Wednesday, 25 January 2012

One giant leap for language?

I just learned about the Mercury 13 – the thirteen women who underwent the same rigorous space training as their male counterparts of Mercury 7 but whom history has (surprise, surprise) all but forgotten. But let us imagine for a moment that these women had been successful and gone on to travel into space, as Dr W. Randolph Lovelace announced on the 19th August 1960 they well might: “[w]e are already in a position to say that certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to those of her male colleague” (Ryan, Loeppky and Kilgore 2009, 160), what would their achievement have meant for (the language concerning) humankind?

Looking at the Apollo 11 mission in particular: from phrases such as “the first manned Moon landing” (BBC 2012), over to the inscription of President Nixon’s plaque: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind” (BBC 2012) to Armstrong’s famous words, language constantly reasserts the dominant role of ‘man’. But what if ‘woman’ had first landed on the moon? Would we now be speaking of ‘womanned space shuttles’, remember the ‘first women who came in peace for all womankind’ and eternally repeat that one scripted sentence: ‘one small step for (a) woman, one giant leap for womankind’?

Unlikely, at least in the context of the historical position of ‘woman’, but we might not be quite as stuck with the linguistic (and conceptual) rule of ‘man’. In fact, we might now be thinking of the moon landing as not only a feat of ‘mankind’, but the whole of humanity. And (the possibility of) ‘a giant leap for humankind’, could have in turn resulted in a giant leap for language. But despite the women’s superior physical aptness, “due to their lower body weights and oxygen requirements” (Ryan, Loeppky and Kilgore 2009, 157), and mental endurance capabilities, ‘man’ was the (only) chosen human. ‘One giant leap of faith’ seemed once more enough to stake his claim to moon and language...


Kathy L. Ryan, Jack A. Loeppky and Donald E. Kilgore. 2009. A forgotten moment in physiology: the Lovelace Woman in Space Program (1960 –1962). Advances in Physiology Education 33: 157-164.

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