Wednesday 15 December 2010

Cunard's first woman captain.

I hope no-one will say 'Eek! Another woman driving a big ship!' Far better to celebrate: 'At last, another woman liner captain.'

Happily it's taken just 170 short years of Cunard's existence for a woman to become the company's first female captain. I love dynamism, don't you?

Inger Klein Olsen took command of Cunard Line’s Queen Victoria at the beginning of December. The Faroese captain has been First Officer on Caronia (1997); worked on Seabourn Sun and Seabourn Spirit; became Staff Captain on Seabourn Pride in 2003; worked for other companies within the Carnival Corporation group; and in August 2010 became Deputy Captain of Queen Victoria.

She is 48 and lives in Denmark. And no, I'm not going to comment on her marital status, hair colour, body size, or talents with a wok.

Equal opps are notoriously worse in the Merchant Navy than in the Royal Navy. But maritime culture is very conservative generally, as Captain Olsen's progress indicates. Royal Caribbean International only appointed its first woman captain, Karin Stahre Janson, in 2007.

And yes, so far she hasn't run into icebergs because too busy painting pink roses on her toenails. Nor has she held the ship up in expensive docks because she had to spend ten days a month lying down with PMT then another ten days getting therapy for it - all that in between maternity leaves. Remarkable, for a woman driver.

Could it be that women are actually competent? Could it be that shipping lines have been wasted valuable potential - not to mention insulting half the human race - by restricting seawomen to the dusting and pen-pushing labour aboard ships for over a century?

President and MD of Cunard Peter Shanks (whose abilities to lapdance, cook, sew, and simultaneously raise well-adjusted children has yet to be ascertained) naturalised the slowness to appoint a woman captain.

He implied that the delay was caused simply by the quest for quality. A bit like Jack Daniels whisky, according to its adverts then, eh?

'As Mark Twain drily observed, "the folks at Cunard wouldn’t appoint Noah himself as captain until he had worked his way up through the ranks"...Inge has certainly done that,' said the maybe 36DD-22-36 happy home-maker, Peter.

But equal opps legislation has been in place since 1975. Yes, 35 years ago. So, chaps, isn't all this a trifle, well, tardy? Imbalanced?

How about the real stories?
~ The struggle against traditional and masculine culture that still inhibits so many seawomen's progress, and makes some leave in frustration.
~ The statistical evidence that shows how men's promotion patterns differ from women's.

Good luck to Captain Olsen. May she be the first of many. Soon.And may she enjoy it.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Women on UK subs - finally. Maybe.

The UK navy is one of the last navies to allow women on submarines. But it looks like it could happen next year following a study by the Institute of Naval Medicine, it was announced on Dec 5.

See, for example,

About time too!See my blogs of Aug 6 and May 30 this year, and June 11 and Sept 15 in 2009.

The stated - and implausible - reason for women's exclusion was formerly that there was a risk to female or foetal health from the radiation on nuclear subs. The build-up of contaminants could exceed levels safe for a foetus, and women in the initial stage of pregnancy might not know they were expecting, the argument went.(Navy News, 29.4.99.)

A solution of course, was to only employ women who were not heterosexually active to work on submarines. This didn't happen. Which made many observers think that health was only an excuse, and that sexism was the real reason. Men couldn't cope with women on subs.

But now, perhaps it's been noticed that women submariners in other countries have been perfectly well for a long time.

The list of precedents is:
Sweden 1980s
Norway 1995
Australia 1999
Canada 2002
South Africa 2007
US 2010

Anyway the Institute has decided the risk does not exist. So the Ministry of Defence is now reviewing the decision and the green light might go on next year.

The other problem - fear of hotbeding causing immorality - is to be resolved by having separate beds for women and men. Wow, rocket science!

Could this concession be anything to do with difficulties in getting crews? As in both world wars, women were suddenly deemed fit for some jobs when there was a shortage of men to do that work.

Yes, I am suggesting there is hypocrisy in operation. And it's fascinating to see the fears of trouble, marriage break-up,etc that men are already posting on websites today.

Saturday 20 November 2010

More than Grace Darlings: Women in lifeboats

Now we can know the full story of women in lifeboats. Britain's first book on lifeboat women is just out - Sue Hennessy's Hidden Depths, Women of the RNLI (The History Press, £16.99).
I was so excited and impressed to read about the work of women crew on today's high tech lifeboats. They're such pioneers - just like their tough forbears who acted like human tractors, launching the lifeboats.

But I hadn't expected to be so moved by stories of women who do the much less derring-do task of raising funds. Particularly moving are the accounts of those who bequeath their life savings to the RNLI and have lifeboats named after them. Those pages gave me two cries a minute.
This book is a mix of both the modern and historical, based on interviews with many women. So it's a subjective personalised history of an organisation/group of communities seen from many angles.

