Adventures in Feministory: Valentina Tereshkova, Outer Space's First Lady
Space may be the final frontier for many of us, but it's familiar territory for Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. In June of 1963, Tereshkova was chosen—out of more than 400 applicants—to be the first woman to fly in space.
Born in 1937 to working-class parents in Central Russia, Tereshkova became interested in skydiving and parachuting at a young age. It was this interest—and the skills that she developed as a result—that put her at the head of the class in 1962, when she and four other women formed the female cosmonaut corps. Sure, they were originally chosen because the chief Soviet rocket engineer wanted to see what would happen to women's bodies in space (maybe our periods would get weird or something?), but they kicked ass all the same. (Unfortunately, Tereshkova was the only candidate of the five original female cosmonauts to actually fly in a space mission. Apparently since her ladyparts survived the journey without issue, the other women were dismissed.)
Not surprisingly, given the sexism that was present in the forming of the female cosmonaut corps, it was more than just Tereshkova's parachuting skills that earned her her spot in the Vostok 6 spacecraft. From Astronautix:
But it was Premier Khrushchev himself who made the final crew selection. Tereshkova embodied the qualities expected of the New Soviet Woman. She was a reliable communist, a factory worker from a humble background, and a 'good' girl. Most importantly, she had the looks, charm, and attitude necessary for celebrity - Kamanin would later call her 'Gagarin [the first human in space] in a skirt'.
Looks in a skirt aside, Tereshkova—call sign Chaika, which means seagull—orbited the earth 48 times during her 1963 space flight. Apparently she experienced some technical problems with the spacecraft, but even though she alerted the control team to what was going on and was able to land safely, after her flight they attempted to discredit her by saying that she became "overly emotional" and "insubordinate," and that she may have been drunk during the voyage. (Hm, overly emotional and drunk? Where have we seen those accusations made of women before? Well, it's nice to see that douchebags transcend time and place, at least.)
After the flight, Tereshkova ended up in what sounds kind of like an arranged marriage to Andrian Nikolayev, the only bachelor cosmonaut. They had a child together, Elena Andrianovna, making Tereshkova the first woman to give birth after having been in space, and Elena the first child to have two parents who'd been in space (meaning, like her mother, she had a lot of tests done on her). Later, after she learned she would not be allowed to fly in space again, Tereshkova and Nikolayev divorced, and Tereshkova remarried Yuliy Shaposhnikov, a physician working at a military medical academy. He passed away in 1999.
Though she has not been to space since her first voyage, Tereshkova has gone on to a career in politics and international relations. She earned her doctorate in engineering in 1977, and held several political positions with the Soviet government. She was the Soviet representative to the UN Conference for the International Women's Year in Mexico City in 1975, a torch bearer during the 2008 Olympic Games, and even showed up on a Soviet stamp (at left).
On her 70th birthday in 2007, Tereshkova was invited to celebrate with then-President Vladimir Putin. Here's a photo from their meeting, which I love because Tereshkova looks so surprised by his dog. Why is the dog even there?
What's up, dog?
While at this presidential dog birthday party, Tereshkova told the press: "If I had money, I would enjoy flying to Mars. This was the dream of the first cosmonauts. I wish I could realize it! I am ready to fly without coming back."
Here's hoping she makes it back into orbit!
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