KEYWORDS: Tereshkova, empowerment, women in space


Tereshkova’s Girls: Space Run and Women’s Empowerment in the USSR

When the U.S.S.R. became the first nation to launch Sputnik I, an earth satellite, on 4 October 1957, the United States soon followed with its own earth satellite, Explorer I, launched on 31 January 1958. If the Americans had their youthful and charismatic JFK to give a lead, the Russians could offer a charm offensive of their own: ‘Gagarin in a skirt”1 (p.225)

On 24 July 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon and Khrushchev engaged in a series of lively debates known as the “Kitchen Debates”, at the American National Exhibit held in Moscow. While Nixon glorified the superiority of commodities for American housewives, Khrushchev announced that Soviet women were superior because they contributed directly to the economy. In five years he had a live example to show to the world: Tereshkova symbolised the new Soviet woman.

On 16 June 1963, seated in the spaceship Vostok VI, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space and only the tenth human to orbit the earth. On her voyage, Tereshkova orbited the earth 48 times, travelling over 1.2 million miles before returning to Earth three days later. Her mission was to join fellow cosmonaut Valerii Fedorovich Bykovskii, who was already in orbit at the helm of Vostok 5, in the process of setting a new record for the longest space voyage in human history. However, it was Tereshkova and not her male comrade, who amazed the terrestrial public.2 (p.195)

Having parachuting experience was considered essential for candidates, but there were also restrictions on age, weight and height, owing to the size and capabilities of the Vostok spacecraft. Out of the initial 400 candidates, 23 women were eventually short-listed and sent to Moscow to undergo a series of tests and interviews. The women were required to pass each test; a fail immediately resulted in the candidate being sent home.

In March 1962, Tereshkova was short-listed for the final stage and began training. Alongside her were four other women whose names would be kept secret until 1987: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Ponomareva and Zhanna Yorkina. Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme, later wrote: “Tereshkova– she is active in society, is especially well in appearance, makes use of her great authority among everyone who she knows.”5 (p.362). Neither of them can compete with Tereshkova in the ability to influence crowds, arouse sympathy among people and to appear before an audience”.4

It seems that Tereshkova may have briefly suffered from the same affliction as Titov. The Soviets later reported that she was not feeling so well during the first few orbits. The commission was even discussing the possibility of ending the flight of Vostok-6 ahead of schedule. Tereshkova said that she already felt better and assured the State Commission that she would carry out “everything that the program called for” and would do “everything as we were taught.”5(p.370)

Tereshkova’s flight was neither an outright success nor a complete failure. Mishin criticism was extreme: “Tereshkova turned out to be at the edge of psychological stability. It would seem that her flight should have discredited Khrushchev.” Part of this hostility towards Tereshkova was clearly because she was a woman. The standards by which all the engineers, physicians, and military officers judged her performance were completely different than for the men”5. (p. 372)

During her work as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova graduated from the Zhukovskii Military Aviation Academy in 1969. She became president of the Committee of Soviet Women in 1968 and a nonvoting member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1971. As a member of the Soviet Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations in Foreign Countries, she travelled to Chautauqua, New York, in August 1987 to talk to American leaders about putting an end to the Cold War. In 1992, she was appointed chair of the Presidium of the Russian Association for International Cooperation. As she embarked on tour after tour, her natural abilities as a public speaker and unofficial diplomat provided the USSR with a much-needed ‘human face’.1 (p. 236)

Long live women workers of the world, E. Artsrynyan, 1964

Girls of the Tereshkova’s generation responded to the euphoric rhetoric that in the USSR there were no limits on female aspirations, embracing the new horizon of possibilities opened up for them. Although the world’s first female cosmonaut never again mounted a rocket, the sheer fact that she had done so once inspired girls to dream big2 (p.196-197), Sir Bernard Lovell, for example, senior British radio astronomer and director of the experimental station at Jodrell Bank, claimed that her flight represented part of a Soviet plan to colonise another part of the solar system within 25 years.1 (p.228)

