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Emily LakdawallaNovember 13, 2012

Carl Sagan: "If membership is restricted to men, the loss will be ours."

When Casey invited me to participate in last Friday's "Sagan Slam," I wasn't sure what I would read. I consider Carl Sagan to be among many people who inspired me to want to tell the world about science and space, but am a little uncomfortable with what seems to me to be a tendency to ascribe sainthood to him (or to any other human).

While I was reading my news feeds Friday morning it occurred to me to ask the question: what were his opinions on feminism? And my searches led to this letter, on the terrific "Letters of Note" website. Sagan wrote the letter, in 1981, to convince the leadership of the hitherto all-male Explorers Club to begin admitting women to its ranks. I read the whole thing at the Slam; follow the link to read it for yourself. Here is an excerpt:

When our organization was formed in 1905, men were preventing women from voting and from pursuing many occupations for which they are clearly suited. In the popular mind, exploration was not what women did. Even so, women had played a significant but unheralded role in the history of exploration....

Today women are making extraordinary contributions in areas of fundamental interest to our organization. There are several women astronauts. The earliest footprints -- 3.6 million years old -- made by a member of the human family have been found in a volcanic ash flow in Tanzania by Mary Leakey. Trailblazing studies of the behavior of primates in the wild have been performed by dozens of young women, each spending years with a different primate species. Jane Goodall's studies of the chimpanzee are the best known of the investigations which illuminate human origins. The undersea depth record is held by Sylvia Earle. The solar wind was first measured in situ by Marcia Neugebauer, using the Mariner 2 spacecraft. The first active volcanos beyond the Earth were discovered on the Jovian moon Io by Linda Morabito, using the Voyager 1 spacecraft. These examples of modern exploration and discovery could be multiplied a hundredfold. They are of true historical significance. If membership in The Explorers Club is restricted to men, the loss will be ours; we will only be depriving ourselves....

(The Explorers Club did, in fact, begin admitting women later that year.)

Earlier in the evening, at our Sagan Day event, I had spoken about how Carl Sagan was one of many television scientists whose nightly appearance in my living room educated me and opened my eyes to Nature's wonders and the thrill of discovering them. Him and David Attenborough, Philip Morrison, James Burke, Jacques Cousteau, and Don Herbert. All men. Which was never a particular problem for me, except that I felt that I needed to be "one of the boys" in order to participate in these pursuits. I was even taught, in college, that the talents that I possess that allow me to work alongside the men in scientific research were "masculine" ones.

Thanks to letters like this one -- there must be many other examples, written by many other leaders, since the 1960s -- there are, now, lots more women in science, and you can see that you don't have to renounce the feminine in order to work in a technological field. Girls can do good science -- even while wearing a skirt! (Heck, guys could do good science while wearing a skirt, if they were so inclined.)

-- However, and this is a big "however," if I were a kid today listing inspiring science TV hosts, I'd still only be naming men, I think. The only non-male sci/tech show cohost who immediately comes to mind is Kari Byron. I don't watch a lot of TV though, so I'm probably missing some. If you know of any others, please put them in the comments!

If you missed our Sagan Day event, or were frustrated by the failure of the webcast, here's a video.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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