Today is International Women's Day, and yesterday was the birthday of Valentina Tereshkova. It's ok to admit you don't know who that is. Despite beating Sally K. Ride (and many men) into space by 20 years, Tereshkova and her comrade Svetlana Savitskaya are probably most notably remembered in a souvenir apron bearing Savitskaya's face.
Let's change that.
Asking around informally, most people I spoke with, unless they're actual space nerds, didn't know the first woman in space, or answered the first American woman, Sally Ride. Truth is, she was beaten to the punch by 20 years, when Valentina Tereshkova rode Vostok 6 into space. Perhaps even more significantly, Tereshkova was the first civilian in space as well, as all the dudes going before, Soviet or American, were military. Oh, and after Tereshkova's one flight, she had racked up more hours in space than all American astronauts combined. How ya like that right stuff?
Tereshkova was a textile worker who happened to love skydiving, and it was her skydiving experience that gave her the initial qualifications to be a cosmonaut, partially because for the early Vostok spacecraft, that's how you landed– ejected from the ball-like capsule and down by parachute. She kept her parachuting a secret from her family, who found out when her father discovered a parachutists' knife in her bag.
Though the Soviets seemed more progressive in that they launched a woman in space so early, it was really more of a propaganda stunt, and she certainly had to deal with her share of chauvinism. Original reports about difficulties in the flight and a delayed return to earth focused on issues with Tereshkova's performance. Vasily Mishin, one of the leads of the early Soviet space program, wrote that she was "on the edge of psychological instability." This was disputed by others, but the truth didn't come out until much later.
What actually happened was that there was an error in the way Vostok 6's automatic orientation system was set up— Tereskova noticed almost immediately after entering orbit that her ship was pointed the wrong way, and when she fired her retrorockets to return to earth, it would actually have propelled her into a higher orbit, treating her to a slow, lonely death. Ground control was skeptical, but later confirmed her findings and relayed new commands to correct it. This true story was kept secret until 2004, when, I guess, the decade-long absence of the Soviet Union finally let them feel ready to come clean.
The second woman in space, Svetlana Savitskaya, also had her share of boy's -club bullshit to put up with. Even though she was the first woman to walk in space, and her performance there on the space station Salyut 7 earned her praise from her fellow cosmonauts as being "as good as a man", she was nevertheless presented with a floral apron and "invited" to be the hostess at their evening meal. And today, for some reason, you can buy an apron with her and her crew mates on it.
Flying and living in space is hard enough, but to do it while putting up with that kind of crap takes some really massive ovaries.