Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race by Stephanie Nolen.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for some years now, the more attentive amongst you will have noticed by now that I have something of a romantic fascination with space. As a young girl I was mesmerized by the night sky and have often beaten myself up for not paying more attention to mathematics and sciences, I think I would have loved a career in the sciences, especially something that involved astronomy. But this book is less about astronomy and more about aviation. The book starts off telling the story of some of the early ‘aviatrix’ including the more well-known Amelia Earhart, and the wrongfully lesser known Bessie Coleman (I’m actually looking to see if there are any books about her out there because she sounds like she was such a determined and inspirational woman)
After introducing some brave women, the author then takes a look at a group of 13 women. All who were determined to fly from an early age. Their stories alone are inspirational as it details the struggles they had, to not only fund flying lessons, but also to break through the social barriers that were existent at the time. Annoyingly it was believed that, following the war, women should leave the jobs they had to go back to being mothers and wives. Even those women who had more flying hours than men were told that the men had to come first. It often meant that the women, who were giving jobs flying, often earned less than the men and were told that passengers would rather avoid boarding a commercial flight with a female pilot. This meant that they often had jobs where they delivered goods, or worked fixing the planes.
‘Flying was dangerous, noisy, dirty – it wasn’t ladylike.’
But the women endured and you can imagine their hopes improved when a privately funded programme was started that took some of the strongest female fliers and allowed them to take part in the same tests as the Mercury 7. America was in competition (and at War) with Russia, and the Space Race became a focus of attention. Women like Jerrie Cobb, were put through the same physical and mental aptitude tests to see how well they would fare in space and it turned out they did pretty well. In a lot of cases the women actually did better than their male counterparts. Needless to say the women were excited, it seemed like they were finally being taken seriously, and they felt as if they stretched their hands out far enough they could touch the stars. So you can imagine their shock when they were told that NASA had made the decision that the further testing was of no use and no longer could be carried out. This caused problems as a lot of the women had to give up their jobs so they could attend, so they were left without work and their dreams dashed.
What proceeded was the battle of two of the most respected female fliers. Jerrie and her friend Janey, both took it upon themselves to write letters to NASA, to travel and give talks on the importance of a ‘Women in Space’ programme, they even wrote letters to the President. But at the same time they were arguing the benefits of putting a female in space (before the Russians) Jackie Cochran was playing a more political game. Despite her and her husband being the ones to fund the testing at Dr Lovelace II private clinic in the first place, Jackie played ‘the boys game’ and wanted to keep the right people on side so that in the future she could run any women in space programme. Perhaps it’s me but when I read this it really upset me, at a time in history when women lacked equality, I felt that Jackie should have helped support the cause a bit more instead of playing the long game to further her own power.
This is a really fascinating read, and I’m so glad that the author took the time to tell the story of these women because it’s one that’s not well known, if at all. But it’s also frustrating and heart-breaking in equal measure. To learn about these accomplished women who had worked so long and so hard to be taken seriously, just for their dreams to be snatched away because of nothing else but the fact they were born women. Another interesting element of the book is the way in which the women had to, not only defend their capabilities as pilots but also their sexuality. As the women were seen to be doing a ‘man’s job’ it meant that if they were unmarried they were believed to be a lesbian. To me it’s just ludicrous, and I often found myself shaking my head whilst reading it. It made me thankful to live in the era I do (although we still have a long way to go) If you’re interested in space and female history then this book is for you.
Star Rating out of 5: 4
‘…for a girl who had learned to be alone-the sky was the answer. I tumbled out of the airplane with stars in my eyes.’
Happy reading fellow bookworms.