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The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

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For readers of  The Astronaut Wives Club, The Mercury 13  reveals the little-known true story of the remarkable women who trained for NASA space flight.

In 1961, just as NASA launched its first man into space, a group of women underwent secret testing in the hopes of becoming America’s first female astronauts. They passed the same battery of tests at the legendary Lovelace Foundation as did the Mercury 7 astronauts, but they were summarily dismissed by the boys’ club at NASA and on Capitol Hill. The USSR sent its first woman into space in 1963; the United States did not follow suit for another twenty years.

For the first time, Martha Ackmann tells the story of the dramatic events surrounding these thirteen remarkable women, all crackerjack pilots and patriots who sometimes sacrificed jobs and marriages for a chance to participate in America’s space race against the Soviet Union. In addition to talking extensively to these women, Ackmann interviewed Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and others at NASA and in the White House with firsthand knowledge of the program, and includes here never-before-seen photographs of the Mercury 13 passing their Lovelace tests.

Despite the crushing disappointment of watching their dreams being derailed, the Mercury 13 went on to extraordinary achievement in their Jerrie Cobb, who began flying when she was so small she had to sit on pillows to see out of the cockpit, dedicated her life to flying solo missions to the Amazon rain forest; Wally Funk, who talked her way into the Lovelace trials, went on to become one of the first female FAA investigators; Janey Hart, mother of eight and, at age forty, the oldest astronaut candidate, had the political savvy to steer the women through congressional hearings and later helped found the National Organization for Women.

A provocative tribute to these extraordinary women, The Mercury 13 is an unforgettable story of determination, resilience, and inextinguishable hope.

288 pages, Paperback

First published June 3, 2003

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About the author

Martha Ackmann

8 books47 followers
Martha Ackmann, author of These Fevered Days, Curveball, and The Mercury 13, writes about women who have changed America. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, Ackmann taught a popular seminar on Dickinson at Mount Holyoke College, and lives in western Massachusetts.

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5 stars
266 (30%)
4 stars
373 (42%)
3 stars
198 (22%)
2 stars
31 (3%)
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13 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 135 reviews
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books207 followers
January 24, 2017
"Dicks in tin cans" was how one wag described the early decades of NASA. Okay, I just made that up. But have you ever wondered why there wasn't a female American astronaut until Sally Ride's ride in 1983, a full twenty years after the Soviets sent up an amateur parachutist with no flight experience whatsoever?
Was it because American women were sorely lacking in experience, too? No. There were tons of badass women flying around all over the place.
Was it because they just weren't up to the training physically? No. The women discussed here all passed, with some exceeding...let's write that a little bigger...EXCEEDING their dick-having counterparts.
Trouble was, NASA would conveniently only take test pilots and women (because America is actually not as perfect as you think it is) couldn't be test pilots. Well, there was one. And she's the villain of this amazing story!
The book centers on Jerrie Cobb, aviator and badass extraordinaire and the tests she and other female pilots did in New Mexico to prove they were up for being trained as astronauts, too, despite their lack of dicks. (Interesting sidenote: the phrase "bag of dicks" originated with an episode in which the Mercury 13 stormed NASA headquarters slinging potato sacks full of sausages at the glass doors. Okay, I made that up, too).
The story doesn't end well (see above) and we all know it. But it's great to read about how close they came and how they launched the drive that eventually led to women going into space. There is villainy, too, in the form of other famed aviator Jackie Cochrane, who, perhaps out of sheer jealousy scuttled the whole enterprise because she wasn't consulted.
Why this isn't a movie or miniseries is beyond me.
Profile Image for Sara.
588 reviews60 followers
August 3, 2018
Infuriating. And sadly, no surprise that the nail in the program’s coffin was a woman, expert at undermining other women while promoting herself to men. A scene that repeats itself on scales large and small.

Also, f#ck you, von Braun.
128 reviews
January 29, 2016
Probably the most heart breaking and depressing book I have ever read. I was either in tears, totally depressed, frustrated or enraged every chapter. That being said, I think it's a must read. People who advocated for women to have the same opportunities as men should not be forgotten.

