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1/23/2017
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Right stuff, wrong time

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

If we don't have true gender equality yet, we're very close to it. Women can serve in combat, one of the last roles closed to them, and we just had a woman head a major-party presidential ticket. If it had been a better female candidate, we would now have a woman headed to the White House.

So those feminists still trying to sell the idea of women as victims perpetually beaten down by a patriarchal conspiracy are living in the past and disrespecting women's achievements even more than how much they claim men do.

That's the conservative line anyway, and I think it's mostly true.

But sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that there are still a few sexist pigs in the workplace. Anybody who's been in an office environment knows that, and I've no doubt it's worse on the factory floors. And women my age and even younger grew up in a time when it was expected that many if not most women would choose to be homemakers, and they really had to fight for respect if they chose a different path. That experience is part of the filter through which women judge events, which is something I don't think men can fully appreciate. Even women who aren't raging, ultra liberal feminists might react to perceived sexism more strongly than the men around them expect.

It is my sister's job to keep me schooled about such matters.

When Donald Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape revealed him bragging about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women because "when you're a star, they let you do it," I just considered it one more piece of evidence of what we already knew about Trump, which is that he's been a serial womanizer with the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. But it hit my sister viscerally, and I suspect it turned the dislike she already had for him into something close to hate. It makes it much harder for her to care about what his policies on immigration or taxes or the Middle East might be.

Maybe that's not a great example, since even men who voted for Trump can be disgusted by some of the things he's said and done. Maybe a better one is our reactions on the death of John Glenn last week. My first reaction was that we'd lost a great american -- flying ace war hero, astronaut, senator. Hers was that Glenn was the man who kept women out of the space program.

"Oh, come on," I said. "Maybe he wasn't supportive, but one man doesn't have that much power. It was the times, the prevailing culture. More than one person had to be against the idea for women to be blocked."

"No, I'm pretty sure they would have been part of the program except for him."

I did a little digging and found that my sister and I were both partly right.

My sister was right about John Glenn's involvement.

In the early 1960s as an experiment 25 of the best female pilots in the country were contacted to try out for astronaut program; 19 of them showed up, and 13 of them made the cut and underwent the same rigorous testing as the men. The only problem was that the women didn't qualify under NASA standards at the time, which said an astronaut had to have experience as a military test pilot. Jane Hart, one of the women, petitioned Congress to hold a hearing about astronaut qualifications.

"Jane Hart petitioned Congress to call a hearing to determine astronaut qualifications. And a House committee did hold a hearing. That's when Glenn was called to testify, and he said women stay at home. Hart was quite eloquent about his position. She said there are moments when a single person can make a difference and fling open doors, and he didn't take the chance."

Actually what he said was, "Men go off and fight the wars and fly the planes, and women stay at home. It's a fact of our social order." Pretty wince-worthy.

But I was right that it wasn't just Glenn. Before him, the women had appealed to both Vice President Lyndon Johnson and President John Kennedy, and both turned them down. Johnson even wrote on a drafted letter, "Let's stop this now," and Kennedy refused to see them. And Congress obviously declined to get involved. So it was the times, the culture, a "fact of the social order" as Glenn put it.. It was the way things were.

Apparently, Glenn didn't want all women to stay at home.There were three female African-American mathematicians known as the “computers in skirts” who worked on the Redstone, Mercury and Apollo space programmes for Nasa. One of them was Katherine Johnson:

When John Glenn was waiting to be fired into orbit aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, there was one person he trusted with the complex trajectory calculations required to bring him down safely from his orbital spaceflight: Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who worked in Nasa’s segregated west area computers division.

“Get the girl, check the numbers,” Glenn said before boarding the rocket. “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”

That's right. The girl. In a segregated division.

John Glenn remains a great American; even without the combat heroism and his years as a senator, being the first American to orbit the Earth marks him as special. But he also had a role in denying one group of women their own shot at some kind of greatness. Whether he is to be judged harshly by today's standards or cut some slack because he was the product of his times is for the individual to decide.

BTW, there's a new movie out about the mathematicians called "Hidden Figures." The would-be astronauts deserve a film, too, but no happy ending there, so maybe it's a movie no one wants to make.

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