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social sciences

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Ride, Sally (1951-2012)  
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Shortly thereafter, Ride retired from NASA for posts in academia, first as a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford and then, in 1989, as a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and as director of its California Space Institute.

Deeply committed to encouraging young girls to develop and maintain an interest in science and mathematics, Ride founded the company Sally Ride Science in 2001. Initiatives include science camps and festivals and teacher-training programs, as well as the publication of books about science and careers in the field.

Sponsor Message.

Ride felt that it is extremely important to reach out to teachers to ensure that they do not "succumb to the stereotype that science wasn't for girls" and that they help young girls fight "lingering stereotypes [and] societal pressure . . . to dumb down in middle school." She also wanted to help teachers develop curricula that both engaged youngsters' interest and made them eager to learn more and also provided information about potential careers.

Ride co-authored three books about space and two on climate change with Tam O'Shaughnessy, the Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Sally Ride Science. (Ride had co-authored her first book for young people, To Space and Back, with Okie in 1986.) O'Shaughnessy holds bachelor's and master's degrees in biology and a doctorate in school psychology. She has taught both subjects in college and is a professor emerita at San Diego State University.

In 2003 Ride was chosen to be on the panel investigating a second space shuttle disaster, the destruction of Columbia as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere. In that case, a piece of insulation had become detached from a fuel tank and damaged a wing of the craft.

Although the physical problem was different from the one that occurred on the Challenger, Ride told Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times that she saw "parallels . . . not so much between the accidents themselves, but between some of the organizational contributing causes to the accidents." She felt that planners had let their guard down with respect to potential dangers. She stressed the need for "a stronger safety organization, with members present at all the right meetings."

After a long illness, Ride died of pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012. Only with the announcement of her death did it become publicly known that O'Shaughnessy was not just her professional associate but also her life partner of 27 years.

After Ride's death, her sister, the Reverend Karen ("Bear") Ride, who is also a lesbian, in an appearance on the Current TV program The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur, revealed that Sally Ride and O'Shaughnessy had registered a California domestic partnership.

"They were in something of a privileged position. . . . They had the resources to hire attorneys and do all the stuff that one would not normally have to do if one was heterosexually married," she noted. She went on to take to task conservative politicians like Mitt Romney who had issued statements of praise about her sister but who oppose marriage equality. "That's just something that the politicians really need to meditate on. They can't have it both ways."

Other commentators noted that O'Shaughnessy, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, is unable to claim the pension and other benefits that legally-recognized surviving spouses of astronauts usually receive.

The posthumous outing of Ride raised other questions. For example, did Ride, a genuine heroine, have an obligation to come out? Would her being out have advanced the cause of glbtq rights? Was she closeted because she feared that she would not have been selected as an astronaut or, later, that her work with children would suffer were she out? Could it be that Ride, having surmounted the obstacles she faced as a woman in science, felt that confronting another obstacle would be too demanding and exhausting?

Andrew Sullivan called her an "absentee heroine" and the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement headlined, "Former Astronaut Sally Ride Chose Privacy over Gay Causes," while Amy Davidson wondered whether she feared that parents would refuse to buy the science books for children that she and O'Shaughnessy co-authored if they knew they were written by lesbians.

Davidson, having done the math that revealed that the O'Shaughnessy-Ride relationship began while Ride was still married to Hawley, even questioned the authenticity of her heterosexual marriage. She wondered, for example, whether Ride (and NASA) thought it necessary for the first woman astronaut in space be married to a man. Was Hawley, wittingly or not, Ride's "beard"?

These questions raised by Ride's failure to come out publicly during her lifetime are important ones and may be answered in a definitive biography of the astronaut. However, it is well to remember that they also say as much about the culture in which Ride came of age and achieved her great feat as they do about Ride herself.

Similarly, it is important to emphasize that although Ride was not publicly open about her lesbianism or her relationship with O'Shaugnessy, the two women were not closeted. They were known and accepted as a couple by their large circle of friends and family.

Their long love affair is inspiring. They met when they were twelve years old and played tennis together. They became life partners in 1985, two years after Ride's historic flight. Sharing a passion for science and for education, they stayed together in good times and bad times, including through Ride's terminal illness. In short, they were married in every way except the name.

Linda Rapp

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social sciences >> Overview:  Domestic Partnerships

"Domestic partnership" is the generic term for a variety of forms of legal and institutional recognition of same-sex couples that fall short of same-sex marriage.

social sciences >> Overview:  Outing

First used by homophobes and then by glbtq activists, outing is the public revelation of a person's sexuality without the consent of that person.

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social sciences >> Human Rights Campaign (HRC)

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arts >> King, Billie Jean

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Adler, Jerry, and Pamela Abramson. "Sally Ride: Ready for Liftoff." Newsweek (June 13, 1983): Space, 36.

Begley, Sharon, John Carey, and Dan Shapiro. "Challenger: Ride, Sally Ride." Newsweek (June 27, 1983): 20.

Brooks, Roger. "Pioneering Spirit: Astronaut Sally Ride Was the Youngest Person in Space, but Her Second Career Is Turning Inspiration into Education." Success (December 2010): 72.

Davidson, Amy. "The Astronaut Bride." The New Yorkerd (July 25, 2012): .

Dreifus, Claudia. "A Conversation with Sally Ride." New York Times (August 26, 2003): F1.

Grady, Denise. "Coolly Shattered a Space Ceiling." New York Times (July 24, 2012): A1.

Okie, Susan. "My Friend Sally Ride's Final Mission: Making Science Cool." Washington Post (July 29, 2012): B3.

Ring, Trudy. "Sally Ride's Sister Discusses DOMA; Others Ask if Gays Welcome at NASA." The Advocate (July 25, 2012):

Sally Ride Science web site:

Sanborn, Sara. "Woman about to Ride Space Shuttle Had Prepared for a Career in Physics." Globe and Mail (Toronto) (May 20, 1983).

Sheets, Connor Adams. "Tam O'Shaughnessy: About Sally Ride's Partner of 27 Years." International Business Times (July 23, 2012):


    Citation Information
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Ride, Sally  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2012  
    Date Last Updated August 28, 2012  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2012 glbtq, Inc.  


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