It's one small step for a woman ...
China will send its first female astronaut (or taikonaut, the preferred, non-americanised term) into space this week. Photo: Getty Images
Usually when a woman becomes the first female to hold a position of power (first female prime minister, for example, or first female billionaire in Australia), her success tells you more about inequality in her field than it does about sexism's inexorable decline. But it's still weirdly pleasing to see that China will send its first female astronaut (or taikonaut, the preferred, non-americanised term) into space this week. Even if it's a little odd that the country hasn't decided exactly which woman to send yet.
According to China Daily, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping are both currently undergoing final tests at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. Both married, both mothers and both born in 1978, the two women were picked from a pool of 15 candidates, and have both been air force pilots since the 1990s, when Liu picked up her first "first female" accolade, as one of the first women from Henan Province to become a pilot. Wang Yaping, meanwhile, was part of rain cloud dispersal operations before the Beijing Olympics and provided disaster relief after the Wenchuan earthquake.
Both women are also apparently free of scars and body odour - necessary, a researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology explained, to minimise the risk of unexpected bleeding in zero gravity or of being the taikonaut nobody wants to sit next to in the cramped confines of a space capsule. The lucky woman who wins the job will get her own toilet and soundproof bedroom, "and even [be able to] bring some specially made cosmetics into space."
What she won't get is to be ahead of the spacewoman curve: Russia's Valentina Kereshkova headed for the cosmos 49 years ago this week and in the decades since, women from countries including the US, UK, Korea, Japan and Iran have followed in her wake. China's first successful manned space flight wasn't until 2003, so the gender gap isn't quite as vast as it might be - but the academy does expect female astronauts to be more "keen and sensitive with better communication skills than their counterparts" (presumably in equal measure, to each other and to all other women ever, and with more excellently made-up space pouts.)
This isn't to say Liu or Wang won't be achieving a notable female first though. And their news comes in the same week as a potentially far more important feminist second: the country's State Council (just over 11 per cent female, by the way) has just published its second national plan for human rights, which pledges among other things to increase women's share of political and economic power and to provide protection against discrimination and domestic violence.
About time, you might say: the 25-person Politburo includes only one female member, and of the country's 120 centrally run state owned companies only one has a woman in charge. Meanwhile the centuries-old preference for sons and the one-child policy instituted thirty years ago have resulted in a sex ratio of 118 males for every 100 females, thanks in part to the abandonment of female babies and sex selective abortions (although the government is working hard to prevent these abuses and redress the gender balance).
How much of this new human rights plan will be put into action remains to be seen. Gender equality is a central tenet of Communism, after all, but as with one or two other human rights issues, China hasn't always stuck religiously to that moral framework. If the plan is just lip service, one female taikonaut isn't much of a second best. But it will be a public reminder that women can and should hold powerful positions in science just like any other discipline. And for a government working to improve little girls' status within communities, Liu or Wang's new job means more than just one woman's step into a space module.