I had no idea about the Mercury 13 before I read this book. There were so many amazing women to read about. The emotional distress was worth it.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews347 followers
September 20, 2018
The book is awkwardly written and overlong, but makes its point: women were fine aviators from the start, were the equals (if not superior) to the men NASA picked for the first astronauts, and were pushed back by plain, blatant sexism. 3+ stars.

There was more going on than this: the US was feeling the pressure of being #2 in the space race, what with Sputnik, lofted into orbit by a repurposed ICBM launcher, and Yuri Gagarin, orbiting the Earth a few years later. So expedience led the new NASA to pick experienced military test pilots as the first astronauts, and that was a defensible choice, given the politics of the time. But they didn't need to be such dicks about it, or take 20 years to send the first American woman (Sally Ride) into space.

And here’s Wernher von Braun, on women in space: “We’re reserving 110 pounds of payload for recreational equipment.”

A memorable moment: The Mercury 7 watching an Atlas launch, their ride-to-be. It blows up. A sobering moment.

I read this at the recommendation of the Mary Robinette Kowal, whose new novel "The Calculating Stars" opens with the destruction of Washington DC by a giant meteor, circa 1963. Let's hope Wernher von Braun was in town. Here she is:
You really should read her comments.
Profile Image for Lizabeth Tucker.
863 reviews12 followers
March 25, 2017
Back when the American Space Program was just beginning, a few farsighted men began testing women pilots for possible astronaut positions. One of the first chosen for testing was Jerrie Cobb, an Oklahoman who held various world records as a pilot.

Other women who made the initial cut included:

Jan & Marion Dietrich - identical twins from California
Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk - the baby at 22, from Taos
Bernice "B" Steadman - flight operation owner from Michigan
Jean Hixson - Air Forces Reserves officer from Akron, Ohio
Myrtle Cagle - Georgia flight instructor
Sarah Gorelick - engineer in Kansas City
Rhea Hurrle - executive pilot from Houston
Irene Leverton - forest service pilot from Chicago
Gene Nora Stumbough - University of Oklahoma aviation instructor
Geraldine "Jerri" Sloan - Dallas air-race competitor
Jane "Janey" Hart - U.S. Senator's wife from Michigan

Unfortunately, these progressive men and adventurous women were up against a cultural and military mindset that not only couldn't, but wouldn't entertain the idea that women should go into space. In addition, aviation pioneer Jackie Cochran was actively trying to stop Cobb from being successful, either as a potential astronaut or as unofficial spokeswoman for the group.

Although the House agreed to hold hearings regarding the possible discrimation of women in the Program, they were a joke. With one member disliked by his fellow politicians, a newbie woman who was only there to fill her deceased husband's spot, and others who still didn't understand how women could possibly do the job without help, there wasn't a real effort to do more than try and save face with the world.

The comments from those in a position of power within the program ranged from condescending to insulting to vulgar. Von Braun supposedly quoted another high ranking scientist when he referred to women as recreational equipment. NASA itself over the years tried to deny their very existence.

It was almost 20 years later that the first American woman, Sally Ride, went into space. Longer until a woman, Eileen Collins, was the pilot of the shuttle. Even today, some still question a woman's fitness in holding such an important position.

As a child of the program whose father worked from pre-Mercury to Apollo 12, I can remember rumors of women being tested for the position of astronaut, but that was all it was - rumors. The newspapers of my area didn't carry much about this women, so I was surprised and astounded by what this book revealed. I had met some of the people discussed in this book and, frankly, wasn't too surprised at their attitudes. I might have been very young, but I was a space supporter who had a strong interest in science. I shot my own rockets off with a group of boys who also looked to the stars.

During the various visits to Cape Canaveral (later called Kennedy Space Center) during employee days as well as the infamous Cape parties, I watched and listened to the men who spoke of their jobs. Men. The few women I met who worked at the Cape were secretaries and clerks. I never actually met one of the few women engineers. They were rarely invited to the parties that these men would have every few months.

