Women and space

Mum in space

Recently, I saw two portrayals of women* in space, Proxima – starring Eva Green as the female member of the crew training for the first mission to Mars; and Away, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of the crew on the first mission to Mars (disclaimer: I have only seen the first two episodes of Away, so I’m not sure what happens in the rest of the series). Both would have been on my to-watch list even under normal circumstances; I grew up on science fiction, and, as any woman who, in Rebecca West’s unsurpassed formulation, expresses opinions that distinguish her from a doormat, have spent a fair bit of time thinking about gender, achievement, and leadership. This time, an event coloured my perception of both: my mum’s death in October.

My mother was 80; she died of complications related to metastatic cancer, which had started as breast cancer but had at this point spread to her liver. She had dealt with cancer intermittently since 2009; had had a double mastectomy and repeated chemotherapy/radiation at relatively regular intervals since – in 2011, 2015, 2018 and, finally, 2020 – the last one stopping shortly after it started, as it became evident that it could not reverse the course of Mum’s illness and was, effectively, making it worse.

As anyone living with this kind of illness knows, it’s always a long game of predicting and testing, waiting when the next one will come up; it’s possible that the cancer that eventually killed my mum was missed because of flaky screening in November, or because of delays at the height of the pandemic. What matters is that, by the time they discovered it during a regular screening in June, it was already too late.

What matters is that, because living with this sort of illness entails living in segments of time between two appointments, two screenings, two test results, we had kind of expected this. We had time to prepare. My mother had time to prepare. I had time to prepare. What also matters is that I was able to travel, to leave the country in time to see my mother still alive, despite the fact that at that time the Home Office had been sitting on my Tier 2 visa application since the start of July, and on the request for expedition due to compassionate circumstances for three weeks. This matters, because many other women are not so lucky as to have the determination to call the Home Office visa processing centre three times, the cultural capital to contact their MP when it seemed like time was running out, nor, for that matter, an MP (also a woman) who took on the case. It matters, because I was able to be there for the last two weeks of my mother’s life. I was there when she died.

But this essay isn’t about me, or my mum. It’s about women, and the stars.

Women and the stars

Every story about the stars is, in essence, a story of departure from Earth, and thus a story of separation, and thus a story of leaving, and what’s left behind. This doesn’t mean that these themes need to be parsed via the tired dichotomy of the ‘masculine-proactive-transcendent’ principle pitted against the ‘feminine-grounded-immanent’, but they often are, and both Proxima and Away play out this tension.

For those who had not seen either or both, Proxima and Away are about women who are travelling into space. Proxima’s Sarah (Eva Green) is the French member of the international crew of astronauts spending a year at the International Space Station in preparation for the first mission to Mars.  

The central tension develops along two vectors: the characters’ relation to their male partners (Sarah’s – ex – Thomas, Emma’s Matt); and their relationship to their daughters – Sarah’s Stella, and Emma’s Alexis (‘Lex’). While the relationship to their partners is not irrelevant, it is obvious that the mother-daughter relationship is central to the plot. Neither is it accidental that both (and only) children are girls: in this sense, the characters’ relationship to their daughters is not only the relationship to the next generation of women, it is also the relationship to their ‘little’ selves. In this sense, the daughters’ desire for their mother’s to return – or to stay, to never leave for the stars – is also a reflection of their own desire to give up, to stay in the comfort of the ground, the Earth, the safe (if suffocating) embrace of family relations and gender roles, in which ‘She’ is primarily, after all, a Mother.

It is interesting that both characters, in Proxima and in Away, find similar ‘solutions’ – or workarounds – for this central tension. In Proxima, Sarah leaves her daughter, but betrays her own commitment by violating pre-flight quarantine regulations, sneaking out the night before departure to take her daughter to see the rocket from up close. In Away, Emma decides to return from pre-flight Lunar base after her husband has a heart attack, only to be persuaded to stay, both by the (slowly recovering) husband and, more importantly, by the daughter, who – at the last minute – realizes the importance of the mission and says she wants her mum to stay, rather than return to Earth. The guilt both women feel over ‘abandoning’ their daughters (and thus their own traditional roles) is thus compensated or resolved by inspiring the next generation of women to ‘look at the stars’: to aim higher, and to prioritize transcendence at the cost of immanence, even when the price is pain.     