Pionerskaia pravda, a twice-weekly newspaper, introduced its young readers to Valentina, or Valia for short, by explaining that she was born in 1937 in the village of Maslennikov, of good proletarian stock. Valia herself was portrayed as a diligent student who, after leaving school at seventeen, became a model worker, first in a tyre factory and then in a textile complex. Hardworking, studious, politically loyal, and healthy. By stressing these values, writers fit Tereshkova neatly into the well-established repertoire of ideal childhood types long emphasised in Soviet publications aimed at the young.2 (p.198) She was the textbook all-round Soviet woman: the responsible worker, the dutiful follower of the party, the loving daughter, the active participant in sports. Her biography wonderfully combined the key symbols of Soviet development: the union of the city and the village, the tragic losses of the Second World War, the diversity and opportunity of post-war Soviet lifestyles. She was virtually a walking embodiment of the progress of the working people and the equality of women under Soviet rule.1 (p.226)

Writing much later, the cultural critic, theorist, and media artist Svetlana Boym remembered that she and other “Soviet children of the 1960s did not dream of becoming doctors and lawyers, but cosmonauts (or, if worse came to worst, geologists).2” (p.25) Girls’ cosmic imaginings were likewise revealed in an April 1963 issue of Ogonek, which featured a selection of children’s letters to cosmonauts, including one from Valia Larshina in Orsk: “I am ready to fly to the very largest planet and study it. . . . I wouldn’t be terrified to fly to space. When the rocket is ready, I will be trained.” Meanwhile, Liusia Zorina from Yalta imagined weaving together two seemingly irreconcilable career aspirations: “I want to be a ballerina and fly to space. I don’t even know which I want more.”2 (p.200)

On the front cover of the 30 June  1963 issue of the weekly humour magazine Krokodil was a full-colour cartoon showing a girl with a teddy-bear scolding two boys also holding their toys – a model rocket, plane, and helicopter: “Where’s your advantage in the cosmos now?”. Another young girl holding a cosmonaut doll outside the door of her school says, “There is nothing interesting here. Let’s find out where the cosmonaut school is!” Ogonek’s June issue included cartoons like the one portraying a girl asleep in her bed with a dream bubble showing her smiling in a spacesuit on the surface of the moon.2 (p.201)

“A Soviet woman has stormed outer space,” Tereshkova exclaimed in her Red Square speech on 22 June 1963. Heaping praise on her Communist sisters, Tereshkova celebrated female successes in all realms of Soviet society: “[Women] are participating actively in state management, in the social and political affairs of the country, they are working enthusiastically in the economy, science, culture, education, and upbringing of the younger generation.”2(p.202)

Valentina Vavilina, the editor-in-chief of Rabotnitsa, reminded readers that women were among the active participants in these scientific accomplishments: “There are some spheres in which women are the main force [in Soviet society]: the textile and the food industries, schools, and medical institutions. But women have also helped create space rockets and the atomic icebreaker. All professions are open to them.”2 (p.203)

The female cosmonaut’s value as a cultural ambassador was immediately apparent and Khrushchev dispatched her to the World Congress of Women, which, not by coincidence, convened in Moscow on 24 June 1963. As the journalist Stanislav Shcherbatov pointed out to English-language readers in the Moscow News,

“A flight by a woman into outer space is no mere gesture. It is a logical development of our society. In our country equality of women, like atomic fission, has set free tremendous energy. Consequently in the Soviet Union progress is inconceivable without the participation of the women.”2(p.205)

However, Khrushchev’s own remarks are more ambivalent: “I am very happy and as proud as a father that one of our girls [devushki], a girl from the Soviet Union, is the first, the first in the world, to travel in space, to be in command of the most highly perfected machinery.” 2 (p.208) This bit of sexism served to emphasize the more conventionally feminine aspects of Tereshkova’s persona. Though she held the rank of junior lieutenant, it had been agreed at Politburo level that she should not wear a uniform and should be referred to as ‘Miss Tereshkova’ in briefings to the foreign press.1 (p.229-230)