My favourite bit is where Sue Hennessy, the just-retired Principal of the Lifeboat College, talked - oh so delicately - about the thorny problem of going to the loo.
In looking at women's history many have found that lavatory usage(ladies vs gents) is symbolic of gender tensions. The issue is about how difference is respected and what kinds of space women are allocated.Indeed, a group of US feminist academics are putting together a book called Toilet Papers: The Gendered Construction of Public Toilets.
When it comes to the sea specifically, cross-dressed women seafarers in history used horns or urinating instruments as a kind of funnel. In maritime life so many arguments about 'we can't allow women on ships' utilise the lack of space for separate bathrooms as the justification for women's total exclusion.
So how do women today manage it on the small RNLI boats on choppy waters when they have to struggle their way through so many layers of protective clothing to access a shared bucket in cramped cabin? Forthrightly and with humour.
Dwyn Perry of Moelfre, who is the helm on the inshore lifeboat and the navigator on the all-weather lifeboat describes her procedure: "I now kindly say, 'Right you lot, I'm off to the loo' and hang off the back end. I know it's not very ladylike but it works." Nicki Wood of Sheerness has her own bucket. Karolyn Rath of Clogher Head "is always first off the boat after a shout [call out] but has to tolerate the men ever asking her 'have you not gone yet?'".

What comes across clearly is the acceptance, the kindliness and cheer of being part of a dedicated team. These women and men are mates, whatever the difficulties some people still have about women in the job. Such misogyny is largely absent from this upbeat book but there's one telling tale:
Eleanor Hooker of Loch Derg is part of all-women crew of six. In 2004 they went to rescue a cruiser that had gone aground. The small boy aboard called 'Daddy, they are all women!' Eleanor joked 'Will you wait while we go back and find some men?'
But clearly RNLI women are doing the job just fine!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Sea captain's wives - 19th century representations

Paulette Kilmer’s interesting 2007 article, Often Caregivers? Sometimes Wild Women? An Archetypal Study of Sea Captain’s Wives in the New York Times, 1851-1900, has just been brought to my attention to Google alerts. (
I thought I’d see how Britain compares. Similarly to Kilmer in the US, I used (the British Library’s resource) 19C British Newspapers on line, and inserted the search term ‘sea captain's wife’.
The search revealed that in the UK we had far less newspaper stories about them: 47 by comparison to the US’s 500. Of the 27 useable stories, thirteen were about wives at sea, eight were about captain’s wives (or woman masquerading as that for criminal purposes) on land, and six were examples from fiction.
The picture is fascinatingly different. All the UK stories were extremely short, so it wasn’t possible to examine them to see if they were being represented as caring or as warriors, as Kilmer did using Karl Jung’s, and Carol Pearson’s, theories of archetypes.
There were no tales at all of British wives taking over the ship when the captain was ill, nor successfully working out a course, nor being more competent than the mate etc, as Kilmer found in a number of cases. In only one of all the thirteen seagoing stories is an adjective used about a captain’s wife: ‘plucky’. This might be taken to be a reference to an archetypal warrior.
As in the US, there’s hardly any occasion when woman is referred to by name; she’s just ‘the captain's wife.’

Of the articles about seagoing wives, the most full story (one paragraph) appears in the London Standard, November 3 1847; it summarises the loss of the schooner Albion off Plymouth on a very stormy night. The ship was homeward bound from Faro, and carrying cork. It was so lightly laden that waves cast it onto a breakwater. The ship was then was overtaken by flames caused by loose hot cinders igniting timbers.
‘The captain’s wife in her nightclothes escaped through the fire with her little girl, but only to suffer a different death. In attempting to get her over the side she was thrown from her husband’s arms and with her daughter was drowned….The captain’s wife experienced a premature labour aboard only two days before, and this will account for a fire being lighted in the cabin store.’ Captain Hopper and his crew survived. I guess Mrs Hopper could be seen as caregiver here, but primarily she’s a tragic victim.

What I found telling in a brief survey of the 27 articles was:
1. That it was taken for granted that some wives sailed with their husbands, especially on short trips
2. The way captain’s wives ashore appear to have been seen by the general public: pityingly but respectfully. These women- especially if mothers – were typically represented as doing something brave, surviving socially without a husband to help them.
They are accepted as being entitled to community support. This must be why at least one con-artist, Amelia Wilson, chose that identity as a way to wangle free accommodation and the opportunity to rob. (Middlesbrough Daily Gazette, 10 May 1877)

Of the eight stories of the wives on land, the saddest was about Anne Elliott. The 31-year-old Scottish mother of three was rebuked by her husband for spending too much while he was away at sea on the Rifle, a Chinese trader. She was so upset by his anger on his return that she committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum. (The Aberdeen Journal, 10 Oct 1856)

It would be a good idea for people to do some comparative work on the different ways newspapers in different countries represent seagoing captains’ wives. The key question is ‘How much is the lack of recorded bravery by British wives to do with reporting conventions? Were British captain’s wives really so much less brave that US wives?’
(The image used here appears in Joan Druett's article at Druett's work on captain's wives is path-breaking.

Piracy's impact on women

Any discussion that explores the gender relations round piracy is welcome. And google alerts have just brought to my attention Shukria Dini’s very interesting article: The Implications of Piracy for Modern Women:

The piece grew from findings when she was researching another subject in Somalia in 2005-6. There she came to understand piracy as a third world activity develop mainly in response to the poverty caused by aggressive and unpoliced foreign fishing in depleted Somali waters.

