To Proudly Go joins our community in the celebration of Women’s History Month by exploring the history of women in Star Trek and their powerful effect as role models for women today. Our own Ann Marie Segal writes:
Star Trek has always been light years ahead of the curve depicting a universe of equality. As is common among Star Trekfans, and To Proudly Go in particular, I’m a big believer in the mantra ‘representation matters.’ Thanks to my family and all of the Star Trek I watched since age 3, I was lucky enough to grow up with many female role models. And it’s worth mentioning that the one action figure I had growing up was Dr. Beverly Crusher, a brilliant, passionate, loving, feminine medical doctor!”Dr. Ann Marie Segal, Outreach and Engagement Manager, To Proudly Go
Dr. Crusher, played by Gates McFadden, is far from the only female superhero in the franchise, but is a highlight of the tradition of female empowerment that began with Nichelle Nichols in the original series and continues even stronger today.
It is worth noting that the entire franchise would not exist, if not for television’s first powerful female superstar, Lucille Ball. Famous, of course, for her starring role in the eponymous I Love Lucy, Ball never appeared in a single episode of Trek. But as the co-producer of Desilu Productions, she was an early advocate of that strange show that half or more of the men in the room thought would be a ridiculous waste of money that would surely never catch on. As explained in The Center Seat, in Ball’s role as producer, she wanted a project that would break out of the mold of “daffy redhead gets into trouble” and saw Trek’s potential to deliver.
After the first pilot failed, Ball took the extraordinary step of paying for a second pilot episode, which sold the concept and led to the original run of the first series. After the series was canceled, having only three seasons, Ball’s influence came into play yet again: she had pioneered the concept of reruns, allowing shows to find new audiences long after the end of an initial run.
Fast forward to the 1990s for our next female superhero: Captain Kathryn Janeway, of course, played by the always-extraordinary Kate Mulgrew. Janeway is, so far, the only woman to anchor a series in the role of starship captain. Mulgrew, now beloved to Trek audiences, was actually not the first woman cast in the role. Captain Elizabeth Janeway was originally to be played by the brilliant, Oscar-nominated Geneviève Bujold. Elizabeth became Nicole, and filming commenced, but after a brief stint Bujold had the professionalism and grace to recognize that things were not working, and Nicole Janeway became Kathryn Janeway when Voyager finally found its captain.
Mulgrew, as Janeway, commanded the franchise into farther reaches of the galaxy than any other show had ventured, and cemented a role in television history, putting a woman squarely and incontrovertibly in charge, on any television that happened to be tuned in.
Our last female action figure for this post is perhaps the one with the least name recognition, but perhaps the most ubiquitous voice: Majel Barrett, who happened to end up married to series creator Gene Roddenberry. She was cast as the first officer—“Number One”—in that failed first pilot that Lucille Ball had to shell out a small fortune to replace. Network executives were irate that the “girlfriend” was cast in a leading role and insisted that she be replaced by a man. They were supported in this by test audiences of the era, including other women, who found her annoying and too eager to “fit in” with the men “in charge.” (One might imagine Janeway addressing them, on that point.)
She did end up with a recurring, minor role in the original series (Nurse Christine Chapel… foreshadowingly), and then to become the voice of the computer and to appear in every, single official Trek show or movie in her lifetime.
Much of modern technology is inspired by what was first imagined in Star Trek. Have you ever stopped to wonder why Siri and Alexa are voiced by women? Maybe because of Majel and her contribution to the Trek universe.
Star Trek shows us why it is so important to have strong female role models on television because those role models inspire the real superhero women that work in science, medicine, aerospace, engineering, technology fields and the many other areas help make a better future for all of us today.