We might scoff at the simple(ish) juxtaposition of Earth and the stars, but the essence of that tension is still there, no matter how we choose to frame it. It is the basic tension explored in Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy – the tension between being-for-themselves and being-in-relation to. It’s the unforgiving push and pull that leads so many women to take on disproportionate amounts of emotional, care, and organizational labour. It’s a tension you can’t resolve, no matter how queer, trans, or childless. Even outside of ‘traditional’ gender roles, women are still judged first and foremost on their ability to conceive and retain relationships; research on women leaders, for instance, shows they are required to consistently demonstrate a ‘collective’ spirit of the sort not expected of their male counterparts.

A particularly brutal version of this tension presented itself in the months before my mother died. I was stuck in England, not being able to leave before my Tier 2 visa was approved, and her condition was getting worse. Home Office was already behind their 8-week timeframe due to the pandemic; the official guidance – confirmed by the University – was that, if I chose to leave the country before the decision had been made, not only would I automatically forfeit my application, I would also be banned for a year from re-entering the country, and for a further year from re-applying for the same sort of permit. In essence, this meant I was choosing between my job – which I love – and my mother, which I loved too.

Luckily, I never had to make this choice; after a lot of intervention, my visa came through, and I was able to travel. I am not sure what kind of decision I would have made.

Mum and daughter in space

I saw Proxima in August, shortly after moving from Cambridge to Durham to start my job at the University. It was only the second time I was able to cry after having learned of my mum’s most recent, and final, diagnosis. I saw Away after returning from the funeral in early October, having acquired a Netflix account in a vague attempt at ‘self-care’ that didn’t involve reading analytic philosophy.

My mum saw neither, and I am not sure if she would have recognized herself in them. Hers was a generation of transcendence, buttressed by post-war recovery and socialism’s early successes in eradicating gender inequality. She introduced me to science fiction, but it was primarily Arthur Clarke, Isaac Assimov, and Stanislav Lem, my mum having no problems recognizing herself in the characters of Dave Bowman, Hari Seldon, or Rohan from ‘The Invincible’. Of course, as I was growing up, neither did I: it was only after I had already reached a relatively advanced career stage – and, it warrants mentioning, in particular after I began full-time living in the UK – that I started realizing how resolute the steel grip of patriarchy is in trying to make sure we never reach for the stars.

My mother famously said that she never considered herself a feminist, but had led a feminist life. By this, she meant that she had an exceptional career including a range of leadership positions, first in research, then in political advising, and finally in diplomacy; and that she had a child – me – as a single mother, without a partner involved. What she didn’t stop to think about was that, throughout this process, she had the support not only of two loving parents (both of my grandparents had already retired when I was born), but also of socialist housing, childcare, and education policies.I would point this fact out to her on the rare occasions when she would bring up her one remaining regret, which was that I choose not to have children. Though certainly aided by the fact I never felt the desire to, this decision was buttressed by my belief (and observation) that, no matter how dedicated, egalitarian, etc. etc. a partner can be, it is always mothers who end up carrying a greater burden of childcare, organization, and planning. I hope that she, in the end, understood this decision.

In one of the loveliest messages** I got after my mum died, a friend wrote that he believed my mum was now a star watching over me. As much as I would like to think that, if anything, the experience of a death has resolutely convinced me there is no ‘thereafter’, no space, place, or plane where we go after we die.

But I’m still watching the stars.  

This image is, sadly, a pun that’s untraslateable into English; sorry

* For avoidance of doubt, trans women are women

**Throughout the period, I’ve received absolutely stellar messages of love and support. Among these, it warrants saying, quite a few came from men, but those that came from women were exceptional in striking the balance between giving me space to think my own thoughts and sit with my own grief, while also making sure I knew I could rely on their support if I wanted to. This kind of balance, I think, comes partly out of having to always negotiate being-for-oneself and being-for-others, but there is a massive lesson in solidarity right in there.