In summary, I see her main arguments as being about extremely wealthy men - as pirates briefly become – and what that means:
• men have great power to exploit vulnerable women and create conditions that breed prostitution
• men may spend the money on themselves (including on the drug qat) and not on the family
• they may take new wives and so divert resources from their main families
• they may lure young impoverished women into chatteldom, the sex industry or unwise marriages – which may socially mark them forever and blamed for their connection to piracy
• wealth is only temporary and will not bring bliss and secure futures
• poor, non-pirate young men cannot compete for wives
• when tensions rise between warring factions, women can be hindered from going to the market where they win the family bread
• pirate wealth increase the price of local goods and services, making life still more economically difficult for the lower-waged

Having studied piracy and gender for 15 years now, I think the article could go further, so that is specifically about piracy rather than the problem of men suddenly having wealth from any sort of work, say fishing or working away on oil rigs. The particular features of piracy work anywhere, as I see it, are that:
1. it is violent
2. it necessities itinerant temporary labour
3. it is done in all-male teams with a culture that valorises macho ruthlessness.
4. it’s criminal, meaning such workers live outside the law and can neither be constructive members of society not constructively resistant challengers of it.

So, for example, let’s look at the implications of violence, for women. Shukria only points that in a marriage where the man takes up arms the wife can be left husbandless (killed doing his work), meaning that she becomes economically deprived.

But a really important problem is surely the damage that is done to everyone, including mentally, by living in a family/society where violence has become normal in one member’s working life. And violence produces ripples, and brutalisation. All pirates are not psychopaths. Many are just impoverished young men caught up in struggle to survive. But surely living by the gun cannot make for harmonious personal lives.

It would be good to some comparative analyses how piracy impacts on women. There are bigger questions too: How can piracy be stopped, but what happens to women in less developed economies if it is halted? And if women were involved in pirate action (not just in support work) what difference, if any, would that make?

Thursday 30 September 2010

Women Captains

An interesting blog has just appeared on women captains, summarising two who have not appeared on this website. The blog's English is rather hard to read and there are inaccuracies, but it's worth looking at.

1. From 23-29 December 2007 (and maybe still, I'd love to know) the captain and all navigating officers on the container ship Horizon Navigator (28,212 grt) were women. Captain Robin Espinosa, First Mate Sam Pirtle, 2nd Assistant Julie Duchi. (See upper picture). The rest of the 25-strong crew were men.
The gender balance was an accident that surprised Espinosa. It was the first time in 10 years that she had worked in harness with other women officers, let alone women navigators. And women are only 10% of maritime workers, so the rostering fluke was remarkable.

2. And on April 16 2008 the largest livestock-transportation ship in the world was headed by a woman, Laura Pinasko (30). (See lower photo). She worked for Siba Ships on the Stella Deneb, and this was the first ship she had captained.
From Genoa, Laura had been working at sea since 1997, and qualified in 2003. Previously she had been First Lieutenant on the ship, which took livestock from Townsville, Australia to Indonesia and Malaysia. On board this trip were 20,060 head of cattle and 2,564 sheep and goats, which had been brought to the quay by 28 train convoys.
The cargo was worth 11 million US$, which certainly indicates how much her competence was trusted.

3. The blog also mentions 'the first woman merchant captain', Anna Ivanovna Shchetinina, 1908-99. (See her biography on wikipedia). She wasn't the first. Several are slated for that honour.
The most plausible one seems to be Betsy Miller, master of the brig Clitus, in the 1870s.
For a fuller summary see my article in Maritime Heritage, vol 2, no 4, Nov/Dec 1998: "Women Taking the Helm", pp.34-37.

Monday 6 September 2010

The woman who managed Jacques Cousteau's ship

A new blog tribute to women of the planet has just alerted me to - yet another - unsung woman working at sea: Simone Melchior Cousteau (1919-90. Her biographies show she was not merely a quiet landlubbing lady behind a famous man.
She was: the first woman scuba diver; in effect the bosun - and only woman aboard - a high-profile undersea exploration vessel; a maritime/media business manager. She learnt Japanese at five and was a mother too.
But as with so many wives, the historical record subsumes and naturalises her multi-skills into a story of what inspiring wives and mothers do.
Not only did she raise funding for her explorer husband Jacques-Yves Cousteau. undersea by selling her jewels for fuel for the Calypso, and her fur for a gyroscope.
She also managed after the 40-strong male crew. Her nickname "La Bergere" (the Shepherdess)summarises the way men represented her role. Sonia Paz Pachi Baronvine's blog records:
In 1980, in an interview, a journalist asked him if it was difficult to command the Calypso, Cousteau answered: " Not, if Simone is on board, she is the cook, the mother of thirty sailors, which advises, which finishes the fights, who tells us to shave, which challenges us, which our best critical one, caresses us, the hairdresser on board, our first admirer, who saves the ship of the thunderstorms. It is the smile every morning and the greeting before going to sleep. The Calypso might have lived without me ... but not without Simone " .
But it's a mistake to see this as 'just what good wives do.' Actually she must have learned her expertise in personnel management on ships partly from her father and both grandfathers. They were admirals in the French Navy
In the circumstances, how remarkable is it that - as Sonia Paz Pachi Baronvine points out (in rather unclear English) - with no formal training in navigation Simone steered the ship in an eight-hour storm while the divers were in the sea. She saved the converted minesweeper.
Her achievements were, of course, enabled by her being an elite white person. But she was happiest out of camera range, whalewatching up in the crow's nest.

