Neanderthals: The First Old Boy Clubs

In the early days of space flight, young women also wanted to become astronauts, but it was white guys only. Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, who had selected the initial all-male group, remained curious to see how well women could perform the same rigorous tests, so he formed Mercury 13.

Of 25 applicants, all trained pilots, Lovelace chose 13, including 22-year-old Mary Wallace (Wally) Funk. Between 1960 and 1962, they underwent batteries of grueling tests. Funk, placed in a sensory deprivation tank (no light, no sound), was pulled out after 10 hours and 35 minutes; not at her request, but because she seemed likely to remain indefinitely. “I think they were thinking I was going to hallucinate,” she remarked later, “but I didn’t.”

Unlike the men, Margaret Weitekamp pointed out in a recent CNET interview that the women were tested singly or in pairs; never as a group, never able to form bonds or face difficulties with support. “The 13 didn’t just meet the men’s standards,” she added, “they passed with flying colors.”

The program was shut then down, despite their stellar performance. Sexism in the ’60s? Men fearing being bested by women? John Glenn comparing female astronauts to “my mother trying out for a football team”? A NASA official’s declaration, “Women astronauts would be a waste in space, a luxury the United States space effort cannot afford”? Women were not admitted to US space until 1978 (Sally Ride); the first African-American in 1983 (Guy Bluford).

Nothing new. On May 24, 1936, military bands played and 3,000 rallied to see Akron, Ohio’s MacNolia Cox off at Capitol Station. The 13-year-old had qualified for the annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., and was accompanied by Mabel Norris, a 21-year-old reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, her mother, Ladybird, and her white teacher, Cordelia Greve. The Coxes were Black.

Only when arriving at the Hamilton Hotel for the contestants’ banquet the night before the Bee, did MacNolia question why they had to enter by the back door, traipse through the kitchen and up the back stairs to a two-seat table sequestered from the others.

But she held her own in the National Museum Auditorium on May 26, even spelling words not in her dictionary. Then, down to five, she was given “Nemesis”; not only not in her dictionary, but the capitalized name of a Greek goddess, a proper noun not allowed in the contest. When she misspelled, Norris argued to a national audience on CBS, asserting the judges were uncomfortable with a Black winner and were discriminating against Cox. They denied, and MacNolia was out; offered no replacement word legal by their own rules.

Out. But not forgotten. On the National Bee Stage this July 8, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde paused, as she later told reporters, to remember MacNolia’s anguish, then spelled the winning word, “murraya,’ to become the first African-American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“Remember”: a powerful and therapeutic word. Stay mindful of those gone before, especially the thwarted. Wally Funk, now 82, was chosen—shrewd ploy or flicker of humanitarianism?—to lift off with Jeff Bezos on his Blue Origin craft New Shepard. She will finally fly, finally experience four minutes of weightlessness. She feels “fabulous,” exulting, “And I am going to love every second of it. I can’t wait!”

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