She Is Breaking Glass Ceilings in Space, but Facing Sexism on Earth

Col. Wang Yaping is a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force. She is an area veteran, now making her second journey into orbit. She is about in the approaching weeks to be the primary Chinese lady to stroll in house as China’s house station glides round Earth at 17,100 miles per hour.

And but, as she started a six-month mission final week on the core of China’s ambitious space program, official and information media consideration fixated as a lot on the comparative physiology of women and men, menstruation cycles, and the 5-year-old daughter she has left behind, as they did on her accomplishments. (No one requested concerning the kids of her two male colleagues.)

Shortly earlier than the launch, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, let it’s identified {that a} cargo capsule had equipped the orbiting house station with sanitary napkins and cosmetics.

“Female astronauts may be in better condition after putting on makeup,” he stated in remarks proven on CCTV, the state tv community.

At 41, Colonel Wang is a mannequin of gender equality in a rustic the place Mao Zedong famously stated that “women hold up half the sky,” and the thing of an undercurrent of sexism and condescension that programs by way of Chinese society, enterprise and politics.

The 25-member Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, the nation’s ruling political physique, contains just one lady, Sun Chunlan. Discrimination stays rampant in the workplace, the place lady are recruited for their looks and dismissed or demoted after they turn into pregnant.

A nascent #MeToo motion in China has confronted pushback in the courts and from state censors on-line. A Chinese gold medalist in the shot put on the Tokyo Olympics in August was harangued on air for her “masculine” look, in addition to her plans for marriage and household.

“A major power like China gives women the chance to go to space,” stated Lu Pin, an activist who based an internet discussion board in China, Feminist Voices, that has since been purged from the web by the authorities. “On the other hand, it still tells everyone that, even if you are a woman who has become an astronaut, you still have to play a traditional female role.”

In China in the present day, it’s uncommon for girls outdoors the entertainment industry to succeed in such public prominence as Colonel Wang.

When they do handle to interrupt obstacles, their accomplishments are sometimes seen by way of the prism of gender.

Colonel Wang’s mission has been handled in official statements and state media as a novelty, regardless that China despatched its first ladies into house almost a decade in the past. The Soviet Union despatched the primary lady into orbit in 1963: Valentina Tereshkova, who spent three days in house and stays the one lady to fly solo. The first American lady, Sally Ride, went up in 1983.

The response in China echoes what these earlier trailblazers confronted. Dr. Ride fielded condescending questions about menstruation, motherhood and whether or not she meant to put on a bra in orbit. “It’s too bad our society isn’t further along,” she stated then.

In a brief tv report displaying her coaching for the upcoming spacewalk, Colonel Wang exuded comparable confidence, saying she hoped the mission aboard the brand new house station, known as Tiangong, could be “more brilliant because of me.” She additionally hinted on the hurdles she needed to overcome.

“For me, being an astronaut is not a profession, but a career, and it is such a career that I have an ardent love for,” she stated. “This love is enough for me to overcome all difficulties, to overcome all barriers and even to sacrifice my own life.”

Colonel Wang was a backup on the mission in 2012 that carried the first Chinese woman in space, Col. Liu Yang, one other navy pilot. Colonel Liu was a part of a crew aboard the spacecraft Shenzhou 9, which spent 20 days in orbit, docking with a prototype of the present house station. A yr later, Colonel Wang obtained her likelihood, driving aboard Shenzhou 10.

Colonels Wang and Liu had been among the many first 10 ladies chosen for China’s astronaut-training program in half as a result of they had been already married — on the idea that house journey might adversely have an effect on their fertility and that “married women would be more physically and psychologically mature,” in keeping with statements by officers on the time.

Back then, house administration officers overtly questioned the viability of girls on house missions.

“This is our first attempt to send a female astronaut into space; it will pose problems for the team’s mental compatibility, ” Wu Bin, then the director of the astronaut heart on the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, said on the time. “They will be asked to work as a team during training, and we will observe and evaluate how well they cope with each other.”

Years later, in 2020, Colonel Wang was the one lady chosen when the house company introduced the brand new pool of 18 astronauts for the missions to Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace.

NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts, in contrast, was the primary with an equal number of women and men. That is to not say that NASA has eradicated its personal subtle gender biases. In 2019, it needed to postpone the first all-female spacewalk on the International Space Station as a result of it didn’t have spacesuits that match each ladies. The operation lastly happened seven months later.

Colonel Wang has been formally lauded, alongside along with her two crewmates: the mission commander, Maj. Gen. Zhai Zhigang, who traveled into house aboard Shenzhou 7, and Col. Ye Guangfu, who’s making his first journey to house. She is scheduled to conduct a spacewalk through the mission.

Even so, her mission has prompted awkward feedback from officers and sneering on-line. Yang Yuguang, a researcher on the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, recommended in an interview with state media that “the match between men and women is good for solving many psychological problems” that might come up throughout “longer spaceflight in the future.”

Online debates have erupted over whether or not ladies and men are match for a similar bodily duties, together with an arduous spacewalk.

“Most girls cannot do hard work or sweaty labor,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s model of Twitter. “Women must face up to this characteristic of their gender.” Others recommended she ought to have lower her hair earlier than the mission started or puzzled how she would wash it.

In extremely scripted appearances in state media, Colonel Wang has expressed pleasure in her accomplishments because the second Chinese lady in house, and the primary to go twice.

Colonel Wang grew up in Yantai, a port metropolis on the Yellow Sea. After graduating from highschool in 1997, she attended the Air Force Aviation University in Changchun, which is in the northeastern province of Jilin. As an Air Force pilot, she gathered 1,600 flight hours earlier than being chosen as a taikonaut, because the Chinese name astronauts.

While in house in 2013, she performed a lesson in the physics of house for schoolchildren in an auditorium; it was streamed to 60 million college students. She stated then that she hoped it might encourage others to purpose excessive, but it additionally slotted her into an archetypally gendered position as a “space teacher.” She is predicted to carry a category once more this time.

Some commentators on-line rebuked the fixation on her look, her make-up and her intervals, as an alternative of her accomplishments.

“It is as if women can’t live their life without cosmetics and skin care,” one person wrote underneath a information report concerning the provide mission to Tiangong. “This has already blurred the essence of Wang Yaping as a hero.”

Claire Fu and Joy Dong contributed analysis.

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