WHAT WILL IT mean for a woman to set foot on the Moon, a world whose human landscape has so far been shaped largely by men? In the twentieth century, twelve men became moonwalkers, their footprints tenuous trace-fossils pressed into the soft, fine lunar dust. One of the most reproduced images from the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 is a single boot print created by Buzz Aldrin showing the striped ridges of the sole: the mark of ‘mankind’ on another world.
Surely the first footprint of a woman will become a similarly celebrated icon, but of the twenty-first century this time. I imagine so many emotions swirling through her head: excitement, fear, pride, the intensity of being inside her own body at that moment. The male crew will have been instructed to let her go first, a space-age variation of the old chivalry where men opened doors for (some) women in deference to their imagined fragility.
She’ll represent all womankind. The Apollo 11 astronauts claimed their mission on behalf of all ‘mankind’, but we know what this really meant. Over millennia and in diverse cultures, men have been the standard of humanity. ‘Mankind’ did not always include women, who were excluded from public life, politics and education in Christian northern hemisphere cultures, their minds supposedly overwhelmed by their leaking, bleeding, bifurcating bodies, governed by the instability of the Moon.
The first woman on the Moon will have to think carefully about her first words, as they will resonate for generations into the future. Neil Armstrong chose his famous ‘one giant leap’ line himself; but in this case, knowing what’s at stake, there’s bound to be a committee who gives this long and considered thought. Social media will repeat her words and circulate her image endlessly, so little will be left to chance.
I imagine her standing there, still for a few moments before she carefully places her second foot beside the first. The rest of the crew will be tasked with taking photographs of her and there will be a camera rolling, sending a live transmission back to Earth. After the thrill of the Apollo 11 astronauts’ first steps, watched by 600 million people around the world, audiences declined with each of the following five missions to the surface. What size audience will she draw, this first woman, this new Eve? There are nearly four billion women on Earth – will they all watch, downlinking the images from the tens of thousands of satellites in the megaconstellations surrounding Earth? Will their fathers, brothers, partners and sons watch too – or will they dismiss this historic moment? This was the case for Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to leave Earth in 1963. Six years before ‘man’ went to the Moon, Tereshkova performed what is still today the only solo space mission by a woman, when she orbited Earth forty-eight times over three days – yet even now there are many from both sides of the former Iron Curtain eager to denigrate her achievement as a ‘stunt’.
The grey dust will sink beneath her weight as she steps forward to stride out of the shadow of the lander and stand in the light of the lunar dawn. A lunar day is two weeks long, and temperatures can reach nearly 130 degrees Celsius as noon approaches; but early in the day, the surface hasn’t yet had time to heat up. In any case, she is cocooned in multiple protective layers, like a larva or an ancient Egyptian mummy. She can’t see, touch, taste or hear the Moon except through the prosthetic interface of this suit.
In one-sixth Earth gravity, her body will be lighter. On Earth, men are often associated with ‘gravitas’, whereas women are frequently dismissed as less serious, more flighty. This is until they become ‘gravid’, weighed down and rooted to Earth by child. Menstrual cycles have long been linked culturally to the waxing and waning of the Moon, but seen from the lunar surface, it is Earth that becomes the fickle and changeable one. The social meanings of these natural phenomena depend so much on perspective.
But she is a scientist, and there is work to be done. Soon the wonder of those first lunar moments will be eclipsed by setting up experiments, taking samples, operating robots, and the more mundane work of maintaining her own body with food, sleep and hygiene in this alien environment. As the hours and days go by, she’ll look at the pitch-black sky and then back at Earth, marvelling that she alone of all womankind has left it behind to become interplanetary, walking under the full, unmediated light of the stars.
AS PART OF its new Artemis human spaceflight program, the US has proclaimed that it will send the first woman to the Moon by 2024. During the Apollo era in the 1960s, space was not intended for women. The Outer Space Treaty, opened in 1967 to ensure that neither the US nor the USSR gained dominance over this newly accessible possibility, declares that space is the ‘province of all mankind [sic]’. Despite this, the Apollo astronauts blithely made comments about women’s role in space only as the providers of sexual services. In the space world, it’s widely acknowledged that women’s turn has finally come, and astronaut hopeful Wally Funk – denied entry to NASA’s Mercury training program in the 1960s along with thirteen other women – at last got her chance in space on a Blue Origin suborbital flight in 2021.
