How Star Trek Advanced the Cause of Gender Equality

Wed, 16 May 2018

Following up on a topic that I started back in 2015, here's some more about contributions that Star Trek made to society.

The Women's Liberation Movement of the 1960s started a change in society. Prior to that time, women were expected to get married, tend to the house, and take care of the kids. Women with careers were few and far between. Even fewer could expect to have a position of authority in what was considered to be a man's world. While some women worked low level jobs due to financial problems at home, the idea of a woman pursuing a profession was generally scoffed at and dismissed. (Sadly, this expectation persisted long after the 1960s and is still prevalent in some places today.)

It was about that time a television show came along that presented a future of gender equality. In this series, women and men worked alongside one another without gender even being an issue. Professional women were shown to be as efficient at their jobs as their male counterparts. For 1960s America, this was revolutionary.

As early as 1964, Gene Roddenberry produced his first pilot episode for what would become the original Star Trek series. In that pilot episode called "The Cage", viewers were introduced to a 23rd century starship called the U.S.S. Enterprise. Shockingly for many viewers of the time, the episode featured a female first officer.

NBC executives rejected this pilot. Gene Roddenberry has said that one of the issues was having a woman in such a high level position of authority. Still, he was given the rare green light to produce a second pilot episode. The stipulation: He had to recast the crew. The only survivor from the original cast would be the Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock. In the second pilot, Spock also assumed the role of the first officer while serving under Captain James T. Kirk.

While a woman would no longer serve as the first officer, Roddenberry did feature an African American woman in another prominent role in the original Star Trek series. Nichelle Nichols was cast as Lieutenant Uhura, the ship's communications officer. Uhura had the respect of her crewmates and proved to be skilled at her job. While she would never actually be shown to assume control of the ship, she was fourth in the chain of command.

Each week, viewers would see a woman working alongside men with no sense of inequality. As shown in the parallel universe of the episode "Mirror, Mirror" Uhura was quite capable of not only performing her duties but defending herself, as well.

Sadly, Uhura was the only regular female character that exerted much authority. Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand were both in positions of servility. Not even Star Trek was able to push the envelope too far. Men continued to dominate the top positions in the series. But women were interspersed among the men in other upper level positions.

In the first season episode "Space Seed", Lieutenant Marla McGivers served as the ship's historian specializing in 20th century. Unfortunately, she proved to be weak-willed and easily manipulated. In "Mudd's Women", the crew of the Enterprise happened upon three strong and sexually-powerful women. It was later discovered, though, that the main goal of these women was to find husbands.

In most cases, women in the Star Trek series were cast as love interests and/or as disposable characters. When women were to exude some level of competence, they were typically cast alongside a strong male counterpart. Such was the case in "Patterns of Force." Daras, a woman who had successfully infiltrated a Nazi-like regime, was offset by a man (Isak) who had also infiltrated the regime.

Perhaps the most powerful depiction of a strong woman by a guest star was in the Hugo Award-winning episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever." Joan Collins played Edith Keeler, a progressive woman from the 1930s. Keeler was a social worker at the 21st Street Mission in New York City. Three members of the Enterprise crew -- Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- traveled back in time and met her. Keeler greatly impacted Kirk with her passionate and optimistic view of the future.

In the subsequent series of the Star Trek franchise, women were able to assume a variety of prominent and powerful roles: chief medical officer, head of security, captain, starship engineer, ambassador, planetary leader... even as admirals in Starfleet.

The original Star Trek series started strong and with good intentions, but it failed to live up to its potential. While it was progressive and supportive of the Women's Liberation Movement in many respects, it was hampered by the prevailing attitudes of the day. Still, Star Trek helped promote and legitimize the plight of women in an era that preferred to repress them. Even though it didn't always get it right, Star Trek pointed forward to the gains women would make over the next decades.