Encountering a mermaid

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Monday 9 August 2010

Women's peace ship

Today St Mariam, the all-woman Gaza aid ship is set to sail from Tripoli to Cyprus. It's the first leg of its voyage.

The ship carries medical instruments and medicines to help Palestinians suffering because of the Israeli blockade.

With its sister ship, Naji Alali, the St Mariam (meaning the Virgin Mary)had hoped to set off several weeks ago. It was delayed after Israel launched a diplomatic mission to pressure Lebanon to stop the mission.

Peace activist passengers include Lebanese singer May Hariri(see pic), US nuns,doctors, lawyers, journalists and a very pregnant woman, Serena Shim. Faiths include Muslim and Christians. Some have adopted the ship's name, Mariam.

The participants are aware of the dangers after the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara in May. Nine activists were killed.

Organiser Samar al-Haj says 'There will be no showers, no skirts and no makeup.' Food with be sparse and accommodation limited.

At a planning meeting Al-Haj reminded the women to be prepared for a confrontation. 'Have blood tests in case we come under attack from Israel and you need a blood transfusion.'

However, she made clear that organisers were going out of their way not to provoke Israel."We will not even bring cooking knives." Read more in Ruth Sherlock's article at

The ship has been termed 'feminist.' I can't quite see it as a sort of floating Greenham Common Peace Camp. Maybe it's meant in the biologically essentialist sense. That is, some women claim that women (as potential mothers)have a special aptitude for ensuring the human race continues, including through anti-war protests.

But any peace initiative is to be valued. And these women are not only brave but patient. They've been waiting for weeks in a Beirut hotel.

If you want to read some horrifying responses to the initiative (anti-Muslim, anti-women, and anti-peace) then see bloggers at

Rabid and stupid comments, apart from 'sink 'em' include naming the ship Pussies Galore. There are jokes about PMT and crabs. The silliest remark is 'Wait’ll the tampon and Midol-stealing starts. They will turn on each other and those "didn’t bring ‘em’ ‘cooking’ knives will come out."

Sunday 8 August 2010

Celebrating women in command at sea

Two women have just got leading jobs at sea. I wish we could say "So what?"
But actually it is still a remarkable feat. So congratulations not only to to Johanna Kwedhi (lower pic)and Nora W Tyson (top pic) themselves, but those who've been brave enough to let them succeed, and to those who've supported them.

The unease that's being expressed on the web about Rear Adm. Tyson's appointment shows just how hard a fight it still is for women in power on ships to have their expertise recognised. See

31 years after joining the US Navy,last Thursday(Aug 5)Nora W Tyson assumed command of Carrier Strike Group Two. The strike group consists of aircraft carrier George W Bush, four guided-missile cruisers; Destroyer Squadron 22, which includes six guided-missile destroyers and two frigates, and Carrier Air Wing 8, with eight squadrons of aircraft.

Tyson said "As far as the trailblazing piece, I understand I am the first woman on the job," she said. "But I'm a professional just like my fellow officers are, and my fellow strike group commanders."

Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, said her appointment should send a signal "that there is no limit as to what you can do."

I myself feel 'If only such a claim were true.' And while it's good to see women progress, politically I regret that she is working for such a belligerent country.

By contrast, Johanna Kwedhi is Namibia's first female trawler captain, in charge of 23 crew. See a video of her at

The BBC reports: "Johanna captains the Kanus, one of the largest trawlers operating from Luderitz Harbour... It's her responsibility not only to navigate a coastline infamous for shipwrecks, but to bring in a profitable catch.

Trained by the Namibian Fisheries Institute, she was appointed skipper after serving for eight years as an officer and chief mate under a Spanish captain. Her company now has four more women doing similar training.

"This is a man's world," says Bosun Evalisto Shipo. "Since the beginning, it's been a man's world. If your leadership is not appropriate for the crew, you will not earn their respect."

And Captain Kwedhi has done so - while breaking another barrier too. "We have never seen a black person in charge of a ship," says Evalisto Shipo. "It has always been a Spanish person actually."

What a competent woman she must be, to succeed despite such odds, as well as being the single parent of a 14-month-old son, Innocent.

Friday 6 August 2010

Women's steep route onto "men's" ships

I've just found the best image yet that illustrates women's struggle to get into that bastion, naval ships. Maybe an artist's version will work as the cover for my new book on women on the wartime seas.

This is an Imperial War Museum b&w photo. I found it last week in their photo archive. This archive was such a rich source that I wished I'd used it before researching any of the word-based data for the book.

That's because photos - of course - are better than a thousand words. The images I saw tell so many important and hidden stories. They include
~ women cheerily cooped up cleaning out ships' boilers in WW1 (unions banned this in the next war)
~ a continuity 'girl' who was in a submarine for 8 weeks while filming in WW2 (despite all claims that women were never on submarines in wartime).

I've tinted this photocopy to draw out the symbolic significance of the woman and the steep rope ladder she's having to climb. And the chaps are deliberately greyed out.

The Wren is not only having to do a tricky feat in the ridiculously inappropriate clothes she was required to wear.

She's also rising to make her way though the denizens of that institution, the ship. Their exclusivity is conveyed through jeering and hostile faces far above her.

