but coming nowhere near Andrew Sullivan’s position. And while I can respect fireandair’s passion, I’m not sure I appreciate her derisive (and loud) response to my attempt to express what’s been going through my head the past couple of days. For the record, I am not “effectively accusing her of bigotry, ” I’m merely trying to sort through the reasons I’ve followed her career as I’ve pursued my own goals. I’ve been trying to figure out where this particular role model helped me solve a problem, but also articulate why I needed something more–someone else–to demonstrate that women like me could earn a Ph.D. in a white male-dominated, heterosexuality-assumed field. But…I guess I’m done.

      • oregon expat says:

        JR, I’d like to clarify that the last paragraph of my comment above was not directed at your words (which were obviously of the “trying to find my footing in the face of this news” variety), but at the nastiness being bandied about in the gay blogosphere and some mainstream outlets. Sullivan in particular barely stops short of blaming Dr. Ride for an unspecified number of AIDS deaths…good grief.

        I am always amazed at the tendency of the gay community to swiftly turn on its own. It’s not an attractive trait.

        My condolences to you on the loss of a personal role model.

      • xenatuba says:

        I talked to a friend of mine today who said that Sally and her family were members of the church that she attended, and in that circle, Sally and Tam were both out and active in what Pat described as the “Presbyterian Lesbian Community” in LA.

  9. xenatuba says:

    I am not nearly as eloquent as a lot of folks. On the one hand, I want to shout “It shouldn’t matter, the world has lost a fantastic mind and role model”. On the other hand, I want to point out that in a relationship of nearly three decades (and cut short by a cruel disease) Tam is recognized as a “partner”…not wife, not spouse, not devoted mate. That sucks. And on my feet, I want to say that everyone gets to handle their lives the way they want to; if Sally and Tam didn’t feel the need to be public, they shouldn’t have to.

    My favorite Sally Ride cartoon ever was in the “Stanford Daily” and had a picture of the shuttle with a banner reading “Beat the Weenies” behind it.

    • amelie88 says:

      It’s most likely Tam approved the word “partner” before it was sent out in the press release. Nowadays, heterosexual and gay couples use the word “partner” for their significant other. It no longer solely applies to gay couples. I have heard it used both ways. I once had a straight college professor who abhorred the words spouse and wife. Granted, he was a little odd. Anyways, he said he tended to use the word “partner” for his wife. I don’t think the word partner here detracts what Tam was to Sally.

  10. PRCommfusion says:

    Awesome article! As for declaring her sexuality in public, I don’t think I’d find myself saying: My name is Teri, I’m an aviation meteorologist, and I am heterosexual prior to speaking to a class full of kids or a room full of pilots.

  11. Russ Roberts says:

    Inciteful, well-worded article. I fear her efforts to popularize science will be overshadowed by attacks on her personal life. No person is perfect; we all have flaws. Why tarnish her many accomplishments because her personal life didn’t fit into some preconceived mold? She has helped thousands of young women realize their goals–that in itself is a major accomplishment. Deepest condolences to Sally’s family, friends, and associates. She will be missed.

  12. JJ says:

    Now, I want everybody to sit back, put away your smoke bombs and seriously consider the role of a WOMAN astronaut in the 1980’s. Do you really think she’d be allowed to be ‘different’ and remain in her chosen field?
    If you think yes, then perhaps more research is required.

    I’m sending out my condolences to Sally’s partner for the public scrutiny she is now under.

    And, thank you for this post for acknowledging a remarkable woman whom fate took away far too soon.

  13. rizalID says:

    Thank you for the remembrance.

  14. Great post. How sad we women still have to battle with such narrow views of who we are and of what we are capable. Sad really.

  15. As a Portuguese, I must confess I didn’t know much about Sally Ride. However, I do know now, and — on that specific regard — thanks for the post, OEx.

    You might like to know that her currently Wikipedia page (and, as many people know, Wikipedia is one of the cannon sources of knowledge nowadays) says this on Sally Ride’s personal life:

    “Ride was extremely private about her personal life. She married fellow NASA astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982; they divorced in 1987.

    After death, her obituary revealed that Ride’s partner was Tam E. O’Shaughnessy, a professor emerita of school psychology at San Diego State University and a childhood friend who met Ride when both were aspiring tennis players. O’Shaughnessy became a science teacher and writer and, later, the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Ride’s company, Sally Ride Science. She co-authored several books with Ride. Their 27-year relationship was revealed by the company and confirmed by Ride’s sister who also stated that Ride chose to keep her personal life private, including her sickness and treatments. Ride is the first person to have been in space to have had a posthumously-acknowledged same-sex relationship.”

    I agree with you. Ride was a private person, yes. But she still choose to make another breakthrough by the end.

  16. thorsaurus says:

    Thoughtful post. Younger people are not nearly as hung up on sexual orientation as their parents. By the next generation, when the millennials are running the show, this will no longer be an issue. Sally Ride will be remembered for what she DID do, not for what she didn’t. Well done Sally. R.I.P.

  17. I didn’t know about Sally Ride who was until news of her death spread. Thank you for the post – I learned a lot. 🙂 There is quite a lot out there that has never made it to a history book.

