“We don’t take girls”: Hillary Clinton and her NASA letter
by James Oberg
|“I think I was 13 or so, and so I wrote to NASA to ask how I could become an astronaut. And I got a response back which was, ‘We’re not interested in women astronauts,’” Clinton recalled.|
In a speech held in Washington, DC, on March 20, 2012, to praise the legacy of female aviator Amelia Earhart, Clinton revealed she wanted to be an astronaut as a girl, but NASA told her she couldn’t because she was a woman. “When I was about 13, I wrote to NASA and asked what I needed to do to try to be an astronaut,” she explained. “And of course, there weren’t any women astronauts, and NASA wrote me back and said there would not be any women astronauts. And I was just crestfallen.” She added: “NASA may have said I couldn’t go into space, but nobody was there to tell Amelia Earhart she couldn’t do what she chose to do.”
The story is clearly politically useful, and comments on its actual authenticity have predictably split along partisan lines. Clinton herself never indicated she kept the letter, so there’s no documentation at her end.
Nor is there any at NASA’s end, I was told by NASA Headquatrers spokesman Bob Jacobs in a recent email exchange. “As you might imagine,” Jacobs wrote, “NASA received thousands of letters from young and old alike asking about how to become an astronaut.”
“As a matter of policy,” he explained, “correspondence with the public is not retained as a permanent record.” Consequently, he added, “NASA has no record of the letter”, elaborating that “it’s just not the kind of thing the agency would have tracked in ’61 or ’62.”
“We do, however, have some examples of other letters and public statements by NASA officials that suggest in the early 1960s the guidelines and requirements for astronauts would have likely precluded women,” he added, “although they were not gender specific.”
One sample letter that was retained, in 1966, followed that format. Written to a girl in Michigan who wanted to become a space veterinarian, the letter from William O’Donnell referenced a “list of prerequisites” to provided guidance for her selection of school subjects. The letter also advised her that by the time she became old enough to formally apply, the list “may have changed substantially.” It did not say she would never be picked because she was female.
Clearly the letter was written as an encouragement to the girl, not a flat rejection that she shouldn’t even bother thinking about applying because she was female. The fact that she was a girl never came up in the letter, and actually the tone was sympathetic and supportive.
Jacobs also sent a copy of a 1962 letter to a young male college student. It made the point that “in the foreseeable future, flight crews for manned space flight missions will consist of scientific personnel with aircraft flight experience. We feel that aircraft flight experience is mandatory because all crew members must be capable of performing emergency escape, navigation, reentry, and landing maneuvers.”
“Neither of these letters hints that gender was a NASA astronaut selection criteria,” Jacobs noted.
A third letter, written by chief astronaut “Deke” Slayton in 1970 to an 18-year-old girl who actually would become an astronaut, was also far from discouraging. “I do not envision needing additional astronauts for a number of years,” Slayton wrote (and, in fact, the next selection did not occur until 1978, and did include women.) “The exact time when we would seriously consider women is indefinite, but I am sure it is inevitable,” he wrote, and added that when the next selection was announced, “if you meet the criteria you should apply at that time.”
Without any documentation of the claimed 1962-era NASA “no girls” letter, how likely could it be that it ever existed? Or is it a run-of-the-mill political construct to seek sympathy for prejudicial treatment?
The letters that Jacobs did provide show a consistent message. While they made clear that women were not being admitted to the current astronaut corps in the 1960s, young women who wrote were being encouraged to pursue studies to prepare them for applying later, when they were old enough, and when standards were expected to have changed.
|The range of stupid and thoughtless comments that government public affairs workers can make is pretty unlimited, so there’s no way to verify that one of them could not have written such a slap-in-the-face letter.|
For the first two “scientist-astronaut” classes, in 1965 and 1967, gender was not a criterion, but all selectees were informed they would be expected to complete the US Air Force jet pilot school. Although some women did submit applications, the pre-screening by the National Academy of Sciences left none of their names on the shortlists forwarded to NASA for final consideration. Had any been picked, NASA and the USAF would have had to work out the issue of jet pilot training, since women would not be admitted to the regular program until 1976.
But for women in the 1960s of Hillary Rodham’s age, that wasn’t an issue. They still had a decade or more of growing up to do—and so did the military flight schools. And both matured nearly simultaneously in the years after the last Apollo-era astronaut class in 1969.
The women accepted in NASA’s next astronaut class, 1978, had been born between 1943 and 1951. Their average birthdate was just a year later than Clinton’s birthday (October 26, 1947.) Had Clinton, as a young girl, set her career goal on being an astronaut, by the time she got old enough—and the Space Shuttle program made previous constraints obsolete—she would have been completely able to compete on a level playing field against all the men and against the dozens of women, including Ride, who wanted to go into space. This was what NASA officials expected at the time of her letter, and this, as these letters show, was what they were telling young women writing to them about becoming astronauts.
The range of stupid and thoughtless comments that government public affairs workers can make is pretty unlimited, so there’s no way to verify that one of them could not have written such a slap-in-the-face letter. But the spotty record now available strongly suggests that if any of them had, it would have been out of step with standard NASA advice even in the early 1960s.
It’s also possible there was such a letter and it was ambiguous and misremembered. “No girls allowed” might have reflected the same thought in one of the remaining letters, that children would not be accepted.
Another piece of evidence related to the existence of such a NASA letter is in negative form. With thousands of people writing to NASA about becoming astronauts in the 1961–2 period, and presumably many of them being females, not one other written example of an official “we-don't-take-girls” put-down response has ever surfaced, to the best of my knowledge and that of other space historians with whom I’ve conferred.
It's not just a question of nobody, forty years later, recalling getting such a letter and then, long afterwards, going public with corroboration of Clinton’s highly-publicized story. The issue of women as astronauts was a hot topic in the American news media at the time (1962–3, especially after Tereshkova's flight), with major newspaper and magazine coverage of medical screenings and of Congressional hearings. NASA was being lambasted for not taking women into the current astronaut corps.
|Perhaps the tale of the NASA “no-girls-need-apply” letter is also only a relic of the political passions of the last century, and can now be quietly left to fade into the fog of history and myth.|
It defies the imagination—at least, my imagination—to require that dozens or more of we-don’t-take-girls letters (assuming that such was the standard NASA response) were out there in the hands of disappointed and angry young aspiring female space fliers, and not a single one of these misogynistic missives got into the hands of some journalist or campaigner or politician to fuel the ongoing public debate and embarrass NASA. Yet in all the public debate, which I personally followed as a teenager and then more recently researched in hindsight in archives, both hardcopy and Internet, did I come across any “smoking gun” of NASA’s proclaiming girls should not dream of flying in space.
Instead, the official advisories seemed to describe current selection standards as they existed for current reasons, that were subject to change as technology evolved, And had Sally Ride (or any of her fellow female candidates) written such an inquiry to NASA in that period, the answer would not have been “no” but “not yet,” along with advice, “do what you can to prepare yourself for that time.” And many of them did exactly that.
Whatever young women were being told in such letters, the realities were catching up with their aspirations. The US was moving towards genuine gender neutrality in astronaut selection, even as Russia—trapped in its gimmicky lone-stunt approach—has even now failed to reach it.
The degree to which the US has led the way to a new reality of space access is remarkable, compared to the abysmal Russian propaganda approach. Perhaps the tale of the NASA “no-girls-need-apply” letter is also only a relic of the political passions of the last century, and can now be quietly left to fade into the fog of history and myth.