Yes, it's historic. The un-named Wren was a Boarding officer in WW2, and today's Navy has good equal opps policies.

But what a useful illustration of the gender hostility at sea that so many women have had to combat.

Friday 23 July 2010

Sexual harrassment at sea - & Akhona's tragedy

The more I think about cadet Akhona Geveza's death at sea and the alleged sexual harrassment it's exposed, the more I feel appalled.

Latest news is that there's no news - and that no-one has asked for a second autopsy on her, to clarify whether she was murdered or killed herself.

The United Filipino Seafarers website ( has added this: The SA Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu), which said it was horrified by Geveza's death, sent its "heartfelt condolences" to her family.

"Akhona’s death should signal to our government the importance of developing our own ship’s register, where South African seafarers can work on ships owned and registered in South Africa, and therefore be protected by South African laws, including labour laws," the union said.

Satawu would seek a high level meeting with Transnet to discuss measures that must be taken to protect trainees from further abuse.

Several cadets in the maritime studies programme, speaking to the Sunday Times on condition of anonymity, said there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers, who threatened cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts. The sex abuse allegations include claims that :

* Two male cadets were raped by senior officials while at sea;
* A female cadet terminated two pregnancies that followed her rape at sea;
* Three female trainees were pregnant at the end of their 12-month training stint;
* A male cadet was sent home a month before finishing his programme because he refused to have sex with a senior official; and
* A female cadet has a child with a married South African Maritime Safety Agency executive after he forced himself on her and threatened to cancel her contract if she told anyone.

Said a former female cadet: “When we arrived on the vessel, there were 10 women, and we were told that the captain is our god; he can marry you, baptise you and even bury you without anybody’s permission. We were told that the sea is no man’s land and that what happens at sea, stays at sea.”

Said another former female cadet: “It was like we were dumped in the middle of a game park.”

Thursday 22 July 2010

Women on the canals, 1940s.

Pic: WW2 Boatwomen: Rose Skinner (from the traditional boater community) & Sonia Rolt, trainee who later married into that community. Rose helped Kate with her script.

At the moment I am writing the section in my book that includes the middle-class women trained to work on canals in WW2. So it was great to have a very canal-y weekend in Oxfordshire.

I walked along some of the routes the women had taken, like the locks at Fenny Stratford on the Grand Union Canal. It made me realise just how very cut off from war the women were, and therefore how extra tricky it was for them to manage their relationships with the traditional boater community.

At Banbury I saw Kate Saffin's two one-woman plays about women on canals. She staged them at Tooley's boatyard. Ironically the auditorium was the dry dock, where her boat has been fixed at least three times.

Isobel's War is based on accounts of the women who joined the Women's Training Scheme during the war and worked on the narrow boats, a kind of counterpart to the land girls.

The other play is Mary Rose, the poignant story of two sex industry workers who briefly set up a brothel on an old landing craft. Moored on a deserted arm of the Oxford canal near Wolvercote, they encounter a range of responses from the locals, not all of whom are queuing up on the towpath for their services.

Kate based it on a short factual memoir: 'A signalman's story' by Hedley Hunnisett, in Driving Wheels, number 44 (Autumn 2002)

You can see the double bill on this Saturday, July 24, at Kizzie's, Lower Heyford (also on the Oxford canal, bridge 206). Go to for more info.

For further reading about the women trainees see see Margaret Cornish, Troubled Waters: Memoirs of a Canal Boatwoman; Susan Woolfit, Idle Women; Emma Smith, Maiden’s Trip, Eily Gayford, The Amateur Boatwomen. .

You can also learn more about women in the traditional boater community by reading Wendy Freer, Women and children of the cut, and Sheila Stewart, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwomen’s story.

Requiem for a Wren, summarised

WW2 Wrens appeared a fair bit in fiction at the time, but there are one or two novels which have rightly beome classics. Here's an extract from Angela Hickman's blog, about Requiem for a Wren.

'...most of [Neville]Shute's [war] novels ... feature a narrator/side character in the present, a section of reminiscing about the war and then a return to the story's present, in which the consequences of the memories unfold. Shute used that structure in ... in Requiem for a Wren.

It should also be said that Shute is a bit of a romantic. And in Requiem for a Wren he serves up two love stories: one that is beautiful and complete, though short-lived, and another which is enduring and unrequited. Those stories, about two brothers in love with the same woman (although not in a jealous, competitive way) overlay the larger story about WWII and its often undocumented affects on the psyche.

So, the story goes like this. Alan Duncan, an Australian who fought in the air force during the war and lost both his feet in a crash, only to subsequently become a lawyer, returns home to his family's sheep ranch. (Shute is as much a fan of Australian vistas as I am, it would seem). Alan hasn't been home for a long time, so he's surprised that his father is a little down when he picks him up at the airport. It turns out that his parents' housekeeper – and English woman named Jessie Proctor – of whom is mother was especially fond, just committed suicide.

As it turns out, the suicide is quite recent and the body is still in the house. Alan, quite curious about the whole thing – especially because she didn't leave much in way of explanation – goes searching for her personal papers, which he feels certain she must have cached somewhere in little suitcase the suicide attempt failed. Well, he finds them. But they are not what he expects.