Motors for girls’ success in science were the standard school curriculum, which demanded that both girls and boys from first grade on spend more than half their time studying math and science, but also real-life role models and a range of opportunities to put their knowledge to higher use. A long-term study conducted by a team of sociologists in Novosibirsk in 1963 found that both girls and boys desired careers in science and technology. When asked to rank their preferences, girls’ top choices were mathematics, medicine, chemistry, and physics. Of all the advanced university degrees awarded to women in 1962 through 1964, more than half were in applied sciences and more than a quarter in the natural sciences. At the doctoral level, although only one in twelve physics and math degrees went to women, female chemists constituted 40 percent of recipients in that field.2 (p.209-210)

Tereshkova perhaps could have done more to advance the cause of women, given her privileged position and the status she enjoyed. In any case, though, she showed that women could do what was then regarded as the most state-of-the-art, most demanding feat – going into space, solo.3 Unfortunately, this empowering combination of factors was relatively short-lived, partly due to the sexism of Soviet political leaders and high-level decision makers among the USSR’s scientific and technical intelligentsia2 (p.210-11). Under Brezhnev, the space programme was no longer top priority and his time in office was marked by growing gender traditionalism.

 In the 1960s, there was an attempt to channel children’s space age wonder into concrete career paths meant to further the ambitious agenda of the scientific-technological revolution.6 ” (p. 125) Citing space accomplishments in particular, Khrushchev bragged about the ‘flourishing of Soviet science’ and the rapid expansion of the Soviet Union’s corps of scientific workers, which he claimed numbered ‘more than 350,000. 6 p. 127). “[F]uture scientists, designers, engineers and other specialists who will advance science and technology should be sought out, nurtured and educated6” (p. 128), Petrakov concluded

“In the 1960s, both girls and boys in their mid to late teens had positive attitudes towards careers in science and technology. When asked to rank the attractiveness of specific occupations, the girls’ top 10 were medical scientist, physician, pilot, literary and art personnel, mathematician, physicist, chemist, teacher in higher education, radio technician and engineer in the chemical industry.” (“The Cosmonaut school”, 131)

With remarkable irony, the woman who for 20 years represented the ossified Soviet approach to women’s emancipation, had been forced to give up a career path so often used by Western feminists in those years as a shorthand symbol for progress against male domination of the world of work. As Kamanin so astutely summed up, engineers were two a penny in the Soviet Union but a woman who could appear at ease in Paris or Washington was worth her weight in gold. Laying aside her military uniform for the sober suits of the party bureaucrat, Tereshkova became, perhaps more than she had ever been, a serving soldier in the frontline of the Cold War1(p.236).


Further Reading

Ashby, Ruth/ Deborah Gore Ohrn (eds.) (1995), Her story: Women Who Changed the World. New York: Viking Press.

Lothian, A. Valentina (1993), First Woman in Space. Edinburgh: Pentland.

Sharpe, Mitchell (1975), “It Is I, Sea Gull”: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space. New York: Crowell.


Works Cited

  1. Bridger, Sue (2004), “The Cold War and the Cosmos: Valentina Tereshkova and the First Woman’s Space Flight”, in Ilicˇ, Melanie/ Susan E. Reid/ Lynne Attwood, Women in the Khrushchev era. Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Sylvester, Roshanna P. (2011), “She Orbits over the Sex Barrier: Soviet Girls and the Tereshkova Moment”, in Andrews,  James T./ Asif A. Siddiqi (eds.), Into the cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture.  University of Pittsburgh Press, 195-212.
  3. Dejevsky, Mary (29 Mar. 2017), “The first woman in space: ‘People shouldn’t waste money on wars’”, The Guardian, <> (last accessed 19 may 2017)
  4. Danielsson, Ulrika, Science museum
  5. Siddiqi, Asif A. (2000). Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974. Washington DC: NASA, NASA History Division.
  6. Sylvester, Roshanna P. (2011), ‘Let’s Find Out Where the Cosmonaut School Is’ Soviet Girls and Cosmic Visions in the Aftermath of Tereshkova, in Maurer, Eva/ Julia Richers/ Monica Rόthers/ Carmen Scheide(eds.) Soviet Space Culture Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. Palgrave Macmillan.
  7. Harvey, Joy/Marilyn Ogilvie (eds.) (2000), The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century. New York/London: Routledge.


Author: Maria Adamopoulou
Date: 11 August 2017