Saturday’s lead editorial in our local newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, was titled “Who Should Represent California: Father Serra or Sally Ride?”
It was Junipero Serra (1713–1784) who planted the first California mission, here in San Diego, in 1769. That marked the founding of San Diego itself. Eventually there would be twenty-one missions in California. They formed the skeleton of the future state’s culture, civilization, and, of course, religion. It’s hard to imagine anyone more important to the formation of California than Serra. So why replace his statue with one of Sally Ride?
The newspaper editorial outlines her credentials: “a native Californian, the first American woman in space, a two-time space traveler, physics professor here at UCSD [University of California at San Diego], tireless promoter of science education for young girls, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Let’s look at these qualifications in turn.
1. Sally Ride (1951–2012) was a native Californian. So have been tens of millions of other people. Being a native of the state hardly seems much ground to appear in Statuary Hall. It’s not even a requirement: Ronald Reagan was a native of Illinois, not of California.
2. Ride was the first American woman in space. Note the adjective. It would have been worth more if she had been the first woman in space, but she wasn’t.
3. Ride was a “two-time space traveler.” So what? Of the 59 women who have been in space, 39 have been there at least twice. Six American women have been in space at least five times.
4. Ride taught physics at a local university. So have dozens of other people over the years. There is no indication that Ride excelled other professors in teaching or research.
5. Ride promoted “science education for young girls.” In 2001 she established Sally Ride Science, a company “that creates entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on girls.” That’s nice, but there are many educational outfits around the country, not a few emphasizing the teaching of science to girls.
6. Ride was a “recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” Hundreds of other people have been recipients too, including many from California.
Looked at singly, Ride’s qualifications, as listed by the San Diego Union-Tribune, don’t seem like much. Not a one distinguishes her from many equally-accomplished people, and neither do the qualifications when taken together. So what is prompting this push to have Junipero Serra’s statue replaced by one of Sally Ride? I think there are two impulses.
The less important is a subtle animus toward Serra, who was a Catholic missionary—and a very successful one. He is out of favor with those who run today’s state government, as is Catholicism itself.
That’s the less important impulse. The more important is that Sally Ride is an LGBT icon.
It hardly can be a coincidence that the co-author of the state Assembly resolution to switch the statues is Toni Atkins, Speaker of the Assembly and an acknowledged lesbian; she is one of the eight members of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus.
This isn’t about history. It’s about cultural posturing.