It should come as no surprise that a progressive humanist like Carl Sagan was also a staunch feminist; the fact that the protagonist of Contact, his only novel, is a female scientist — and largely based on real-life astronomer and SETI director Jill Tarter — should make that clear. But it’s still very cool to uncover other instances of his support for feminism and women’s rights.
Letters of Note calls attention to a letter that Sagan wrote in 1981 to all fellow members of The Explorers Club, an international society dedicated to scientific exploration. The Club had been exclusively male since its founding in 1904 (Sagan mistakenly writes 1905), and was catching flak for continuing to exclude women from its ranks; IBM had recently withdrawn its corporate support. The financial pressure surely had much to do with the Club reconsidering its policy — but, just as surely, so did Sagan’s eloquent missive (read it in its entirety here):
When our organization was formed in 1905, men were preventing women from voting and from pursuing many occupations for which they are clearly suited. In the popular mind, exploration was not what women did. Even so, women had played a significant but unheralded role in the history of exploration — in Africa in the Nineteenth Century, for example. Similarly, Lewis and Clark were covered with glory, but Sacajewea, who guided them every inch of the way, was strangely forgotten. All institutions reflect the prejudices and conventions of their times, and when it was founded The Explorers Club necessarily reflected the attitudes of 1905.
Traditions are important. They provide continuity with our past. But it is up to us to decide which traditions are essential to The Explorers Club and which are accidents of the epoch in which it was institutionalized. Times have changed since 1905. It is very clear that a foolish rigidity can destroy otherwise worthwhile institutions; they are then replaced by other organizations more in tune with the times. […]
Today women are making extraordinary contributions in areas of fundamental interest to our organization. There are several women astronauts. The earliest footprints — 3.6 million years old — made by a member of the human family have been found in a volcanic ash flow in Tanzania by Mary Leakey. Trailblazing studies of the behavior of primates in the wild have been performed by dozens of young women, each spending years with a different primate species. Jane Goodall’s studies of the chimpanzee are the best known of the investigations which illuminate human origins. The undersea depth record is held by Sylvia Earle. The solar wind was first measured in situ by Marcia Neugebauer, using the Mariner 2 spacecraft. The first active volcanos beyond the Earth were discovered on the Jovian moon Io by Linda Morabito, using the Voyager 1 spacecraft. These examples of modern exploration and discovery could be multiplied a hundredfold. They are of true historical significance. If membership in The Explorers Club is restricted to men, the loss will be ours; we will only be depriving ourselves.
The Explorers Club began accepting female members later that year.
And this is yet another reason why Carl Sagan is one of my heroes.