I found this book interesting, both from an insider and outsider viewpoint. If you want to know more about what it was like for the women who aspired to the stars, try this book as a start. Then go on to the Notes section and jot down the names of the various biographies and autobiographies of these remarkable women.
Profile Image for Sherry Sharpnack.
854 reviews21 followers
September 9, 2023
"The Mercury 13:..." was a deep look at the first women who tried to qualify to become astronauts. They passed -- if not surpassed -- the same physical and mental tests that the Mercury 7 male astronauts passed.
What stopped them from becoming astronauts? Sexism.
This made me so angry reading it that I often had to set down the book and walk away. Therefore, it did take me longer than usual to finish an "afternoon read."
I believe that sexism is also responsible for why few of us know about these ambitious women, nor the struggle for control of the program between Jerrie Cobb, a fabulous pilot, and Jackie Cochran, the famous founder of the WASP's in WWII. At least when Sally Ride became the first woman astronaut to fly into space on the Space Shuttle, she invited all the surviving members of the Mercury 13 as her special guests to lift-off. Four stars, as it got a bit tedious reading about the struggle between Cobb and Cochran, and most especially the patently unfair sexism.
January 18, 2017
Amazing story about amazing, trailblazing women.
Makes me somewhat ashamed for how little I pushed myself throughout my working life. I could have done more to make the working world a better place.
However, this book did inspire me to figure out how to better use my retirement time to make more of a positive impact on the lives of others.
Profile Image for Anna lost in stories *A*.
1,021 reviews169 followers
April 13, 2021
as much as I found the subject of the book fascinating, in the end I can’t give it more than 3,5 stars… the writing style just really didn’t work for me and I can’t quite put my finger on why… was it too dry? maybe… I’m not sure… but it definitely made it harder for me to get into this book and read more of it at a time… BUT the story of this amazing group of women is definitely worth a read :) my heart was breaking for them and I think that more people should know that story… definitely give it a try, because the writing style can definitely be just a me thing ;)


Profile Image for Alison.
13 reviews
February 4, 2015
When the Soviets launched Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963, "Celebrated writer Clare Boothe Luce wrote a scathing article in Life magazine, reminding readers that a year earlier, thirteen American women had asked Congress to send an American woman into space. Where are those thirteen women now? Luce asked. 'The U.S. Team Is Still Warming Up the Bench' the Life headline answered. Luce called the missed opportunity a costly Cold War blunder and excoriated American men for their sexist views of women." And, the women warmed the bench for another 20 years until Sally Ride finally went up in 1983.

This book outlines the forgotten story of how 13 women passed similar tests that the first astronauts went through (Mercury 7), readying for a chance to be among the first to explore space. Some scientists hypothesized that women might be even more suitable for space exploration for various reasons (weight, size, ability to function in isolated environments and perform repetitive tasks were some factors), and they wanted to gather data on women and get them into space, but most would not even consider the prospect...certainly not NASA, the Presidential administration, Congress, nor the military due to systematic discrimination and blatant sexism. These women though, were trailblazers, and their story should be told.

Here's another favorite quote included in the book. This was written from one sister to another who were both asked to be test volunteers:
"Your hesitating to go to Lovelace [the scientist in charge of the testing] absolutely shocks me," she declared. "Jan, we are poised on the edge of the most exciting and important adventure man has ever known. Most must watch. A few are privileged to record. Only a handful may participate and feel above all others attuned with their time. To take part in this adventure, no matter how small, I consider the most important thing we have ever done. To be ASKED to participate, the greatest honor. To accept, an absolute duty. So, go Jan go. And take your part, even as a statistic, in man's great adventure."