Our lunarnaut has to do more than just be the first. She will be the vanguard for the women who come after and her every word and action will become significant. When she returns, she’ll be a hero – a heroine – and a media sensation. Will she get different questions from her male counterparts? How do you balance work and family? Who was looking after your children? Why don’t you have any children? Or perhaps she will return to a household where she is still the principal manager with the greatest responsibility for domestic affairs. How will that feel, I wonder? Her moonwalker status will not protect her from the daily threats of gendered violence and harassment that affect more than a third of all women on the planet below.
OF COURSE, WOMEN have walked the Moon many times before in fiction. In 1928, the German writer Thea von Harbou published a novel called Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). Her husband Fritz Lang adapted it into a film, just as he had with her 1925 novel Metropolis. There were no expectations that Friede, the woman in question, would say something profound when taking the first step on lunar soil: in any case, this was a silent film. Friede, in her lunar attire of knickerbockers and tie, is engaged in conversation with her crewmates when they first venture out of the rocket named after her; and none of them makes a grand statement to mark the moment. At the story’s end, she does not return to Earth, choosing to stay behind with her beloved; together they become the actual old woman and man in the Moon of Earthly mythology. Who knows what her last words on the Moon might have been?
In the next decade, the Second World War became the catalyst for Germany’s development of the first rocket capable of making it into space. The universe lay waiting while Cold War scientists worked on spacecraft to leave the planet. In 1953, on the cusp of the Space Age, the classic B-grade science-fiction film Cat-Women of the Moon depicted an all-female lunar population. The ‘cat-women’, in slinky black bodysuits, are so-called by a male astronaut recently arrived from Earth because he doesn’t trust them. They’re descended from humans who travelled to the Moon two million years earlier, before the Moon’s fictional thin atmosphere gradually dissipated into space. In order to preserve their habitat, the women had to reduce the number of people breathing. The story implies this was accomplished by male genocide. ‘We have no use for men,’ says cat-woman Beta scornfully. The arrival of the astronauts has disastrous consequences for this small enclave: all the lead cat-women end up dead.
This film is credited with pioneering the cinematic genre of female-only communities in space, further explored in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956), Queen of Outer Space (1958) and ‘Planet of the Amazon Women’, a 1979 episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. As is not hard to guess, the purpose of these planets was very far from exploring new worlds of equality beyond Earth – or critiquing the current state of gender relations on this planet. Only certain kinds of women got to be in space: inevitably, they were young, beautiful and white. These female-populated worlds were largely comedic devices that highlighted the absurdity of female authority. And all the women were eventually conquered by the love of men, succumbing to their hearts rather than holding on to their power.
In European thinking of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only the most ‘primitive’ societies were matriarchal. Using accounts of different Indigenous practices, theorists argued that the biological role of fathers in pregnancy was not understood in the earliest stage of human evolution. Only the mother could be identified with certainty as the biological parent. Hence descent was reckoned through the female line, giving women a power base and leading to the worship of the ‘mother goddess’. In this account of human social evolution, ancient hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists transitioned into ‘civilised’ urban state societies when men took over. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels called this ‘the world-historic defeat of the female sex’.
This change from matrilineal to patrilineal descent also meant a shift to monogamy, as that was the only way paternity could be guaranteed. As one historian of anthropology, Cynthia Eller, explains, this theory saw human history as ‘a staged evolutionary process moving from an unsavory, irreligious promiscuity toward the twin beacons of monogamy and monotheism that Christian European culture, at its best, was taken to represent’. One of the main proponents of this theory, Herbert Spencer – English philosopher and champion of social Darwinism – held that the inherent promiscuity of matriarchal societies made government impossible. Male anthropologists were clear that this was an evolutionary stage that humanity had to discard in order to attain civilisation. Their conclusions, drawn from ethnographies and reports compiled by colonial administrators, were about the lives of Indigenous women whose own knowledges and opinions were rarely sought directly. Thus, the societies of First Nations North Americans observed by Lewis Henry Morgan and discussed in his 1877 book Ancient Society – societies in which women held high degrees of power – were not seen as enlightened examples to be emulated: the power of women merely reinforced their status as ‘primitive’. It’s salutary to recall that that during this period, white women governed by the European and North American colonial powers faced severe opposition to the granting of voting rights as fully adult human beings within democratic states; in most nations they had to wait until the twentieth century. Confronted with the juggernaut of Christian misogyny, Indigenous female-centred political structures struggled to survive.
