A Space for Women of the World
When I was a child the desert bloomed right down to Highland High our white kids’ school on the eastern edge of town. Fierce winds whipped sand to the backs of our calves sharp sting against young skin. Cholla and Prickly Pear, stout Barrel cacti their sudden flowers met us long before those mountains rose in blue distance, watermelon light each afternoon. Highland for the families who arrived from somewhere else and settled in the heights. Albuquerque High for the tough kids: New Mexican, Mexican American, Black sons and daughters of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe or off-reservation Indians come to town in search of work. Chicano, African or Native American weren’t words we had back then. Only assimilation, The American Dream enforced unevenly. Some girls said Albuquerque High boys kissed better and when the captain of the downtown football team asked me out I trembled yes beneath anxious folds of Dotted Swiss. When one running-back hand tore at my blouse and the other charged between my legs I cried for him to stop and to the couple in front for help. Their moans sounded light years away. He laughed, pried deeper, at ease with male right. Through the triangle of window a splash of stars seemed distant and pale. I took remembered advice and brought my knee up fast and sharp to his groin. He let go and I pushed the door, leapt free and ran down a rocky road ‘til I hit pavement and kept on running afraid he might follow. But I was alone that night flying toward city lights panting and crying slowing to walk then running again until my house appeared. Years later I could say the word rape —what the high school football star did to me that night— know he didn’t follow because it wasn’t me he wanted, only conquest there on that car seat in the presence of buddies, only the ancient ritual of male entitlement: another notch on the stock of his teenage gun.
* * *
When I was young an occasional murder upped the sales of our hometown paper two or three days running. Newspapers were important then and violent death an equal-opportunity visitor claiming men and women, poor and unprotected. Sixty years later Internet sound bites replace those papers, TV conquers radio. Scan the story, file the news and move on. Corporate control determines how much we know and for how long. Murder, alive and healthy, makes its way from the five-year-old wielding his father’s loaded gun through post office or high school rampage to the killing fields of war and back. The greater the human interest the longer the public gasp. Just south of these purple canyons and clean skies six hundred murdered women on their way to school or work haunt the streets of Juárez. In every Mexican City, down to Guatemala and north to Canada dead women cry out for someone to speak their names without prostitute or sweat shop worker attached. On Albuquerque’s west mesa the bones of eleven females and one unborn child rise through the leveled sands of development. Every day they dig costs corporate millions. More of us accused in death of living the dangerous life. As long as they make sure we know it’s our oldest profession, our fault, like when they raped us because our skirts were too short or dress provocative. Organized crime, drug cartel, power’s sadism changes its name from country to country, disappearing women until they are found in garbage dumps or shallow desert graves. Our sisters continue to die, their names silenced in a time when the erasure of women is weapon and signature: harbinger of what’s to come.
* * *
Lovelace Hospital sits like an aging hulk, high in Albuquerque’s southeast heights. Once a famed research institution, now an HMO bought out by one management company after another, until local lore warns against spending any time in its emergency unit unless you’re prepared to get sicker than when you arrived. In my early twenties I visited a pale young psychiatrist there, the sessions paid for by my job at the time. What I remember was the doctor’s faintly smug smile and impassive demeanor, unchanged even when I took the small polished wood figure of a dove from a table and threw it as hard as I could at his large plate glass window. That window framed an imposing view of the Sandia Mountains to the east. The dove didn’t make a dent.
I wouldn’t have suspected what was going on at Lovelace then. In the early 1960s thirteen women—working airplane pilots, maintenance specialists, flight instructors, some of them among the first Army WASPS—were secretly tested there. The Soviets had beaten us into space and threatened to retain supremacy in exploring that “last frontier.” In his commanding Cold War voice President Kennedy challenged the country to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. Randolph Lovelace was the chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee. Against prevailing prejudice, he along with a very few other men believed women should be considered as astronauts.
The nation’s space program knew the women’s smaller, lighter bodies would be cost-effective in zero gravity; they would need less oxygen and take up less room in a spacecraft, saving nearly $1,000 a pound. And so it let Jerrie Cobb and the others believe they had a shot at participation. The women endured months of grueling tests, including hours in the total darkness and silence of an isolation tank, pain tolerance measured by how long they could keep their hands in ice, freezing water injected into their inner ears, three feet of rubber hose snaked down their throats, drinking radioactive water, and endless psychological quizzes—the same taken by the Mercury 7 men but in an era in which “girls” were patronized and belittled even more than we are today. The women knew they couldn’t show pain, fear, even discomfort. Perhaps inspired by the model of perfect female helpmeet, they kept their fixed smiles through it all. All thirteen passed the astronaut tests and, the Lovelace doctors conceded, with fewer complaints than the men.