And it was MAN'S great adventure, for many long years.
Profile Image for Carrie.
152 reviews8 followers
Want to read
November 7, 2014
"Discrimination has nothing to do with chivalry." Ruth Nichols, pilot, contemporary and friendly rival of Amelia Earhart
Profile Image for Rachel.
41 reviews14 followers
October 25, 2015
I want to thank the Mercury 13 for proving that women are capable and can do anything they put their minds to do.
Profile Image for Lauren Stoolfire.
3,727 reviews260 followers
July 16, 2019
Depressing and absolutely infuriating, but a must-read if you're interested in the history of women in space, NASA, and aviation. You know this doesn't end well, but it shows just how strong these badass ladies of the Mercury 13 were and how they helped pave the way for the Sally Ride and all women involved in the space program today.
Profile Image for Stacy.
838 reviews1 follower
April 13, 2019
I've heard of Sally Ride. Eileen Collins. Judith Resnik. Shannon Lucid. Before this book, I had never heard of Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Sloan, B Steadman, Wally Funk, or any other of the 13 women pilots who left their homes, jobs, and families to test for a chance to go into space in the early 1960s. They faced an immense lack of support and a large amount of sexism. Their contributions paved the way for the ladies that I first listed, to finally go into space 20 years later.

It was maddening to me that one of the biggest obstacles was another woman who wanted to use her husband's wealth to control all of the decisions and bask in the publicity of her piloting. She did not want any of the 13 to eclipse her accomplishments.

Just recently, a woman was unable to execute a spacewalk because there wasn't a uniform that fit her. So this book is actually quite timely, and shows that there is still a lot of room for improvement.

"In a way, the Air Force response sounded like a 'wife joke' offered up by some tired comedian on the Ed Sullivan show. 'Why couldn't women be astronauts? Because they had nothing to wear.'"

This was an interesting look into a history largely unknown to me. Thank you, Mercury 13!
Profile Image for J..
Author 7 books40 followers
February 24, 2014
Came as a recommendation of Kelly Sue DeConnick, and it did not disappoint. What a fantastic read! Powerful story, and I like that Ackmann focused in on Jerrie Cobb to give us a focal point to move through the history. Jackie Cochran does not come off looking too good, here, though, so be warned: if you go into this book as a fan of Cochran's, I doubt you're going to like her much coming out of it. Fantastic photographic section. I love that the prologue/epilogue work hard to contextualize the story with more contemporary history (Eileen Collins' story).
HIGHLY recommended.
131 reviews
April 22, 2018
Being a NASA-nerd girl, I can't believe that I never heard this story. But, then again, everything I know comes from a man's perspective. A sad story that, unfortunately, was reflective of the time. I enjoyed the book but felt that the middle pages were a bit long and detailed, gleaning most of the story from the first 2 and last 2 chapters.
Profile Image for Cindy Marcusen.
42 reviews8 followers
April 30, 2020
I truly enjoyed this book. It was very inspiring to me. I was a child during the Space Race and was inspired to become a scientist. I understand the prejudice against women in science and math. Women like these helped those of us who came after. I rated it 4 star because it seemed to focus on 2 of the women more than the others. But I understand why. These two made for a good plot of confliction. By the end I really could not understand why Cocherine was so against women moving forward other than she was jealous and wanted the opportunity and knew she could not have it because of age.
This book shows the dichotomy between "Failure is not an Option". In that book, Webb says they had no discrimination, there just weren't any females or people of color available for the work. There were and they applied and were turned away.
If a woman was hired she was not paid as well. She was given lesser duties etc.
(This is from a woman who has experienced this; who was told to make the coffee for the office because I was the woman even though I had never made it in my life! I was told I didn't make as much because I wasn't supporting a family like the men. Really? Who do they think was supporting my family?)
Profile Image for LillyBooks.
1,012 reviews55 followers
March 20, 2021
I loved this book as much as I could love something that made me so angry. Not at the author, not at the topic, not at the thirteen women profiled here, but at society and men. Words of the non-profanity kind fail me and are inadequate to explain my frustration and disgust at the way these women were treated. Heaven forbid a woman should have a career. Or a dream. Or enjoy flying. Or - and this is the kicker - be better suited to spaceflight than men and be able to prove it. Everyone should read this book.
Profile Image for Meg Marie.
604 reviews11 followers
July 7, 2018
An amazing group of women who deserved to have their stories told. The rampant sexism, misogyny and racist of the time made my feminist blood boil like the heat shield had failed on re-entry.
Profile Image for Sally Peters.
35 reviews
July 17, 2019
Fascinating true story about women who wanted to take part in the nation's space race to the moon. It is very appropriate for reading in this 50th anniversary year of the first moon landing. It is also eye opening regarding the place of women in that time and place.
Profile Image for Laura.
166 reviews
April 9, 2022
The story and the women behind it were interesting, but the writing was slow at times.
783 reviews
June 11, 2017
A must read for fans of the space program,those interested in the 50s-60s, and anyone interested in women's rights.
Profile Image for Sharon.
141 reviews7 followers
April 21, 2009
Martha Ackmann's book tells the virtually unknown story of thirteen women pilots who did everything in their power to prove that women were as capable of space flight as men, at a time when women were not even allowed to fly jet airplanes. That these ladies faced an uphill battle would be putting it mildly. Societal norms of the late 1950s/early 1960s dictated that women should be homemakers. Simply becoming pilots with thousands of hours of flying time, numerous world records for distance and speed, and a wealth of knowledge about the mechanics of flight, was a huge accomplishment. But these women wanted more. And they went after it with a vengeance.

