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Of Sally Ride and Final Club

By Molly Hennessy-fiske

For four years I have written for this newspaper, among other publications, and for four years I have endured a wealth of responses (tear-jerker e-mails to 8 a.m. phone threats) from the Harvard community. Street corners and doorways now come alive as I pass, inhabited by my memory's visions of heated debates, sparring and the occasional denial.

My nit-picking journalist's mind picked out the mistakes over those years, the missed chances that bubbled to the surface during those impromptu sparring sessions, and made a scrapbook of regret. Perhaps that's why I found it so hard to listen when approached by a fellow member of the Class of '99 last week, eager to meet the writer behind pieces she had enjoyed since her first year here. "You let me see a life I'd never seen before," she said, and I froze, remembering Anne of Green Gables' first crappy attempt at writing, when she learns the stuff of literary gold is not in her head, but right next door. That's what I did right, at least once, for this woman, and it made me think that my last piece for this paper better do the same. It better fulfill my reporter's promise to look at life objectively and ask why certain things stand as they do, without neglecting another promise, to tell you how they might be set right.

So why then, I ask, is victory bittersweet? According to the June edition of Harper's magazine, "women now make up 56 percent of students at America's colleges and universities," an increase that experts predict by 2007 will have women earning 200,000 more B.A.'s than men. Our class may not be in keeping with the trend yet, but we're gaining.

When we female students graduate, it will be to become members of a growing professional majority--the female majority. Women will make up the bulk of the professional community. But how will that affect us?

The way I see it, things could pan out the way they did when Sally Ride shook things up on the space shuttle. With her bad '80s flyaway and skin-tight jumpsuit, Ride seemed as unlikely a candidate for equal rights crusader as Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). But just as Thurmond found the wherewithal this year to pat Nelson Mandela's back under a statue of Abraham Lincoln after calling the esteemed South African leader a terrorist thug a few years back, Ride surprised observers, especially those of us in elementary school at the time.

Her "3-2-1 CONTACT" tour of the shuttle began when a smiley, peachy-cheeked Ride made a bee-line for the bathroom. Peeing in space: the timeless stuff of which third grade humor is made, no doubt prompted conjectures amongst Ride's under-age audience at homes across America concerning fluid volume weightlessness. But Ride explained the mechanics well enough that it became evident, even to us minors, that women couldn't use the standard apparatus. But that's all the mothership offered. No ladies room; zero gravity. Not known for cliffhangers, "3-2-1 CONTACT" suddenly had its target demographic, male and female, on the edge of our seats.

Did she hold it for the whole trip? Resort to ziplock? But wait, what was that behind the men's contraption, a white plastic post right next to it but beyond the frame of vision? That was the space-age ladies' room, invented in lieu of ziplocks and because Ride was worth it.

There followed a complete tour of the shuttle, but what stuck was the restroom scene. Perhaps it was because it meant so much to Sally, but most likely it was because the contraption provided an exclusive look at the latest in space technology, and the latest was undoubtedly female.

Back to the present, when women have 50 percent of the hardware necessary to live (for Ride it was a toilet, for us, a professional education) and then some. The advance in education means we can live comfortably, but it also puts the pressure on us to spot the places advances have not been made and to bring the deadbeats up to speed.

We need to start asking why the boss isn't a woman and forgetting about the established models that seem carved in stone until women like Sally Ride brush them aside. We need to become the Sally Rides of our own generation, renovating health care and workplace systems tailored to men's life-patterns, not to mention the workplaces themselves. Sally set me wondering, and the process never quite stopped. After all, somebody had to have designed that shuttle bathroom. The why's abound.

Why design it so that women are still doing 75 percent of the housework, scrubbing and buffing away the hours? Why do female role models all seem to be deputy-bosses? What's with getting so excited about mayoral and gubernatorial races that have never included female candidates? And above all, if we've got more than half of the undergraduate degrees under our belts and will soon claim an overwhelming majority of the professional ones, what's the ladies room in that little domed building on Capitol Hill doing so empty?

In the age of diversity, with women gaining on the majority, sex-based elitism is about as out as acid-wash, as dingy as Ride's old hairdo. Yet it still manages to get by, scrubbing up for battle and then sneaking out the back door under the guise of "good fun" or "tradition." I would not be true to my promise as a reporter who has covered the life and times of this school if I did not end this piece by answering why this situation has persisted. Congress is and has been a big fat boys club, but we've got the prototypes right here with doors only too ready to slam in the faces of ladies with some of the swankiest Ivy degrees around.

Here's where that "how" I promised comes in. The only way women will ever get rid of the door-slamming is to break down the doors, and not just as a quicker way to get inside. There is no excuse for having no other outlet, for resorting to the old system because it's all you can find. Anybody walking out of that hallowed door, male or female, should not be revered as privileged but ashamed for taking advantage, for ruling over what has become a majority with a power they are not entitled to. It's up to us as graduates to remember to work outside to change these things, and to return here to change with a vengeance. This is, after all, a fluid and changing democracy, and if Sally can find a way to even things up, then damn it, so can we.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske '99, a social studies concentrator in Eliot House, was executive editor of The Crimson in 1998.

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