SALLY RIDE probably put it best when she got around to commenting on the media adoration which, several weeks after her landmark space flight, was still going strong. "It's too bad," she noted, "that this has to be such a big deal."
No one would contend that putting the first American woman in space wasn't a big deal not Ride, not NASA, and not the hordes of watchers who wore "Ride, Sally" buttons and wrote letters to Time magazine debating whether she should have taken her lipstick on board. But it wasn't the first time that milestone fever has obscured just what was a big deal about it--and what wasn't. And those questions were amply illuminated by a sedate, tiny and altogether un-fevered wire item in last Wednesday's New York Times--a dry announcement of the appointment of Mary Donaldson, a former nurse in her sixties, as London's first female Lord Mayor.
Milestone fever was entirely absent from the item, which listed Donaldson's former positions in the city administration--two of which she was the first woman to fill. The symptoms of milestone fever it did not demonstrate were numerous and encouraging. It did not include a sampling of opinion--the Lord Mayor's, her colleagaes', the public's or otherwise dwell on the difference it would make to have a woman in this traditional, little-heard-of and Shakespearean-sounding position. To do that would imply that maleness had been intrinsic somehow to the job in times of yore. It did not describe Donaldson's height, build or what she was wearing on the day of the appointment--as most publications, and the Times in particular still tend to do with irritating consistency. It did not deem the event a big enough deal to spark interest in the admittedly masculine title "Lord Mayor." And the Sunday London Times did not save space for it in the Week in Review.
WHAT MAKES such dryness a sign of hope is not just the implication that promoting a woman to a new position is commonplace--though in the city of Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, the matter-seems far less debatable than elsewhere. Rather, it neatly avoids the undertones that unavoidably creep into more extensive coverage. The wild enthusiasm over Sally Ride's flight wasn't sexist; but the most scrupulous editor couldn't avoid addressing the question of whether it was more difficult, somehow, for a woman to orbit the Earth; whether the milestone was womanhood's for evolving to that point, or NASA's for abandoning a benighted state of consciousness. The line between those two types of progress must have been in the back of somebody's mind, because the following week, when NASA sent up its first Black astronaut, things were a trifle more subdued on the publicity side. Certainly, no one would have cared to suggest that the milestone signaled the end of limitation anywhere but in the space agency.
Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, comes down through history books with a vague him of some physical distinction; like an Amazon of old, she transcended generally accepted assumptions about female weakness. A different level of respect is reserved for, say, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female American doctor, whose triumph lay in disproving social assumptions rather than simply surpassing them. Nor is it socially acceptable nowadays to praise Margaret Thatcher for capabilities beyond those of the ordinary woman.
Questions of real differences between the sexes show up only in stark, untheoretical matters like votes against the Equal Rights Amendment and inequality of promotion in the workplace. But subtle suggestions, tiny drops of water on stone, can go some ways toward modifying even the most stubbornly held and wordless assumptions; and the British may be helping matters as they dryly take for granted that, whatever it is that a Lord Mayor does Mary Donaldson can do it.