Col. Wang Yaping is a pilot in the People's Liberation Army's Air Force. She is a space veteran, now making her second trip into orbit. She is set in the coming weeks to be the first Chinese woman to walk in space as China's space station glides around Earth at 17,100 mph.

And yet, as she began a six-month mission last week at the core of China's ambitious space program, official and news media attention fixated as much on the comparative physiology of men and women, menstruation cycles, and the 5-year-old daughter she has left behind, as they did on her accomplishments. (No one asked about the children of her two male colleagues.)

Before the launch, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, let it be known that a cargo capsule had supplied the orbiting space station with sanitary napkins and cosmetics.

"Female astronauts may be in better condition after putting on makeup," he said in remarks shown on CCTV, the state television network.

At 41, Wang is a model of gender equality in a country where Mao Zedong famously said that "women hold up half the sky," as women remain the object of an undercurrent of sexism and condescension that courses through Chinese society, business and politics.

The 25-member Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, the country's ruling political body, includes only one woman, Sun Chunlan. Discrimination remains rampant in the workplace, where women are recruited for their looks and dismissed or demoted when they become pregnant.

A nascent #MeToo movement in China has faced pushback in the courts and from state censors online. A Chinese gold medalist in the shot-put at the Tokyo Olympics in August was harangued on air for her "masculine" appearance, as well as her plans for marriage and family.

"A major power like China gives women the chance to go to space," said Lu Pin, an activist who founded an online forum in China, Feminist Voices, that has since been purged from the internet by the authorities. "On the other hand, it still tells everyone that, even if you are a woman who has become an astronaut, you still have to play a traditional female role."

In China today, it is rare for women outside the entertainment industry to reach such public prominence as Wang.

When they do manage to break barriers, their accomplishments are often viewed through the prism of gender.

Wang's mission has been treated in official statements and state media as a novelty, even though China sent its first women into space nearly a decade ago. The Soviet Union sent its first woman into orbit in 1963: Valentina Tereshkova, who spent three days in space and remains the only woman to fly solo. The first American woman, Sally Ride, went up in 1983.

The reaction in China echoes what those earlier trailblazers faced. Ride fielded condescending questions about menstruation, motherhood and whether she intended to wear a bra in orbit. "It's too bad our society isn't further along," she said then.

In a short TV report showing her training for the upcoming spacewalk, Wang exuded similar confidence, saying she hoped the mission aboard the new space station, called Tiangong, would be "more brilliant because of me."