  18. My two cents: The world lost an amazing woman. Race, Creed, Color no mention. Gay/Lesbian opened a floodgate of opinions. She was a woman in a mans world and broke more than the sound barrier. What comes to my mind is ” Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did….. backwards and in high heels.”
    With all of her gifts to the world the conversation is about her being a Lesbian? Hate to be the one to break the news here but Gays/Lesbians are here. They are teachers, Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists, Researchers, Artists, Writers, Engineers, Bus Drivers, Corporate Executives to name a few. They are educated, uneducated, rich, poor, and everything in between just like the rest of us heterosexuals. They are human beings with heart and soul. Who dares cast the stone? She used her time here on Earth for good and that should be the focus. Not whether she was a Lesbian. Not what her Religion was, or her taste in Fashion. I mean really, this is so demeaning to her legacy.
    Most marriages don’t make it past 5 years, she and Tam had 27 years without a Marriage Certificate. I am sorry for Tam and hope that this fray doesn’t take the focus of her painful loss to tabloid levels. She has the right to grieve. In private.

  19. irarelypost says:

    I think her sexuality should not at all be an issue. There is no reason to mix sexual orientation with your job unless it directly deals with sexuality. bringing Dr. Ride’s sexuality to light in conjunction with her career, as a subject for dispute, or trying to make an example, only brings forth questions both begative and positive. There should be no questions asked, full stop. Can a lesbian be an astronaut? Who cares? A woman should be able to do whatever she is able to mentally of physically achieve, and wishes. She did well to no push the question of her sexuality because this of course IS a private matter, unless you want to make it public, for god knows what reasons.

    Her being gay was her issue. Her career was more of a public matter and thats what should matter to the public. Finding out that she was gay, or making a big deal about it after her death, seems to me like a violation of her privecy by people who might have a different personal agenda.

    Gender and sexual orientation should stay on the side lines when it comes to one’s occupation, as long as there are not preferences involved, or social prohibitions that close out talented individuals. It should not even be a debate. Sexuality stays at home, and outside of that anyone should be able to do anything he/she chooses to.

  20. cartoonmick says:

    Sally has had a great life. She broke through a glass ceiling much higher than most. What a person !!

  21. I always thought that this space travel couldn’t possibly be good for your health.

  22. Loved this post. It draws on gender and sexuality issues that the world has, that simply shouldn’t be issues. It shouldn’t matter what your gender is or what your sexuality is, it should be your achievements that speak for themselves.

  23. lexy3587 says:

    Great post, and a great way to honor a woman who achieved so much, at a time when it was considerably harder than today for a woman to forge her own path in the sciences. I graduated (recently) in Engineering, in a class that was less than 20% female. We’ve still got a ways to go, but people like her (with or without discussion of her sexuality… holy cow, the commentary on that!) are the kind of inspiration we need to keep girls interested in maths and sciences, and interested in finding a career in male-dominated fields.

  24. Ann says:

    LOVED. THIS. POST. I, myself, wish to be an astronaut! I love this lady! She is amazing. Also, it doesn’t matter which gender you are or your sexuality but world should remember their achievements always! Thanks a lot for this post! It really inspired me a lottt!!!

  25. Jon Wilson says:

    A time will come when her wishes will become the reality. She was, and is, an inspirational hero to all.

  26. finnegan2749 says:

    She’s now in the eternities travelling the universe.

  27. Ian Webster says:

    Poignantly put. We do love our role models to be flawless saints don’t we. Saintliness, of course, being what we define it to be. Thanks

  28. Ride ’em high Sally. You did oh so well here on earth. Now you may glide with the Phoenix!

  29. fstopfun says:

    Do you think It’s right to use someones sexuality to further the movement of the Homosexual agenda? I personally don’t care if your no-sexual, bi, gay, trans, or whatever. I’m not homophobic or a bigot or any other catch phrase.

    With that disclaimer being said, I think it’s in very bad taste that she is being used as a media tool. Many people are saying that if the “world” was more understanding then she would of been more open about her sexuality. Some groups are using the unsubstantiated fact that her x-husband gets all her things and her partner gets nothing.

    If this is true or not is it really anyone’s business? She was a woman with a strong core. The first woman in space. I cant imagine the adversity she overcame. So maybe we should give her some credit. If she wanted to be the lesbian spokes woman I’m sure she would of done so. Making her seem like a fearful victim who hid her sexuality only lessons the strength she had and cheapens the impact to future generations.

    I’m sure this will get under the skin of a few people who now are forwarding emails about how this poor woman had to live in shame… When is our personal lives going to be personal? When is something stupid like sexuality going to stop defining us. Choose to be defined by your life’s actions

  30. Rhianna says:

    I remember Dr Ride as a kid and looked up to her as a role model. If she could go outer space, I could go anywhere. I didn’t know about her personal life but I find myself smiling; it’s a strong person indeed who can live under such attention and remain balanced and normal.

    Congratulations on Freshly Pressed.

  31. Nerdy Girl says:

    Growing up in Florida, on the Space Coast mind, Dr. Ride was an icon in my life. I looked up to her. Wanted to BE her. I mean, she was a Dr. and an Astronaut! This woman did things people had been telling me I wasn’t allowed to dream about doing because I was a girl. When I told my dad that Dr. Ride said we could do anything we wanted to, because we were girls, not in spite of it, he asked me what I wanted to do.

    Dr. Ride made it ok for me to dream about being something other than someone’s wife. She showed us that being a woman meant being strong, intelligent and always, always pushing the limits of what people thought we could accomplish.

    So she was gay? Why should I care what she did in her spare time? The fact that she was a lesbian only makes her a hell of a lot tougher in my eyes.

    Thank you for this great piece. 🙂

  32. natasiarose says:

    Great post! It drives me crazy that some people *ahem, certain presidential candidates* tweeted that Ride is an american hero and yet would deny the legitimacy of the love and bond she shared with her partner.

  33. KendraH says:

    Excellent post! As are many of the replies.

    Young girls really have few role models these days but Sally Ride was and always will be a wonderful role model for girls regardless of her sexual orientation (which by the way is none of anyone else’s business!!).

  34. Roshni says:

    Amazing post! Loved it.

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