Jessie Proctor is really Janet Prentice, his dead brother's fiancee, who he has been searching for. He discovers this, not by looking at the body, but by reading the diaries and letters she left in the case. The documents chronicle Janet's time during the war and her relationship with Bill, Alan's brother. In England, Janet fought as a Royal Navy Wren – a female gunner who shot at enemy aircraft. She was quite accomplished at her job, which was good for England but left her with a horrible guilt she felt the need to atone for. After the war, after Bill died, Janet set off to find Alan. She travelled to Australia, where instead of finding him she found his ailing mother. Janet decided a life of service to her dead fiancee's parents would perhaps help her repay her debt, so she changed her name and stayed on at the ranch.

Without going into all the details, I will just say that the picture Shute paints of female service during the war is a really interesting one. There aren't a lot of mainstream portrayals of what it was like to fight as a woman (especially written by a man) and Shute brings a lot more to the realities of Janet's service than an endless swirl of suitors and parties. Make no mistake, Janet and her Wrens were fighters and, Shute seems to say, there is nothing particularly glamourous about that life, despite the fact that she managed to fit in a little romance.

As I said above, Shute's narrative style follows a bit of a pattern. But, by layering his story he draws you in to one part, then throw you backwards into another one (which ups the stakes in the first one) and then pull you back to the present with a new understanding and let the story unfold. It's almost sneaky, except that he's pretty open about what he's doing. That's what I like about Shute's writing. I mean, yes, it's a little old fashioned and of a certain style, but he makes you really care about his characters and what happens to them: He allows you to understand them – to see them for who and what they are – and let's you judge them as you wish. Not a lot of authors are that brave.

Requiem for a Wren is ultimately a rather sad story, but it is also full of sunny moments and small victories. By the end, you are left rather like Alan is, in love with Janet, unable to have her, but glad you got to know her so well anyway.
(pic shows from Vintage Classics edition)

Angela Hickman's blog at

Cadet Geveza's death exposes shipboard sexual harrassment

This week South African media are reporting the tragic death of Akhona Geveza, a nineteen-year-old South African woman cadet on a cargo ship.

Clever, beautiful and set for a career at sea, she disappeared from the British-registered Safmarine Kariba on June 24. Her poor body was found drifting in the sea off the Croatian coast three days later.

Was she killed by shipmates? Did she kill herself?

Either way,the key seems to be that the day she died a fellow cadet reported (on Akhona's behalf, and against her wishes) that a senior officer, had repeatedly raped her.

Cadet Nokulunga Cele stated that Geveza had said that the Ukrainian officer first tried to kiss her while he was teaching her to swim early in May. Later he apologised to her and called her to his room. But there he allegedly raped her.

Cele said Geveza was not willing to report the matter to the shipmaster because she feared that nobody would believe her. What a lonely, terrible, situation. What an indictment of the shipboard regime.

There is no way that people trying to do their job should ever, ever, be allowed to be abused. It is especially outrageous when the victim is young and at sea because of economic need. (Akhona's father John Geveza, said the career of his only child had represented hope for her unemployed parents in the Eastern Cape).

It is even worse again when their abuser has additional social power over them - such as the ability to enable promotion, or even just daily wellbeing.

Akhona Geveza was a cadet on the Transnet National Port Authority’s maritime studies programme. It was set up as part of a campaign to encourage young women to become seafarers.

But the few stories leaking out so far suggest just how much the merchant shipping industry still has to learn about respecting and supporting vulnerable women - and young men - at sea. More than encouragement is needed. A decent working situation, free from violence, is crucial.

Geveza’s fellow cadets subsequently revealed that there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers at sea “who threatened cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts” reported the South Africa Sunday Times. A woman had to have two abortions, after being raped at sea. Two male cadets were raped by senior officials.

At 10am on June 24 Shipmaster Klaudiusz Kolodziejczyk heard about the rape. He says he immediately confronted the officer and convened a conference with him and Geveza for 11am.

When she failed to arrive for the meeting,he organised a search. Kolodziejczyk, alerted by some pills and a bottle of thinners found on the forecastle of the ship, sounded the alarm and called Sea Rescue at Rijeka.

Captain Kolodziejczyk was no doubt well-intentioned in organising the three-way conference But really! It's insane to subject a victim to that, especially when she was to work with that officer for a long period in an enclosed institution far out at sea. Doesn't Kolodziejczyk know how bullying and social pressure work?

Not only would the rest of her voyage be torture. It's also wrong to treat a rape as a personal dispute between two parties. Rape is a crime. Doesn't officer training include basic procedural advice about how to support the victim? Even the newest police officer ashore knows how traumatising a confrontation could be.

The very least that should be done by Transnet is ensure that this can never again happen on any ship. Akhona's death should alert all masters and shipowners to the very drastic need for training. All ships should be respectful workplaces, where, if there are any such crimes, they are dealt with appropriately.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Women on sailing ships 1650-1850 / Black sailors

Through my Google Alerts system I've found an interesting web forum, with a subsection about women on sailing ships. Go to, then go to 'Women at sea.' The site was mainly active 2003-2008, but it's still viable.

Some of the women discussed are cross-dressing sailors, some are wives of officers, two are mothers who gave birth at sea while their husbands were in Nelson's navy; Nelly Giles on HMS Bellerophon at the Battle of the Nile, 1798, and Louisa Phelan on HMS Swallow in June 1812.

