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 ready in the approaching weeks to be the primary Chinese lady to stroll in area as China’s area 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 in regards to the kids of her two male colleagues.)

Shortly earlier than the launch, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, let or not it’s recognized {that a} cargo capsule had equipped the orbiting area station with sanitary napkins and cosmetics.

“Female astronauts may be in better condition after putting on makeup,” he mentioned 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 mentioned that “women hold up half the sky,” and the article of an undercurrent of sexism and condescension that programs by Chinese society, enterprise and politics.

The 25-member Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, the nation’s ruling political physique, consists of 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 grow to be 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,” mentioned 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 right this moment, it’s uncommon for girls exterior the entertainment industry to succeed in such public prominence as Colonel Wang.

When they do handle to interrupt limitations, their accomplishments are sometimes considered by the prism of gender.

Colonel Wang’s mission has been handled in official statements and state media as a novelty, despite the fact that China despatched its first girls into area almost a decade in the past. The Soviet Union despatched the primary lady into orbit in 1963: Valentina Tereshkova, who spent three days in area 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 supposed to put on a bra in orbit. “It’s too bad our society isn’t further along,” she mentioned then.

In a brief tv report exhibiting her coaching for the upcoming spacewalk, Colonel Wang exuded comparable confidence, saying she hoped the mission aboard the brand new area station, referred to 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 mentioned. “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 army 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 area station. A 12 months later, Colonel Wang received her likelihood, using aboard Shenzhou 10.

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

Back then, area administration officers brazenly questioned the viability of ladies on area 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 area company introduced the brand new pool of 18 astronauts for the missions to Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace.

NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts, against this, 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 girls. 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 area aboard Shenzhou 7, and Col. Ye Guangfu, who’s making his first journey to area. She is scheduled to conduct a spacewalk in the course of 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, prompt in an interview with state media that “the match between men and women is good for solving many psychological problems” that would come up throughout “longer spaceflight in the future.”

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

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

In extremely scripted appearances in state media, Colonel Wang has expressed satisfaction in her accomplishments because the second Chinese lady in area, 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 amassed 1,600 flight hours earlier than being chosen as a taikonaut, because the Chinese name astronauts.

While in area in 2013, she performed a lesson in the physics of area for schoolchildren in an auditorium; it t was streamed to 60 million college students. She mentioned then that she hoped it will encourage others to intention excessive, but it additionally slotted her into an archetypally gendered function 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 durations, as a substitute of her accomplishments.

“It is as if women can’t live their life without cosmetics and skin care,” one consumer wrote underneath a information report in regards to 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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