And despite the flurry of interest in matriarchies by Victorian anthropologists, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of any society – past or present – where men were subjugated by women in the reverse of traditional patriarchy. Nor were any of the science-fiction societies true matriarchies in this sense; men were not portrayed as subordinate to women because there were no men. The arrival of male astronauts from Earth frequently returns a proper order to their system of government.
THIS BRINGS ME to a confluence of two hot topics in the international space community: increasing the participation of women in space, and the governance of any future off-world settlements. The former is being addressed through initiatives such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs’ (UNOOSA) Space4Women program and the International Astronautical Federation’s mantra of ‘Generation, Geography, Gender’, which recognises that the dominance of old white men cannot last. Despite Simonetta Di Pippo’s leadership of UNOOSA, there are not enough women at the table in discussions of outer space governance. The paucity of women from the so-called ‘non-spacefaring nations’ – which map fairly neatly onto the colonial geopolitics of the ‘third’ or ‘developing’ world – is even more glaring. Overwhelmingly, the people at the forefront of decision-making about space futures are ‘first-world’ male engineers, politicians, lawyers and military personnel.
In the heyday of the European colonial era, men who were lauded as ‘explorers’ would sail or march to ‘virgin’ territory and insert a flag in the soil as a symbol of claiming the land for their nation-state. This theatrical moment, so often portrayed in paintings, films and parodies, was seen as the advent of civilisation for ‘savages’ whose humanity was of so little account that their lands were held to be unoccupied. This colonial gesture was re-enacted when the Apollo 11 mission placed a specially designed low-gravity US flag on the surface of the Moon in 1969. The symbolism was indubitable, but the legal consequences of that gesture were very different. The Outer Space Treaty, which had come into force just two years previously, forbids territorial claims in space, so there can be no sovereignty as the basis of government outside Earth. In the 1960s race to space, it was thought that the Moon would become communist if the Russians got there first. Now, the US having ‘won’, must we assume that the tenor of future space settlement will be capitalist?
Despite the disastrous geopolitical example of Earth, there is a strong current in the modern space industry that believes space can still be somewhere we can leave the conflicts and environmental degradation of Earth behind and begin anew. How we get from this A to that B is a grey area – and an opportunity for women to reshape the discourse – that occupies numerous organisations, working groups and academics. Science fiction has always erred on the side of dystopian societies in space, but the general feeling in the international space community remains one of hope. Space is offered up less, perhaps, as a potential utopia and more as a source of redemption for the sins of Earth.
But running counter to this narrative is the brave new world called Space 4.0, named in the tradition of successively upgraded versions of computer software. According to this phasing, most of human existence has occupied Space 1.0, studying the heavens from afar. In the last seventy years, we’ve rapidly moved through Space 2.0 (the space race) and 3.0 (international co-operation beyond Earth) to arrive at this point, right here, right now, when private corporations are starting to drive space exploration instead of government agencies. This is Space 4.0.
Those consecutive numbers make such a progression seem inevitable and almost predestined – just as the nineteenth-century anthropologists viewed humanity’s ‘progression’ through stages from ‘savagery’ through ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilisation’. At its best, the Space 4.0 narrative supports freedom of access to space for all, as it is ‘opened up’ by bold entrepreneurs. At its worst, it presages the kind of economy where indentured labour produces goods for markets on the Moon and Mars, and to feed the rapacious maws of new space billionaires.
Many of the promoters of this vision proselytise with an almost mystic fervour. As American aerospace engineer and Mars advocate Robert Zubrin has expressed it, colonising space is
a part that 4 billion years of evolution has prepared us to play. Humans are the stewards and carriers of terrestrial life, and as we spread out, first to Mars, and then to the nearby stars, we must and shall bring life to many worlds, and many worlds to life. It would be unnatural for us not to.
In this thinking, cleaving to Earth is condemned as a kind of cosmic onanism. Zubrin and his followers are focused on the idea of humanity as a ‘species’ almost without moral agency, echoed by Elon Musk’s call for humans to become a ‘multiplanetary species’.
