NASA beauty pageant/Organizational communication of sexism

Image from Artifacting.

For a few years in the late sixties and early seventies NASA ran beauty pageants.  There isn’t much information about the contests but the internet has generated a handful of pictures of the winners set next to a series of space artifacts.  The images stuck with me and a few ideas are worth probing, perhaps not focusing on the beauty pageants, but instead turning the lens toward NASA.

–> At what point does an organization focused ostensibly on the investigation of outer space find itself running an earthly beauty contest?  One answer is that lots of organizations do charity or events to raise their public profile.  I can imagine a car dealer having a book drive for a local library.  But obviously a car dealer probably wouldn’t raise funds for a bicycle learning center.  The choice of secondary advocacy/charity/public relations campaigns speaks (in a slightly obscured way) about the priorities of the organization.
–>Considering the context of the time, these images are generated a few years after the 1969 human landing on the moon.  The space race between the United States the Soviet Union is in motion.  The recruitment of scientists and engineers is presumably a government priority.  Reading the NASA history chapter on social and cultural legacies gives some incredible insights into the very serious struggles to challegne institutional sexism and racism at NASA.  In 1973, when the beauty pageant photo was taken, there was no women’s bathroom at the Kennedy Space Center.  Apparently women could be objectified at the space command, but they couldn’t take a piss.

–> A quote from the above mentioned NASA History:

Admitting women into the Astronaut Corps did require some change in the NASA culture, recalled Carolyn Huntoon, a member of the 1978 astronaut selection board and mentor to the first six female astronauts. “Attitude was the biggest thing we had to [work on],” she said. Astronaut Richard Mullane, who was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978, had never worked with professional women before coming to NASA. Looking back on those first few years, he remembered that “the women had to endure a lot because” so many of the astronauts came from military backgrounds and “had never worked with women and were kind of struggling to come to grips on working professionally with women.”

Although I like the inclusion of the topic of sexism in the NASA workplace, I have to question the choice of the editors of this piece to focus on a male astronaut to explain the problem of sexism.  Particularly beneficial to the institution of NASA is the suggestion that the problem of discrimination comes down to the attitudes of a few astronauts.  Compare this with the actual history of NASA in which the first director of Equal Employment Opportunity for NASA (Ruth Bates Harris) declares the attempt to recruit women and people of color “a near total failure.”  Harris was fired by the director of NASA and congress had to force NASA to reinstate her under threat.  It seems like the attitude problem wasn’t limited to a few astronaut candidates.  (Admittedly this information came from the same NASA produced text).

–> Mary Daly includes some discussion about the 2-dimensional representation of women who sustain the men of the space race in Gyn/Ecology.  She describes wives and mothers who are captures in photographic (and video-graphic representation) in order to enable men to fly into space.  There is something amazing about the choice of these NASA pageant images — of beautiful women who have competed for the approval of obscure NASA officials — the winners placed awkwardly into scientific scenes.  As if to suggest their intrusion and difference.  Consider the woman above who is dressed precisely to be as un-astronaut as possible.  As if to suggest that the only way a woman would get into NASA is on the arm of a person who legitimately was welcomed there — as a wife or girlfriend.

–> It is logical to note that these particular representations proliferate the moments when women are asking to get access to equal employment.  We could describe them as a targeted responses intended to resist cultural changes.

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Filed under communication, feminism, human rights, juxtaposition, learning, representation

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