Throughout the first half of 1961, across the street from Lovelace Hospital, these brave, talented and hopeful women stayed at the Bird of Paradise Motel, dilapidated even then. Up each morning at five to begin another day of tests. Back each evening to laugh with one another and wonder how their male counterparts were holding up. These women had temporarily left husbands and children, quit jobs, risked everything for a chance they believed was real. But after they’d all passed the tests, in August of that year the bad news came, sudden and blunt: Lovelace’s “regret to advise.” NASA had the data it needed and stereotypical bias proved too powerful an obstacle to the women’s participation.
Over the next years there were letters, pleas, protest marches, Senate hearings; Jerrie Cobb even met with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Never one to say anything bad about anyone, she didn’t reveal the contents of their conversation until 2007. Only then did she admit the Vice President had looked at her and said: “Jerrie, if we let you or other women into the space program, we’d have to let blacks in. We’d have to let Mexican Americans in, and Chinese Americans. We’d have to let every minority in, and we just can’t do it.”
Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong. Michael Collins. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. John Glenn. These and others were the household names belonging to the men who had “the right stuff.” Two of them took “one giant leap for mankind” in July of 1969. And the male parade continued to engage in dozens of other space flights: some tragic, all heroic.
Like almost everyone old enough, I remember every astonishing detail of Apollo 11’s mission. I had suffered a political repression following the 1968 Student Movement and was in hiding in Mexico City at the time. But even those grim circumstances couldn’t keep me from sitting breathless before a small black and white TV, compelled by images hard to believe were real: it was July 20, 1969 and a man was walking on the moon.
Not long after the fabled landing, a young Nicaraguan poet named Leonel Rugama wrote “The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon,” a poem in which he juxtaposed the Apollo flights with his country’s excruciating poverty. The magna event affected different people in different ways. Many believed space exploration would continue full speed ahead, that Mars would be next and—who knew—the colonization of other planets. The same voracious sense of conquest so pervasive on earth, extended beyond its confines. A few judged the moon landing a hoax. Even as I marveled at the exploration of space, I wondered why we were spending so many billions on such endeavors while poverty on earth affected so many. For me the convergence—my time underground and a man walking on the moon—belongs to a deeper story, not for these pages.
Jerrie Cobb. Gene Nora Stumbough. Bernice Steadman. Sarah Gorelick. Jane Hart. Irene Leverton. Rhea Hurtle. Wally Funk. Myrtle Cagle. Jan and Marion Dietrich, who were twins. Their names never became household words. Today they sound a litany of betrayal. These and others were the women who believed their government was acting in good faith when it tested them like the men. All were sent home without apology when those in power rejected the idea of women in space.
Thirty-eight years after their profound disappointment, the survivors watched Sally Ride, Eileen Collins and several other women fly beyond earth’s atmosphere. In July, 1999, When Collins became the first woman space shuttle Commander, she made sure her foremothers who’d dreamed high and endured that rigorous testing so many years before had places of honor near the launching pad. Like women throughout time, Jerrie Cobb and her sisters had been promised the stars, lied to, used, humiliated and, when no longer useful, tossed aside. Even today’s female members of the space program are referred to as women astronauts while the men are astronauts without the adjective.
The Bird of Paradise Motel is gone. Lovelace still stands, shabby and only partially used, although its research component continues to operate. Secret experiments are almost never engineered for the common good, to feed or clothe or bring peace. Who knows what experiments may be taking place there now?
 Women Air Force Service Pilots, active during World War II.
* * *
Margaret Randall (New York 1936) grew up in New Mexico and its landscape is important to her work. She lived in Latin America (Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua) from 1961 to 1984. When she came home, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered her deported due to opinions expressed in some of her books. Many writers and others supported her right to remain in her homeland, and she won her case in 1989. From 1985 to her retirement in 1994 she taught in several universities, most importantly Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Among her most recent poetry titles are: STONES WITNESS (University of Arizona Press), RUINS (The University of New Mexico Press), MY TOWN, AS IF THE EMPTY CHAIR / COMO SI LA SILLA VACIA, and WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (all from Wings Press), and SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE CORNFIELDS (Skylight). Wings will bring out a new collection, THE RHIZOME AS A FIELD OF BROKEN BONES this spring and DAUGHTER OF LADY JAGUAR SHARK in the fall. Randall also writes essays and oral history. She travels widely to read and lecture. (Photo credit: Albuquerque The Magazine)