As it stands, women are very poorly situated to be part of either vision. More than fifty years after Tereshkova’s spaceflight, only 11.5 per cent of the 570-odd people who have travelled to space have been women – with most of these from the US and Russia. It was only in 2021 that a microgravity space toilet designed with the needs of female crew in mind was installed in the International Space Station. There were not enough medium-sized spacesuits for two women to be outside at the same time in a 2019 spacewalk, and there have been fewer studies of the impacts of different gravity and radiation environments on women’s bodies. Until 2021, NASA set different gender standards for astronaut exposure to radiation: the limit defined for women was less than half that afforded to men. Female astronauts successfully challenged this as discrimination that held their careers back, as they were prevented from clocking up as many space miles as their male colleagues. Through these structural inequities, and more, men have enjoyed massive head starts in terms of accessing space. This has created a gap that, good intentions aside, will take significant work to close.
Gender bias is not only significant among the elite few who have travelled to space. Women’s participation across the entire space industry is low – it runs at about 20 per cent in Australia, for example. As the global space economy grows, there are many levels of policy and decision-making proceeding without equal input from women. At the international level, the United Nations administers several treaties dealing with human conduct in space. Other key organisations include the International Telecommunication Union, which regulates the all-important allocation of spectrum – which frequencies can be used for communication by whom and for what purposes – and the Committee on Space Research, which is responsible for the Planetary Protection Policy to prevent the contamination of other celestial bodies with terrestrial biological materials. Then there is the level of decision-making about space that operates through nation-states. National legislation and regulations control licensing conditions for the launch of rockets and satellites and for local spectrum allocation and, in some cases, cover the extraction of mineral resources from planets, moons and asteroids.
The four billion women of Earth are not well represented in any of these processes – but then, even the growth of numbers of women in government is sluggish. Figures released by UN Women in 2021 show that globally, the participation of women in national parliaments is barely over a quarter. Around 6 per cent of heads of governments or states are women. They hold about one fifth of ministerial portfolios, and these are most likely to be for the environment or social affairs, including gender equality, although the number of women with defence portfolios has recently increased to 13.5 per cent. This is a critical point, as much of the space industry is driven by defence. It’s also significant that environment is the top portfolio awarded to women. At a time when climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing Earth, numerous studies have shown that men perceive an interest in environmental sustainability to be feminising. It’s simply not manly to want to save the planet – a situation that could have alarming consequences, both on and off Earth.
While it’s unlikely that there will be permanent outposts of people living on the Moon and Mars in less than two decades, the political and social structures needed to underpin this endeavour are already the subject of lively debate. One question explores the balance between regulation from Earth and the emergence of an independent planetary governance as settlement expands. On what political model would this be based? As private enterprise is increasingly seen as the way forward by the US and the signatories to their Artemis Accords – the commitments signed by nations taking part in the Artemis program – it seems likely that a capitalist model will become the default for populations originating from liberal democracies.
Partly because of the optimistic and sometimes utopian bent in space thinking, it’s rare for the question of women’s role in space governance structures to be considered explicitly. The players in these scenarios are anonymised and featureless individuals, and are hence read as the default male. The approach is very much ‘add women and stir’. It’s necessary, therefore, to interrogate the patriarchal foundations of new space cultures. Classic Western patriarchy may not be a universal characteristic of human societies, but it certainly is for the spacefaring nations of Europe and North America. In the words of Marcelle Maese-Cohen, gender theorist and scholar of decolonial feminist thought, there is a need for ‘planetary decolonial feminisms through theories of intersectionality that attempt to undo the colonial categories of race, class and gender’. She is writing about Earth, but this observation applies equally to all planets. It raises the question of whether our ambitions are too narrow. New societies in space should neither reflect Earth nor leave it behind; they can provide a paradigm to reshape the structural inequalities so entrenched on this planet.
Political theorist Carole Pateman’s research has demonstrated the ways that gender inequality is baked into the institutions of liberal Western democracies that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at the same time as the capitalist market economies that now underpin Space 4.0. The philosophical foundations of Western-style democracy are drawn from the work of social contract theorists such as Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes, who argued that individuals were born free and equal. A charming idea; but it did not include women, whose disordered minds were a threat to the social contracts that enabled the state to function. Pateman argues that liberal Western democracies are premised on the subjugation of women and that these institutions cannot simply be enlarged slightly to include them. The edifice needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.