They may have known the two women whom Thomas Maclise represented in his 1860s painting, The Death of Nelson. I was looking at it in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery last week.

I noticed that of the three 'nurses', the central one is a man. But he's looking very tender. I wondered if the artist gave some thought as to how prominent a woman should be - and decided against it.

The Walker website has an interesting article about how Maclise based his painting on real details of the Victory's complement in 1805. "The inclusion of two black people in the scene - a seaman in the centre of the painting and a cook to the left - was in part a matter of historical accuracy. The Victory's master book of 1805 refers to a small number of foreigners amongst crew members and mentioned that "some must have been Negroes � Two give Africa as their birthplace".

The black seaman plays a key role in the painting not just because he is in the centre, but because he points to Lord Nelson's assassin as well. The black seaman is not a symbol of "otherness" or difference of identity and culture; rather his presence serves to strengthen British identity.

Like other historical paintings, "The Death of Nelson" not only commemorates an important event, but also fulfils a didactic purpose: the representation of black people and women together with Lord Nelson suggests that Victorian society was a harmonious whole, despite its class divisions and inequalities.

In reality 19th century black sailors in British fleets were poorly treated. Although they usually worked in the lower ranks of the ship's company as cooks, deck hands or stewards, they were not slaves but free sailors. The hardship of living at sea meant that the life of a sailor was less attractive and for this reason black people were easily accepted.

It is believed that towards the end of the 19th century a quarter of all seamen in the merchant navy were black. Black people at sea were not isolated by their white shipmates, but mixed both in work and in leisure time. Black seamen from West Africa, the West Indies and the United States were a particularly common sight in Liverpool."

Monday 5 July 2010

Lifeboat women

Struggling to write my book on women on the wartime seas, this week I've been investigating lifeboat women.

It's been fascinating to find out that war didn't change the tradition that women helped launch the boats (before sea tractors did the hauling) but they didn't crew them. Exclusion continued.

Probably the main reason they didn’t sail was superstition. The ages-old defensive belief that women at sea brought ill-luck was so strongly entrenched that women could or would not challenge it. They either respected brave men’s convictions or had a sense of impossibility; there were better things to spend your energy on.

Newbiggin by the Sea have a great website about their launchers. And its historian, Richard Martin, is a godsend for explorers like me.

One of the Newbiggin launchers, cleaner Bella Arkle, said of a 1927 launch:

‘Rain speared down from black skies, a howling freezing gale tore at the roots of the fishermen’s cottages by the shoreline, a boiling sea was thundering ashore with huge combers breaking over the rocks in a fury of spume…

when the alarm went off I ran to the Lifeboat house where all the women were gathering. The weather had really turned bad when the Lifeboat was brought out and got into the water but waves threw it back. We had to straighten her up by wading right in. I was up to my neck that day, but we managed to get the boat away

… all the fishing boats were brought back safely. In fact the boat was out for three hours and the Newbiggin womenfolk for the most part waited on the foreshore in their wet clothes, facing into the gale, to help haul the Lifeboat in. That… was tradition.'

I really appreciate the help of Sue Hennessy in helping me understand their situation. In October she is bringing out a book about women's contribution to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, published by the History Press, Stroud. (see pic).

Monday 28 June 2010

Exploring the sea and identity.

It's a really interesting question. How/why does being at sea enable people to explore new identities - both passengers and crew?

I'll be giving a paper about how this worked for British merchant seafarers who explored sexual orientation and enjoyed an often outrageously gay life at sea, but were married or closeted at home. As they proclaimed with glee 'Nothing's "queer" once you've left that pier!"

This paper is They thought they were normal - and queens too: gay seafarers on British liners 1955-1985. The chance to hear it and think widely about identity - can be enjoyed at Who Did They Think They Were?:The Sea and the making of Identities, 44th Exeter Maritime History Conference, University of Exeter, 18-19 September, 2010.

Go to

The draft programme is now out. Provisionally I'll be speaking at 11.30 on Saturday Sept 18.

The blurb says it's 'A conference focusing on the relationship between the sea and identity in widest possible sense, naval or maritime; local,regional, national or international; gender and sexuality; fact, film or fiction.

'It will look beyond the usual nationalistic rhetoric to explore how identity has been moulded by attitude to and relationships with the sea. The conference will interrogate the idea of identity in its various manifestations in order to examine the importance of the sea to different audiences.'

Papers include:
• Identifying ‘seagoing races’: Britain’s colonial naval volunteers and the forging ofidentity during the Second World War.
• The Navy at Home: The creation of British identity in the domestic sphere 1793-1815.
• The identity of RN submarine commanders in the Second World War.
• Regional voices: national causes 1930-1945.
• Defying Conformity: Using tattoos to express individuality in the Victorian Navy.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Cocaine-smuggling Navy woman in court today.

Scandal about 'Wrens' (yes, they were disbanded ten years ago; women are part of the Royal Navy now, but the term lingers on)is always welcomed by the tabloids.

All the better if there's an added bit of spice about crimes such as smuggling. All the better if (nasty) foreign boyfriends are involved. And perhaps better still if she's 'not one of us'- not a nice white gel - indeed a refugee.