This book fills a gap in the history of space flight and the U.S. astronaut training program. The writing tends toward a mix of textbook and journalistic styles. The first few chapters, in particular, present a great deal of background information to help orient the reader. This can be a little hard to follow, but is definitely worth wading through. The ladies' personalities eventually shine out, and I found myself rooting hard for them, even knowing that none would be making it into space. I would like to have seen more focus on the individual women's stories to counterbalance the details of the actual testing and the convoluted power struggles.

Politics ultimately resulted in the women's program being terminated, despite the Mercury 13's incredible test results (some exceeded the men). It was another twenty years before the U.S. put a woman into space. As an avid fan of aeronautics, I enjoyed this book very much. As a woman, I was shocked to learn the real history of the space program, and awed by the determination of these women. Their dedication to astronaut training opened the door for women pilots everywhere. Martha Ackmann has given us a glimpse of the hard reality the Mercury 13 faced, as well as showing us their strength and grace under pressure.
Profile Image for Keith.
332 reviews
June 28, 2019
In The Mercury 13, Ackmann took what would have otherwise been an inspiring book about thirteen women's struggle to gain entry into the new United State's space program and managed to turn it into a platform to push feminist dogma. I almost put the book down during the first few chapters after repeated jabs at the NASA leadership for daring to put winning a war with Russia above women's equality. That is really the crux of this book; Ackmann believes it should have been more important to ensure women's equality in the space program than to win the space race.

In typical feminist fashion, Ackmann is adamant that a woman is equal to a man in all things - then considers it a high achievement when Cobb or one of the other Mercury 13 women completes a test that was designed for men. Excuse me, but if a woman is the equal of a man than the standard should be identical and the resulting scores comparable with no cause for rejoicing when a woman scores the same as a man. Conveniently, in spite of Ackmann's repeated claims that the "Mercury 13" passed all the tests the Project Mercury astronauts had passed with "flying colors," there is almost no objective data to show how they actually stacked up to the males who were selected. It is easier to vilify the government's choices to use (male) military test pilots as their first pool for astronaut selection as discriminatory when the cold, hard data is conveniently not presented.

I present two examples of this lack of data. First, was the discussion of Funk's claim that she beat Glenn's score on the stationary bike. There was a link to additional data in the endnotes and I thought I was going to get to read actual test results. Instead, there was only limited data - in all fairness proving that Funk came nowhere close to Glenn's results - and between the endnotes and the data in chapter six all we are given is a listing of the order of the top three women with no data to tell us how they compared to the men. In chapter eight, while explaining Cobb's completion of the physical fitness tests at Pensacola much is made of her being required to scale a six foot, six inch wall even thought she was shorter than the average man. So what? Pushing this as some sort of achievement both ignores the fact that over 20% of men are Cobb's height or shorter and demonstrates once again that Ackmann is simply pushing her feminist agenda that a woman is the equal to a man; until it is clear that there are obvious differences between women and men and then there must be a separate, lower, standard for women.

