I came to Star Trek as a lonely, isolated girl nerd coming of age in a strict, conservative Christian fundamentalist sect. My first taste of feminism, my first glimpse of what equality for women looked like, came through Star Trek. The strong women of Star Trek became burning and shining lights for me in a culture that oppressed women.
Growing up, the men of our sect told us women what to think, and guided our opinions. We were expected to “bow” to their decisions and judgements. Women in the fundamentalists are valued and respected in theory, but in practice, we are treated as second class citizens. A woman can’t teach or preach in church. She must always defer to the men in her life. She is expected to raise the children, guide the home, and submit to her husband. She is not expected to work outside the home or to have a career of her own. She is not encouraged to earn a college degree. Once her family is raised and gone, she is expected to be a wise teacher mentor figure to the younger women.
Growing up, we weren’t allowed to have television in the home. But my mom, in acts of radical but quiet rebellion, made sure we kids were introduced to Star Trek. When we visited my grandmother, she rented the classic Trek movies, and we watched those (“don’t tell your father or anyone at the meeting that we’re watching Star Trek”). It was a secret we shared with Mom. We saw episodes of TNG at my grandmother’s, and when DS9 aired, my mom bought a tiny television (gasp! The rebellion!), hid it in a closet, and recorded the episodes on Memorex cassette tapes.
In these strange new worlds, both on screen and in the novels, I saw what I had never seen before: women in places of leadership. There were women medical professionals, scientists, and security officers working side by side with men as equals.
I most deeply related to Counselor Deanna Troi. Like me, she was a bit different from everyone else, with her mysterious but deeply felt sense of other people’s feelings and emotions. In my culture, experiencing and expressing feelings and emotions was distrusted, frowned upon, and called “a lack of faith.” “You can’t trust your feelings,” we were told. Yet here was a professional woman telling us that it was important to get in touch with our feelings, to process them, to own and know them. This was an invaluable life lesson.
In Doctor Beverly Crusher, I saw a woman who would not let anyone define her reality or question her experiences (“Remember Me”). She would not back down from her moral principles and what she thought was right, and she took the Bridge officer’s test to prove to herself that a woman could be an excellent commander.
I also deeply related to Major Kira Nerys. Growing up, many of the real-life women role models I looked up to were closer to Kai Winn Adami. Nerys taught me another way to be a deeply spiritual woman. Her faith gave her something to hold onto during the darkest hours of her life, but she didn’t take that faith and turn it into a tool of oppression, and she didn’t turn it into one of the piety competitions I saw growing up. She confronted her deepest pain and was able to forgive and form loving relationships with members of the race that had oppressed her. She showed me that a woman who had experienced oppression could learn and change and grow. She held her own as an equal with men, called them out when they needed it, spoke her mind without fear, and sometimes, put her foot down. She showed me that a person could open her heart to love again even after great loss and grief. Most importantly, she showed me that a woman does not need to lose her identity when she enters a relationship.
Of all the women of Star Trek, Keiko O’Brien was closest to the woman’s role I was used to. Keiko taught me some of the most valuable life lessons of all. She was a ferociously loyal wife and mother who would not give up on her husband’s life (“The Armageddon Game”). She supported Miles in his work, and she encouraged him to spend time with his best guy friend, Julian. She was a devoted mother. But she never lost who she was and what she wanted. She had a life and an identity outside of her husband and children. Missing her career as a botanist and the arboretum onboard the Enterprise, she knew she needed meaningful work and a purpose. She saw a need, and she filled a need by forming a school for the station’s children. She was not intimidated by Vedek Winn, and she did not back down from her convictions and her belief in the importance of teaching science. When an opportunity opened up for her to practice her profession on Bajor, a move that meant she would be temporarily separated from her husband, she knew that she needed to work planetside with green growing things, and she went for it. She was very much in love with Miles, but she didn’t hesitate to lovingly call him out when he needed it. She was an equal partner.
The strength and fire of the lessons my Star Trek woman companions taught me have stayed with me and given me the courage to go on, from leaving fundamentalism, to leaving an unhealthy marriage, to leaving toxic work environments. Star Trek is meant to be a hopeful vision of a more diverse future, and it is, but it can also be a vision of what young girls can aspire to be, here and now. Star Trek has inspired so many people to be astronauts, engineers, doctors, and scientists. It inspired me, a woman who grew up without a voice, to be a writer, and to find my voice.