A Ticket to Ride

Saturday’s lead editorial in our local newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, was titled “Who Should Represent California: Father Serra or Sally Ride?”

There is a movement afoot (and more than afoot: it seems to be running to the finish line with almost no opposition) to replace the statue of Junipero Serra that appears in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol with a statue of Sally Ride. Serra’s statue has been there since 1931. Ride’s statue is yet to be commissioned.

Statuary Hall is located immediately south of the Rotunda in the Capitol. The two-story, semicircular room was where the House of Representatives met from 1807 to 1857. Every state is allotted space for two statues to represent figures important in the state’s history or culture. Statuary Hall is large but not large enough for two hundred statues, so many of them are positioned elsewhere in the Capitol. California’s other statue is of Ronald Reagan. It is located in the Rotunda.

The California Senate has passed a resolution to substitute a statue of Ride for that of Serra. It’s likely that the state Assembly will endorse the move and that the governor, Jerry Brown, will sign off on it.

The San Diego Union-Tribune straddles the issue. On the one hand, the editorial board says it “agrees with San Diego’s newly installed [Catholic] bishop Robert McElroy that Serra’s statue should continue to represent California,” but over the last few weeks, as the issue has percolated through the newspaper’s pages, it’s been clear that the publication would be happy to see Serra’s statue relegated to the dustbin of history, but politely: “If the legislature approves the resolution, and Brown supports it, we recommend the Serra statue be brought to San Diego for public display at the mission here,” which is to say it largely will be out of sight. (Serra is set to be canonized by Pope Francis in September.)

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. She was only the first American woman in space. Ride took her first space flight in 1983. Twenty years earlier, in 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel in space, and another Soviet woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, got to space a year before Ride did.

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. The award was established in 1963 and has been given to entertainers, sports figures, businessmen, journalists, historians—just about any sort of figure that a president might want to honor or have a photo op with.

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. It is inconceivable that the state legislature would vote in favor of a statue of Serra today if his statue weren’t already in Statuary Hall.

That’s the less important impulse. The more important is that Sally Ride is an LGBT icon. From 1985 until her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012, she had a “partner”: Tam O’Shaunessey, at one time a professor at another San Diego university and today the head of Sally Ride Space. The two of them co-authored six science books for children.

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.

If deciding whose statue should appear in the U.S. Capitol were determined by a person’s historical importance, Sally Ride wouldn’t be on anyone’s list because thousands of Californians have contributed more to the state’s history than she did. But this isn’t about history. It’s about cultural posturing.


Karl Keating is founder and senior fellow at Catholic Answers. He is the author of seven books, including the recently published The New Geocentrists and the forthcoming The Ultimate Catholic Quiz. His books Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe...

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
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