There is much made in the book of the difficulties the women encountered in receiving time off work, finding caretakers for their children while they were gone, and affording to attend the testing. Ironically, Ackmann has nothing good to say about Eisenhower's decision to use military test pilots as the pool to select the Project Mercury astronauts, even though it is obvious that the choice to limit prospective candidates to male military pilots eliminated all of the conflicts these women experienced. She even goes so far as to accuse Eisenhower of potentially compromising the "fundamental principles of democracy!" Again, Ackmann would rather have seen NASA delayed in their selection of astronauts with the potential that Russia win the space race and the Cold War, so long as the selection process met her standard of equality and fairness.

Another topic brought up ad nauseam was women's lighter weight which would require less fuel, less food, and less oxygen for accomplishment of a space mission. While all of that is true it is a pointless argument. It is obvious that NASA did not make weight a primary requirement for inclusion in the space program. If they wanted light astronauts they would have set a very low weight threshold. Instead, their primary criteria were for health, intelligence, and fitness. We are made well aware throughout the book that the Mercury 13 were smaller than their male counterparts but, as mentioned above, there is no data given other than subjective and unsubstantiated claims that the women "aced" the tests or passed with "flying colors" to tell us how they performed on the tests that NASA actually considered consequential.

Something completely ignored by Ackmann was the critical psycho-social element in selection of astronauts. NASA selected the seven members of Project Mercury from a pool of eighteen highly qualified finalists based on their personality traits and how they would interact with their fellow astronauts, not solely their physical achievements or psychological exam results. Ironically, Ackmann's poster child for the Mercury 13, Cobb, was commented on throughout the book as being a loner, anti-social, and socially awkward. Cobb was not an academic and "took to skipping school for weeks at a time." The Mercury Project astronauts were completely immersed in studying for months at a time in preparation for the first space missions. Ackmann remarks on the end of Cobb's relationship with Ford, "Cobb loved flight and solitude more." When discussing Ford's death in a plane crash Ackmann states, "Flight magazine later wrote, that he became 'out of place and impractical anywhere but in the air.' The passage could have been describing Cobb." Where in that isolationism are we expected to believe Cobb would have been a great teammate during a lengthy space mission in a very confined environment with her fellow astronauts?

Sadly, Ackmann's feminism overshadows what is otherwise a fantastic book. Her push to show discrimination by Eisenhower and NASA for choosing test pilots as their selection pool when the Mercury Program was first begun overshadows the demonstrable discrimination in NASA and the government's lack of cooperation to continue testing of women for potential inclusion in the space program. Her focus on how the women of the Mercury 13 were discriminated against ensures the women are turned into flat characters with every part of their lives being related to how they were discriminate against in aviation because of their gender. Women today are finally breaking through the gender barriers that have held them back and it is high time they be recognized for their struggle, however, using their story to push a feminist agenda and make poorly argued points about gender discrimination is not the way to honor them or their legacy. This book could have been written so differently and could have communicated the same story, even the same message of discrimination, without subjugating the story of the Mercury 13 to the author's agenda.
Profile Image for Susan.
802 reviews39 followers
June 19, 2019
I remember the selection of the original 7 male Mercury astronauts, but knew absolutely nothing about these women who took the same tests that the men did, passed them with flying colors, and yet were excluded from the space program until 1978. I didn't know that these women had been excluded. Of course, it was the 50s and 60s, and everyone was excluded except white males. Infuriating. And even though today women and persons of color are not totally excluded from the military, the space program, executive suites of corporations, and politics, there is still covert discrimination.

My sister used to have a sign on her desk that said, "For a woman to be considered to be half as good as a man, she must work twice as hard. Fortunately, this is not difficult."

