Today, we still lament about the discrepant gender gap in STEM fields – science technology engineering mathematics – but in the past century, things were a lot worse. Only a select few women got to be scientists in the ’50s and early ’60s, at least compared to the number of men who went on to earn a PhD, and these were times when things started to drift towards more liberal ground. The USSR, however, didn’t seem to share the same gender bias in science like other countries, possibly because the Marxist doctrine upon which the regime was based took granting equal rights to both men and women very seriously, including places in society. In 1964, some 40% of engineering graduates in the USSR were females, compared to under 5% in the US. By the mid-1980s, 58% of Russian engineers were women.

Women of science in Soviet Russia

Sketch of Valentina Tereshkova by Phillip J Bond.

Sketch of Valentina Tereshkova by Phillip J Bond. More at Flickr

Roshanna Sylvester, a writer at Russian History Blog, has some thoughts as to why Soviet Russia might have succeeded where the United States failed and is still failing for that matter:

Analysis of pedagogical journals suggests that girls’ quest for advancement in the 1960s was aided by the USSR’s standard school curriculum, which privileged the study of math and the hard sciences. There are also hints that girls benefited from generalized efforts by science and math educators to identify and mentor talented students as well as to improve the overall quality of instruction in those fields. As far as influences beyond the school room, sociological studies (particularly those conducted by Shubkin’s group in Novosibirsk) offer support for the notion that parents played key roles in shaping daughters’ aspirations. But those results also suggest that girls’ ideas about occupational prestige both reflected contemporary stereotypes about ‘women’s work’ and offered up challenges to male domination in science and technology fields.

I believe this to be a valid point. Even in 1960s, long after the war, there were millions of Russians that lived like they had for centuries, through subsistence farming. Science and a job in science, either as a doctor, engineer or electrician, offered a way out and promised a place for the “new man” in the “new world”. As such many Russians of humble origins, including women, sought to study hard and win a place. One of these women who came out of the Russian system – with its ups and downs – was Valentina Tereshkova. The daughter of a tractor driver and a textile plant worker in the Yaroslavl Region of Russia, Tereshkova left school when she was 17 to work as a textile factory assembly worker, as her mother had. She insisted on still earning her education though, and opted to study by correspondence. She was also  a keen amateur skydiver through the DOSAAF Aviation Club in Yaroslavl and made her first jump in May 1959 at age 22. Two years later in April 1961, the Soviet Union launched Vostok 1, aboard which was Yuri Gagarin: the first man in space.

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The first woman in space

valentina tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, 1963. Image: Public Domain

The following year, in 1962, the Soviets launched the program for the new Vostok where they recruited 50 people to serve as cosmonauts, including five women. Of these five women, one would be selected to fly and become the first women in space. The prime candidate needed not be a pilot, but since on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere the pilot of the Vostok spacecraft would be ejected to make a landing by parachute skydiving experience was thought as a must. Thanks to her jumps, Tereshkova – a women with little former education – was selected among the five women, all of whom were much more qualified than her: test pilots, engineers, and world-class parachutists. After intensive training, however, Tereshkova proved she could make the final cut. In the end, Tereshkova was in the final two candidates: herself and Ponomaryova.

On June 14, 1963, Vostok 5 was launched into space with cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky aboard. With Bykovsky still orbiting the earth, Tereshkova was launched into space on June 16 aboard Vostok 6. The two spacecrafts had different orbits but at one point came within three miles of each other, allowing the two cosmonauts to exchange brief communications. It was a stellar achievement! Not only did Tereshkova become the first women in space, but with one single flight she logged more flight time than all previous American astronauts put together at the time – 70.8 hours in space with 48 orbits of the Earth. While in space, the first female cosmonaut performed experiments intended on assessing the effects of microgravity and space on the human body, and also took photos that helped identify aerosols in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, her landing wasn’t a smooth one. By the time she ejected from the capsule, Tereshkova was vanished and dehydrated from poor food and agonizing injuries brought on by having to stay strapped in her seat for three days straight. According to her own account, speaking of course recently (any kind of internal behavior that could discredit the Soviet Union would be immediately dismissed), when parachuting down, Tereshkova saw that she was heading for a large lake. Her body numb and weak,  she doubted she could swim to shore. Luckily, a high wind blew her over to the shoreline and she landed safely, if roughly. Her nose banged pretty hard on her helmet and she had to wear makeup in public to cover up the subsequent bruises.

After landing, Tereshkova never flew again, but studied engineering at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and eventually obtained her PhD in 1977. She also became a prominent politician, served on international councils and spoke at international conferences, played a critical role in socialist women’s issues, and was awarded with the USSR’s highest honour, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, along with many other awards.

Unfortunately, while at the surface the Soviet society was cherishing her, it was secretly eating her up. After her flight, Tereshkova dealt with Air Force officials who sought to discredit her by claiming she was insubordinate and drunk on the launch pad (they were eventually dismissed), and pressured her into marrying Andrian Nikolayev, the only bachelor cosmonaut at the time, in a lavish ceremony presided over by Khrushchev himself. The marriage wasn’t happy at all, and if the two divorced it would have meant the end of both of their careers.

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space, attends a news conference in Star City outside Moscow on Friday, June 7, 2013. Ms Tereshkova said  that she was ready to score another coup and fly to Mars, even if it would be just a one-way trip. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space, attends a news conference in Star City outside Moscow on Friday, June 7, 2013. Ms Tereshkova said that she was ready to score another coup and fly to Mars, even if it would be just a one-way trip. — PHOTO: REUTERS

In 1978, the female cosmonaut program was finally relaunched, and Tereshkova signed right back up. While undergoing medical review, Tereshkova met and fell in love with physician Yuliy Shaposhnikov. Although she failed medical review and never went back into space, Tereshkova separated from and successfully divorced her first husband (the divorce had to be approved by then-Premier Leonid Brezhnev; he granted it in 1982) and married Yuliy. Following the USSR collapse in 1991, she lost political office. In 1999, her husband died and she retired  to a small house on the outskirts of Star City. In 2013, at a state celebration for her seventieth birthday, Tereshkova said she’d love to go to Mars, jokingly or not, even on a one-way mission. The former cosmonaut isn’t alone in committing herself to such a mission. Thousands of people from around the world have signed up to a project called Mars One, which has announced plans to launch a private mission to land a group of four men and women on Mars in 2023 to found a permanent colony. So far, a hundred people have been shortlisted.

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Needless to say, there are a lot of things we can learn from Tereshkova’s story, but also from the USSR system as far as women in science are concerned.  Take this letter from a girl from Ukraine to Yuri Gagarin:

I have wanted to ask you for a long time already: ‘is it possible for a simple village girl to fly to the cosmos?’ But I never decided to do it. Now that the first Soviet woman has flown into space, I finally decided to write you a letter….I know [to become a cosmonaut] one needs training and more training, one needs courage and strength of character. And although I haven’t yet trained ‘properly’, I am still confident of my strength. It seems to me that with the kind of preparation that you gave Valia Tereshkova, I would also be able to fly to the cosmos.

Now, compare it to this letter written by a  fifteen year old American girl to John Glenn:

Dear Col. Glenn, I want to congratulate you on your successful space flight around the earth. I am proud to live in a nation where such scientific achievements can be attained. I’m sure it takes a great amount of training and courage for you to accomplish such a feat. It was a great honor to witness this historical event. I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15 year old girl I guess that would be impossible. So I would like to wish you and all of the other astronauts much success in the future.

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