In space, political structures are inseparable from technology. Historically, men have used the perceived disorder of women’s unevolved bodies to prevent them from engaging with new technologies, particularly those that allowed free movement outside the domestic sphere. Once upon a time, this meant bicycles and cars were suspected of threatening to overthrow the social order by unleashing women; then it was balloons, trains and aeroplanes; now it is spacecraft. Speed and movement compromise fertility; women’s weak bodies were held incapable of withstanding G-forces. We see this male unease with women and high technology manifested in so many ways in space. US astronaut Rhea Seddon revealed that male NASA engineers working on the Space Shuttle in the 1980s believed that female urine had a higher mucus content than male and would clog the toilet, a fear based neither on science nor experience but instead on a horror of sexualised female bodies coming into contact with technology. In this way, a form of the ‘urinary leash’ – which restricted women’s movement in public spaces in Victorian England through the lack of public toilets – could still exist, it seems, in space.
If women had to break out of the ‘separate spheres’ ideology in order to get into space, the value of labour remains a critical issue for the future of space populations. As many feminist labour historians have pointed out, economic measures commonly used by industrial capitalist nations fail to factor in women’s work, regarding it as a biological expression forged in the deep Palaeolithic past rather than as a patriarchal construct. The kind of labour women have traditionally and typically provided – care of the young, the aged, the infirm; the emotional work of keeping people happy; the daily project management of family education, health, sustenance and hygiene – will be crucial to community wellbeing in space. This work must be made visible and recognised as a ‘human factor’ in survival. But in space, women can no longer work for free because nothing will be free.
On Earth, water and the atmosphere are global commons that are, in theory, available to all. Until the current climate crisis, they were often viewed as unlimited and renewable resources. Now, there is a movement to quantify and make visible the economic contributions of environmental commons to highlight sustainable practices – and maybe begin to make reparations. When return to Earth is not an option, none of the resources necessary to sustain life can be treated as invisible or outside the economy. Breathable atmosphere, water, nutrition: all will be extracted for a cost by technological interventions, and their viability to support a population will have to be carefully curated. In worlds without the markers of economic status we understand now – such as luxury goods – power hierarchies may be enacted by controlling access to more basic requirements for life. Such scarcity will have social implications – although hopefully none as extreme as in Cat-Women of the Moon, where diminishing supply of atmosphere had led to the genocide of men.
BACK ON THE lunar surface, our first female moonwalker is preparing to leave. The crescent of the new Earth hangs in the sky, most of its face in shadow. The blackness of deep space cradles its curve like an almond in its shell. On that vivid blue-and-white sliver lives almost everyone she has ever known and loved. She looks over the rim of a crater where her team has searched to find additional evidence of the Moon’s tenuous water cycles. The samples are stowed, ready to be taken to the orbiting lunar space station and thence to the laboratories of Earth for analysis. Her tracks cover the ground around the spacecraft, where her fellow crew members wait, giving her the opportunity to be the last to stand on the Moon’s surface too – for this mission at least.
Imprinted in her tracks will be the logo of the company that built her spacesuit. But that doesn’t matter; her footprints will be blown away as the ascending spacecraft’s rockets blast fine dust over everything they have left behind. Future archaeologists will likely assess the cultural significance of her footprints as the beginning of a new era in space; but which values it will embrace still hang in the balance.
Our lunarnaut begins to speak through her intercom, hesitates, and turns away. She walks to the spacecraft in silence.
Brough, Aaron R., James E. B. Wilkie, Jingjing Ma, Mathew S. Isaac and David Gal 2016 Is eco-friendly unmanly? The green-feminine stereotype and its effect on sustainable consumption. Journal of Consumer Research 43(4): 567 582, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucw044
Eller, Cynthia 2005 The feminist appropriation of matriarchal myth in the 19th and 20th centuries. History Compass 3:1-10
Foster, Amy E. 2011 Integrating women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and logistics at NASA, 1972–2004. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Maese-Cohen, Marcelle 2010 Towards planetary decolonial feminisms. Qui Parle 18(2):3-27
Pateman, Carol 1989 The disorder of women. Cambridge: Polity Press
Zubrin, R. 2019 Why we Earthlings should colonize Mars!. Theology and Science 17(3):305-316.
UN Women 2021 Women in politics: New data shows growth but also setbacks. Wednesday, March 10 https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2021/3/press-release-women-in-politics-new-data-shows-growth-but-also-setbacks