And the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ms. Ackman has done a wonderful job of telling the history of these women and their attempt to be included in the early space exploration efforts.
Profile Image for Pat Salvatini.
613 reviews8 followers
April 28, 2021
Back in 1958 when NASA was first formed times were different, social norms were different, equality was non-existent. Yet Dr. Randy Lovelace thought ahead and realized that women should be given the same opportunity to be astronauts as men and began secretly testing there abilities. Thus beginning Jerrie Cobb's decades long fight to become the first female astronaut. She was not alone in her quest, she was joined by twelve other women, all accomplished pilots. One celebrated and famed pilot of the era, Jackie Cochran however, waffled between being a supporter of the program and a foe, siding with NASA's James Webb when the women needed her support the most. The story is at times fascinating, frustrating, and inspirational. A great read of women's determination and space history.
772 reviews
January 25, 2018
Fascinating. I had no idea there were so many accomplished women pilots in the fifties and sixties. Also, this reaffirmed my belief that women who refuse to help others in order to be the "best" woman are horrible people.
Profile Image for Kend.
1,249 reviews68 followers
January 13, 2018
Here's a story for the ages––everything you suspected about the treatment of women in 1960s and 70s America, bundled up with the high drama and national narrative of the Space Race––told in a thoroughly journalistic manner, with footnotes. There are inherent dangers to approaching the story this way, of course: namely, artificially asserted objectivity, as the author embraces here, is a turn-off for many readers, including me. There are moments when the author's personal connections to the story are hinted at, but I find myself frustrated not just by the content (which is incredibly frustrating on its own, as we all know how the story turns out by the time we are half a chapter in) but also by the missed opportunities. As a story, this had a lot of potential. As a book, it's unevenly enforced.

The greatest challenge in reading this book is facing the fact that it will deconstruct much of the pleasant mythology we've erected around Space Race-age heroes like John Glenn and Jackie Cochran. Jerrie Cobb and many of the Mercury 13 come off well, but everyone else? John Glenn enabled others in their bad behavior, and spouted some downright condescending lines. Lyndon Johnson? Even worse, as he pretended to be an ally but secretly scuttled the project anyway. The Lovelaces? Didn't stand up for their project, relying on time to smooth the sting to fragile male egos and open up doors later. Jackie Cochran? Sabotaged the women's efforts more than any other person involved, for reasons known only to her. This book is an anthology of the various ways in which men fail women and women fail each other. And that makes this a difficult read, even though we all know that's often the reality of the world.

Do I recommend reading this book? Absolutely. If you haven't ever heard of the Mercury 13, this is a definite must-read. It isn't the only perspective worth absorbing, of course, and those intimated connections and inherent biases do mean that there is messaging embedded in the text. It's not that I disagree with it, necessarily (More women! In! Space! More women! In! NASA! More women! In STEM fields!) but I am cautious about passing judgment without reading further texts on the subject. WHICH I WILL BE DOING.

Also, I think this could have been a fascinating book if it had been written Rebecca Skloot-style. It wasn't ... but then, life isn't perfect, I guess.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
583 reviews22 followers
May 11, 2023
I loved this! It was such a joyful, interesting read compared to the toxic masculine vulgarity of "The Right Stuff" (I still think Tom Wolfe did such a disservice to those men for portraying them the way he did).

I leaned about "the Mercury 13" from the show "For All Mankind," and after reading this, I'm even more disappointed that this story isn't at least superficially known as well as the stories of John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. While I will say this book is more the story of Jackie Cochran and (or vs.) Geraldyn Cobb than it is a specific and focused exploration of all the Mercury women, it's so an interesting look at this time in "Space" history.

Without setting out to do so, it also presents an interesting examination of women in a time period where there was very much a vibe of "there can only be ONE" tokenism, and what they chose to do with that. Jackie Cochran leaned more towards gatekeeping her access, while Geraldyn Cobb actively tried to include and pump up other women. I understand the chips on both women's shoulders, and they suffocating world they lived in, and it's interesting to explore how and why they acted the way they did, and the ways in which BOTH helped, even if Cochran does come off as what we'd call a "pick me" girl today.

So much of the story is tirelessly frustrating - especially the recounting of how Congress and NASA felt about women (referring to women at one point as "110 pounds of recreational equipment) - but it's also wildly inspiring. This was the late 1950s/early 1950s, and the women involved were so different - Janie Hart was a Senator's wife with six kids! I was in tears by the end of this, when the scene showed all these ladies watching the space shuttle Colombia lift off with a female commander (Elaine Collins).

Can't recommend it enough.
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