Why does one local discussion matter? Because it was so well-publicised. And it reveals contemporary thinking about the gendered sea, in one of the most significant ports anywhere.
Equality in context
At that point in the UK women’s equality was anyway a hot topic. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was due to come into effect in only four weeks’ time, on 2 July. This law meant that, at last, all women had the vote.
Lady Ernestine Brudenell-Bruce (1871-1953) had begun the fight for that right in 1898, when she was not allowed to take her ticket at the end of her course at a Liverpool Nautical College. She leaked the BOT correspondence to newspapers as far away as New South Wales.
Victoria Drummond (pictured, courtesy of Catherine Drummond-Herdman)) had become the world’s first female marine engineering officer in 1922.
What a question
There’s much confused reporting, which ignores – ahem – the slight difference of scale in the business of commanding a yacht as opposed to that complex cluster of operations, the ocean-going ships.
But the two main reasons appear to be:
1. ‘The life of the sea breeds characteristics, particularly in the way of vocabulary, not best suited to female comradeship’ went one argument in the Truth. Presumably this was a metonymic way of saying that women belonged to a separate and more refined culture. Therefore mutual intelligibility was impossible.
2. Sex-segregated space on board would be required, as the women worked their way up the ranks. ‘Whether they enter as apprentices or ordinary seamen, women would have to be berthed apart from the rest of the crew ... I cannot imagine shipowners relishing such an additional demand upon space’ was another obstacle raised in the Truth. The same argument was still being used to exclude women from ‘men’s jobs’ in the 1970s.
- the on-board social climate can be hostile to women, even on passenger ships
- shipowners’ non-family-friendly working arrangements force women to choose between motherhood and career.
How to solve the problem?
So what was to be done, in 1928? In a world where all training ship cadets were male the Truth’s reporter suggested ‘A training ship for women might meet the case up to a point ... but at the end of their probation the same difficulty of "mixing" would occur.’
1. The first can barely be traced. Captain SN Braithwaite, MBE, was at that time the Marine Superintendent for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and seemingly in his 50s. In WW1 he had been honoured for his part in the Dardanelles campaign, as captain of the troopship Cardiganshire, which took soldiers out to Gallipoli.
2.Maritime women’s second ally was John Archibald Rupert-Jones, the hydrographer to the Southampton Harbour Board. Then 54, he had been decorated for his RNR service in WW1. And he was esteemed for his survey of St John’s harbour (1912) and Chronological Order of the Introduction of Steam-Propelled Vessels into the Royal Navy’ (1927).
Beatie Fry: mutiny ‘absurd’
|‘She who must be obeyed’: Beatie with her friend Admiral Sir James Somerville to her left. These images are from Ronald Morris’ biography of her, The Indomitable Beatie (2004).|
From girlhood she had been notorious for her ‘manly’ disregard for feminine conventions: she rode astride, wore masculine clothing and had been involved in a sex scandal.
‘Such competence would, she considered, be recognised and reverenced by a crew as readily in a woman as in a man skipper. Mrs Fry’s robust and generous faith in her own sex is both convincing and refreshing’ opined The Woman’s Leader.
‘It’s a great place to have knowledgeable collective discussions about how to create a comradely happy ship.’
She found the members were still so unused to female captains that they mentored her and saw her as a novelty. But they respected her endeavour.
What does it mean?