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Gender Relations in the American Experience

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women in Space Program

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On June 17, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Curiously, unlike every previous milestone in the "space race," this event did not spur NASA to catch up by flying an American woman. Though there were suitable candidates-two years earlier, thirteen female pilots recruited by the private Woman in Space program had passed a strenuous physical exam and were ready for another stage of astronaut testing-American women would not escape earth's gravity for another twenty years.

In Right Stuff, Wrong Sex, Margaret Weitekamp shows how the Woman in Space program—conceived by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace and funded by world-famous pilot and businesswoman Jacqueline Cochran—challenged prevailing attitudes about women's roles and capabilities. In examining the experiences of the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (as the candidates called themselves), this book documents the achievements and frustrated hopes of a remarkable group of women whose desire to serve their country fell victim to hostility toward such aspirations. Drawing from archival research and interviews with participants, Weitekamp traces the rise and fall of the Woman in Space program within the context of the cold war and the thriving women's aviation culture of the 1950s. Weitekamp's study sheds light on a little-known but compelling chapter in the history of the U.S. space program and the rise of the women's movement in America.

256 pages, Paperback

First published October 18, 2004

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Margaret A. Weitekamp

8 books3 followers

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Maggie.
209 reviews
April 6, 2015
Did I enjoy it? Yes. It was a bit slow-going, but I chalk that up to it being non-fiction (and therefore requiring more careful reading than fiction), and not to it being unenjoyable.
Would I read it again? It's unlikely that I would read the entire thing again, but I wouldn't hesitate to use it as a reference as needed.
Who would I recommend it to? People who are interested in the history of aviation and space flight, and especially in the challenges women faced in those two areas.
Any other thoughts? This book simultaneously interested and frustrated me. I will be the first to admit that, while I'm interested in space history I haven't really studied/read around the subject, so I appreciated the parts of the book that detailed the events leading up to the Lovelace tests, as well as the information about what happened after. It was frustrating to read about the challenges and doubts that the women faced, especially since I was well aware that their efforts weren't going to lead to anything (the program ran in the early 1960s around the same time as the Mercury program, but we all know the first American woman in space was Sally Ride in 1983). Overall it was a good review of the program and of women in aviation from the 1930s-1960s. Dr. Weitekamp clearly did extensive research about the women and the program, and her writing was clear and engaging for an academic text (the book began as her doctorate thesis).
Profile Image for Kate.
1,181 reviews36 followers
July 12, 2021
Do you ever just get so angry while you're reading that you have to stop?

The Mercury 13 had tougher nerves than the Mercury 7. Baby boys at NASA were so threatened, feeling emasculated by even the idea of women becoming astronauts.

Tape a bag to your ass and shit in it, Mercury 7.
Profile Image for Laurence.
4 reviews
March 3, 2022
If you think the story of the United States Space Program begins with the Mercury Seven astronauts, you’re missing more than half the story. In this volume Margaret Weitekamp tells the story of the so-called Mercury Thirteen, thirteen women pilots who, in 1961, undertook precisely the same medical tests the seven men did, in their endeavor to become the first woman in space. Despite meeting the same rigorous standards of the men, all thirteen women were denied the opportunity to go into space.

Margaret Weitekamp’s book is a broad and deeply researched study of not just the Mercury Thirteen, but of the background of the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, and the strong-willed financier and pilot Jacqueline Cochran. Dr. Weitekamp delves deep into the unfortunately poorly documented history of these women and the pioneering research they were a part of. She was able to collect their stories before so much of their personal history was lost as each has passed away.

It is a gripping and often dispiriting account of the lost opportunities for these women, but it helps to put into context their lives and their struggles, and their disappointment at missing the chance to go to space. It also serves to highlight the tensions and ambitions of the United States as it entered the Space Race.

The book is quite a good read, with a very engaging subject matter. Sadly, the volume does suffer from poor editing which, while not interfering with understanding, does make the text a challenge to read in places. In the end it is well worth the effort.
Profile Image for Karl.
162 reviews6 followers
January 23, 2018
This is a thorough and well-documented scholarly history of the unofficial program in 1961 that put 25 women through astronaut testing employing the same methods and facilities used for the Mercury Seven. Weitekamp does an excellent job of presenting the major personalities involved and establishing the wider social context for the program and its eventual demise. There are times when this story is heart-breaking; other times it’s infuriating. Due to sexism and indifference, the U.S. lost some excellent astronaut candidates, especially Jerrie Cobb. She would have been a fine choice to be the first American woman in space. I can’t help but wonder if Cobb could have been the very first woman in space if only NASA’s leadership had been more forward-thinking. Weitekamp suggests several reasons for this resistance, but the one that seems most insidious was that the male-dominated system of the 1950s and 1960s simply could not imagine women as astronauts. Right Stuff, Wrong Sex is a great addition to the field of space history.
Profile Image for Ari Odinson.
435 reviews4 followers
November 4, 2019
I look forward to learning more on this topic because I'm emotionally invested.
Profile Image for Jessica Burstrem.
270 reviews11 followers
August 11, 2021
Well written and thorough, this book engaged me from the start and enlightened me with broader understanding and with fascinating stories I'd never heard at all. An excellent example of history work.
Profile Image for Ronald Lett.
218 reviews47 followers
August 13, 2016
A clear, well-researched account of the history of female astronauts and pilots and their struggles to be recognized by the male-dominated agencies of the time as qualified candidates for the American space program. While I would recommend this book to anyone who is genuinely interested in the interactions between these incredible and courageous women and the establishment of the time, the writing style is a bit too dense for a casual reading, and a little repetitive in certain areas, though that is understandable due to the wide range of original sources, and interviews, that the author drew their material from. In all, if you're motivated to learn about the details of this part of the women's liberation movement, or if you are interested in the histories of extraordinary women, this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
12 reviews2 followers
February 6, 2017
I really enjoyed this book. It was cool to read about these women that were reaching far above where they were way before they could. They faced numerous struggles and even though they didn't get to go into space, they were pioneers in their own right.
Profile Image for Anthony Faber.
1,579 reviews4 followers
October 26, 2012
This was near "The Right Stuff" on the shelf and the title grabbed me. It's not a bad book, but the whole privately funded project to put women flyers through the same tests that they gave the Mercury program applicants didn't last very long and is a minor footnote to both aviation and women's history, so there had to ba a lot of padding (before and after stuff) to make it long enough for a book. I wonder how the author got a thesis out of it, but not enough to try to try to find and read said thesis. It wasn't a waste of time to read, but I wouldn't actually recommend it unless you're really into reading EVERYTHING written about women's aviation in the 1960's.
Profile Image for Yu-Mei Balasingamchow.
Author 22 books33 followers
October 7, 2015
As Weitekamp writes, this was a historical episode that "illuminates how aerospace science, cultural politics, and gender relations intersected in the 1960s." Her book is not only a detailed, rigorous and thoughtful analysis of this particular episode, but also consummately written and a thoroughly enjoyable read as well.
Profile Image for Patricia.
627 reviews7 followers
May 11, 2011
A good reveiw of early attempts by women to obtain equality in the late 50's and sixties....in the space race. A good comopanion to Gail Collins, when everything changed, the Amazing journey from the 1960's to the present.
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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