She breaks through glass ceilings in space, but is confronted with sexism on earth


Colonel Wang Ying is a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. She is a space veteran and is now making her second trip to orbit. She will be the first Chinese woman to walk in space in the coming weeks as China’s space station glides around the earth at 17,100 miles per hour.

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Colonel Wang Ying is a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. She is a space veteran and is now making her second trip to orbit. She will be the first Chinese woman to walk in space in the coming weeks as China’s space station glides around the earth at 17,100 miles per hour.

Yet when she embarked on a six-month mission in central China’s ambitious space program last week, the attention of the authorities and the news media was equally focused on the comparative physiology of men and women, the menstrual cycle, and the 5-year-old daughter she has behind her serene, as they did with their accomplishments. (Nobody asked about the children of their two male colleagues.)

Shortly before takeoff, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, announced that a cargo ship had supplied the orbiting space station with sanitary towels and cosmetics.

“Women astronauts may be in better shape after they put on makeup,” he said in comments aired on CCTV, the state television broadcaster.

At 41, Wang is a role model for gender equality in a country where Mao Zedong famously said that “women hold half the sky” and the object of an undercurrent of sexism and condescension that is widespread in Chinese society, economy and politics pulls.

In China today, it is rare for women outside of the entertainment industry to achieve as much public notation as Wang. If they manage to overcome barriers, their performance is often viewed from a gender perspective.

In a short television report about her training for the upcoming spacewalk, Wang exuded confidence and said she hoped the mission aboard the new Tiangong space station would be “more brilliant because of me.” She also indicated the hurdles she had to overcome.

“Being an astronaut is not a job for me, it’s a career, and it’s a career I have a passionate love for,” she said. “This love is enough for me to overcome all difficulties, to overcome all barriers and even to sacrifice my own life.”

Online debates have broken out over whether women and men are suitable for the same physical tasks.

“Most girls can’t do hard or sweaty work,” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Women have to face this characteristic of their gender.” Others suggested she should have cut her hair or wondered how she would wash it.

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