Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Crush of the Week, wherein we shine a spotlight on the geekilicious women who inspire us. Our crushes range from fictional female characters in our favorite genre shows, movies and books…to creators in geeky media. We celebrate you, oh women of geekdom!
DISCLAIMER: The following contains spoilers for Mary Robinette Kowal’s novel The Calculating Stars. The story is continued in The Fated Sky and The Lady Astronaut of Mars.
Dr. Elma Wexler York, Lady Astronaut
The world ended in March of 1952 while Dr. Elma Wexler York vacationed with her husband, Dr. Nathaniel York. A meteorite struck the Atlantic ocean, wiping out the majority of the eastern seaboard of the United States of America. After surviving the end of the world, Elma, a former WASP pilot in World War II, puts her mathematics degrees to use as a Calculator and works alongside her husband to create a space program so that humanity can colonize and escape their dying planet. When the newly re-formed US Congress and all the military men make it abundantly clear that space is a men’s club, she bucks the system and becomes the face of the movement for female astronauts. Society of the 1950s before the meteorite was hard enough, but Dr. Elma York pushed back and never gave up – even when her anxiety left her retching in the corner. As iconic as Rosie the Riveter, Dr. Elma York: Lady Astronaut became a name every little girl knew.
The Real Deal:
In The Calculating Stars, an alternative history of the world, a giant meteorite strikes the earth and sets off an extinction-level event. Dr. Elma Wexler York and her husband lived in the destruction zone, but they happened to have flown – in Elma’s plane – out to the Poconos mountains for a little rest and relaxation time together to celebrate a big work accomplishment alone. That vacation saved their lives as all of Washington D.C., including the convention highlighting their successes with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was destroyed; at the NACA, Elma worked as a computation expert (putting her multiple PhDs in the fields of math and physics to use) while her husband was a project engineer on the recently launched satellites. After climbing out of the rubble of their cabin, the couple hiked to Elma’s plane to fly back to civilization; since Elma served as a Woman Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II, she maintained her own private plane as a civilian. The pair were met in the air by military planes and escorted to a military base where they immediately got to work pushing for a new space coalition in response to the forthcoming uninhabitable Earth.
Being a woman, however, Elma was relegated to relief efforts as a triage nurse’s aid for incoming refugees. Eventually, the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC) was formed, and Elma resumed her role as a Calculator, a member of the group of women working mathematical equations in support of space efforts. When the first call for astronaut candidates went out, Elma applied – she had the requisite flight experience and advanced degree (more than enough of each, actually). However, the only candidates accepted were all male. And white, a fact that escaped Elma until her friendships with other pilots, both WASP and civilian, in her all female flight club helped her see the discrepancy. Thus began the struggle to get women into space. Elma reluctantly stepped into the role of the face of women’s rights, being both an accomplished pilot and a mathematician.
When she accepted an invitation to be on a kid’s television show, she unknowingly branded female astronauts as “Lady Astronauts”, a moniker she abhorred because it segregated astronauts by gender and made it seem like women were less than men in the same position. However, her appearance skyrocketed the popularity of science and technology interest in little girls and women across the country and set Elma up as a mini-celebrity. Her anxieties and resulting health issues reached a peak and she finally relented to see a doctor and began taking an anti-anxiety medication to cope with the stresses of being a public figure. What she initially viewed as a weakness (taking anti-anxiety medications) began to take on a new meaning when she was able to speak publicly without being violently ill. Eventually, women (white women) were accepted as astronaut candidates, but only for appearances; the physical tests came off more as demeaning publicity stunts than actual training at first. Elma refused to allow the fact that she herself was an astronaut candidate quell her fight – she continued to push until there were no barriers for gender or race and there were pilots of color, of both genders, accepted into the IAC program.
Why She Matters:
Dr. Elma Wexler York is a flawed woman that doesn’t see herself as worthy or important, even with her college degrees, pilot’s license, and years of experience doing her job. She is the epitome of every woman suffering through impostor syndrome. But when the world effectively ends, she realizes that there is a major injustice with women not being allowed to be astronauts – women will be needed to procreate in the future colonies, after all – and she stands up to fight for something. She may not fully believe she alone can make a difference, and her own anxiety issues plague her, but she eventually, if begrudgingly, accepts her role as the face of a movement: the movement for women of all races to be able to fly into space. She not only learns to turn her Southern niceties into a personal weapon to give herself strength, she also accepts that a prescription for a mental health issue is just a tool to empower her daily life and not a hindrance that society whispers it to be.
So be like Dr. Elma Wexler York. Believe in something, anything, and want that something so bad, you fight even when you feel like giving up. Don’t let society tell you that you are wrong for your beliefs, don’t let them knock you down by telling you that you are unworthy, and don’t listen when they tell you to shut up and sit down. Stand proudly and help inspire the next generation to do the same. And, if all of this seems overwhelming at times, know that you are not alone and there is always help available, even if it comes in the form of a little pill for anxiety.