Gender and Sexuality Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Science

Russian Space History — Soviet Women in STEM Fields

Ogenek, June 1963

In a comment to my last posting, Asif noted that in “group photos of Soviet engineering teams from the 1950s and 1960s involved in the space program, there are a surprisingly high number of women in the pictures, surprising given their near-absence in the cosmonaut corps.” He wondered how many women in the 1950s and 1960s were, in fact, involved in science and engineering fields.

Pionerskaia Pravda March 1963
Pionerskaia Pravda, March 1963

As I noted in previous publications, the 1970 all-union census reported that more Soviet women than ever before were engineering-technical workers, their number more than doubling in ten years from 1.63 to 3.75 million.[i] Women’s influence in science and technology was evidenced, too, by increases in the number of higher degrees they earned in science, engineering, and technology fields. Official statistics published in 1975 confirmed that the number of female researchers among science personnel in the USSR had increased dramatically in the post-war period, from 59,000 in 1950 to just shy of 129,000 in 1960 to nearly 465,000 in 1974.[ii] That said, a 1971 study that broke down female accomplishment by branch of science showed that women in physics and math still lagged considerably behind men in the attainment of advanced degrees.[iii] And yet, it is significant to note that three out of four women awarded candidate and doctoral degrees in the 1971-73 period were in the natural and applied sciences.[iv]

Ogenek, June 1963

Statistics offer compelling evidence about female desire and ability to advance in the realms of Soviet science and technology. They also demonstrate that something went right in the Soviet 1960s that enabled girls to move ahead in their pursuit of scientific knowledge and associated careers. Analysis of pedagogical journals suggests that girls’ quest for advancement in the 1960s was aided by the USSR’s standard school curriculum, which privileged the study of math and the hard sciences. There are also hints that girls benefited from generalized efforts by science and math educators to identify and mentor talented students as well as to improve the overall quality of instruction in those fields. As far as influences beyond the school room, sociological studies (particularly those conducted by Shubkin’s group in Novosibirsk) offer support for the notion that parents played key roles in shaping daughters’ aspirations. But those results also suggest that girls’ ideas about occupational prestige both reflected contemporary stereotypes about ‘women’s work’ and offered up challenges to male domination in science and technology fields.

[i] Tsentral’noe statisticheskoe upravlenie pri sovete ministrov SSSR, Itogi vsesoiuznoi perepisi naseleniia 1970 goda, tom VI, Raspredelenie naseleniia SSSR i soiuznykh respublik po zaniatiiam, Moscow, 1973, pp. 6, 165, 167. For fuller discussion, see my articles “‘Let’s Find Out Where the Cosmonaut School Is’: Soviet Girls and Cosmic Enthusiasm in the Aftermath of Tereshkova,” in Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist  Societies, Eva Mauer, Julia Richers,  Monica Rüthers, and Carmen Scheide, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011): 121-138; and “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier: Soviet Girls and the Tereshkova Moment,” in Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture,  James T. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi, eds. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011): 195-212.

[ii] See Vestnik statistiki, 1975, No. 1, p. 91; and Zhenshchiny v SSSR (Moscow, 1975), p. 81.

[iii] I.I. Leiman, Nauka kak sotsial’nyi institute, Moscow, 1971, p. 83.

[iv] Of all the advanced university degrees awarded to women in 1962-64, over half were in applied sciences and more than a quarter in the natural sciences. At the doctoral level, while only one in twelve physics and math degrees went to women, female chemists constituted 40% of recipients in that field. See Norton T. Dodge, ‘Women in the Professions’, Women in Russia, eds. Dorothy Atkinson et. al., Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1977, pp. 212-213. These numbers were particularly impressive given that in the US, only about 5% of PhDs in chemistry and math and fewer than 3% in physics went to women. See Statistics compiled by the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center from NSF data. (





4 replies on “Russian Space History — Soviet Women in STEM Fields”

Thanks Roshanna. Something you mentioned in your very insightful essay in ‘Into the Cosmos’ caught my eye. You wrote:

“As Pionirskaia pravda’s coverage reveals, it was something of a paradox that Tereshkova was portrayed as operating within the conventional Soviet mold of female aspiration and heroism while simultaneously shattering old paradigms of female possibility. The first woman in space was quickly established as the newest link in an infamous chain of daring Soviet heroines that included aviation pioneers as well as the much-celebrated female pilots and partisans of the World War II years. And yet in the Cold War context of the early 1960s, evidence suggests that it was the marriage of Tereshkova’s ‘everywoman’ persona with more unconventional aspects of her profile – especially her affinity and apparent aptitude for science and technology – that made ‘our Valia’ an appealing and especially significant role model for girls.”

I think you captured perfectly what made Tereshkova both a continuation of antecedent cultural models of heroes and yet a something entirely new. This ‘hybrid’ amalgamation–not to mention the question of Tereshkova’s agency in any of this–makes the ‘Tereshkova moment’ something difficult to unpack.

In this light, it’s interesting to read Sue Bridger’s essay “The Cold War and the Cosmos” (in the 2004 volume ‘Women in the Khrushchev Era’) where she seems to argue that Tereshkova’s public speaking abilities were so successful that it essentially sabotaged any possibility of a further career in the space program.

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