So the red tops will be having a field day later today over Teresa Matos (36) the Angola-born steward, who is in court to be sentenced for smuggling £2m of cocaine on HMS Manchester. She has already pleaded guilty.

I have no time for drug dealers. But I do believe in justice. And this woman is not being treated as simply a naval worker.

Gender and race are playing far too big a part in how the case is being reported, and commented upon by bloggers. And it's appalling that this extraordinary one-off case is being used as yet another attack on refugees and their rights.

For background see today's Daily Mail story;, and initial reports of the trial on August 18 2009.

Women in New Zealand Navy ship hit 20%

This is a really interesting new story about women in the NZ navy, contrasting them to the Australian and UK navies.As someone who for 30 years has been watching equal opps changes on ships, I find it fascinating, especially in the light of US women being finally trained for submarine duty (see my earlier post.)

'Navy says ships could not go to sea without women, NZPA May 11, 2010, 3:16 pm

The navy frigate HMNZS Te Kaha arrives in China next week with women comprising 20 percent of its crew.

The Anzac-class frigate left Auckland five weeks ago on a four-month deployment with the supply ship HMNZS Endeavour to Asia, Canada and North America and both ships were due to arrive in China on Thursday.

Women have been in the navy since the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) was established during the war in 1942.They served on shore posts and on harbour launches only, freeing up men for active service at sea.

The WRNZNS was disbanded in 1977 but in 1986 the navy allowed women to go to sea, initially in the non-combat ship, HMNZS Monowai. By 1994 all navy ships were open to sea service by women.The navy now says without women in the crews, many of its ships would not be able to go to sea.

The New Zealand navy has higher ratios of women than the navies of Australia or Britain, with 23.4 percent overall compared with 17.5 percent and 9.3 percent respectively.

The New Zealand army (14 percent women) and air force (17.5 percent) also has more women in the ranks than Australia (9.7 percent for the army and 16.6 percent for the air force) and Britain (8.2 percent army and 12.3 percent air force).

In the latest issue of the navy magazine Navy Today, warrant officer of the navy Warrant Officer Dean Bloor said before women were introduced, the navy had several concerns, including the mental and physical differences between men and women.

He said there was also the "traditional view of only men at sea. Fortunately over time these concerns have been overwhelmingly dispelled." Most people in the navy had joined since 1986 and had never served in a navy where women were not allowed to go to sea.

During the deployment the two ships would exercise with Singaporean, Malaysian and Australian forces in the South China Sea. Te Kaha would berth at Shanghai to support the New Zealand exhibition at the Shanghai Expo, and Endeavour would visit South Korea.

Both ships would sail to Canada to mark the centenary celebrations of the Canadian navy before heading down the west coast of America, across the Pacific to Hawaii and back to New Zealand.During the deployment the ships would visit ports at Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Honolulu but the navy said they would not be involved in exercises with American military forces.'

This acceptance is a good example of what is happening in the British navy too - that now there is a new generation who have never known single-sex ships. So it is easier for men to see women as simply shipmates, not exceptional creatures from Dumb Bimboland or China Dollsville.

But how telling that the HMNZS Te Kaha is still only 20 per cent, not 50 per cent - or even 70 per cent! - crewed by women.

I wonder what percentage of the Russian Navy, who were such pioneers in allowing women such as Valentino Orlikova (see pic) to work in the Soviet Merchant Navy, is now female? And what are the obstacles, still, to having a gender-balanced ship's complement? In the past women have been deterred by a hostile culture, sexual harassment, discriminatory promotion procedures and conditions that just don't fit with what modern women want of life - such as motherhood AND a career.

If you - like me - want to read Dean Bloor's full article you'll find The Navy Today June issue is not yet posted on the web. But when it is you can find it at

Monday 7 June 2010

Women in 'Free Gaza' flotilla

The more I read about this flotilla and the Israeli attack on it, the more I see it as a terrible collision between well-meaning (and unsophisticated) human beings and an over-reacting officious military, with an added layer of gender-based misunderstandings.

Today there's more information from two Turkish-speaking Israeli women volunteers - Medi Nahmyaz (30) and Nathalie Alyon (26) - who helped translate for the passengers on the Marmara. It's in yesterday's Haaretz article by Amira Hass: They came from the villages to aid the orphans.

'They came from villages and small towns, not from the big cities, and had responded to calls by various charitable organizations, not necessarily the IHH [Isani Yardim Vakfi, the Turkish charity credited with organizing the flotilla]. Their degree of religious piety varied, say the interpreters. About a quarter of them were women. Only two, including one of the female journalists, were not wearing headscarves.

'Many of the activists were in their fifties, others were over 60. "But even someone who is 45-years-old looks 60, that's how it is in Turkey, especially in the villages," says Alyon.

'Many passengers spoke of coming "to help children in Gaza, orphans, hungry children," or "to bring humanitarian assistance." Alyon and Nahmyaz got the impression that many of them believed before they left Turkey that everything had been arranged and they would reach Gaza. They also did not seem to have broad political knowledge or a distinct ideology.

This picture of elderly, naive, non-bellicose civilians doesn't fit at all with the culture of military questioners. 'The injured were told: "You are suspected of participating in attacking soldiers with cold and hot weapons, participation in a flotilla destined for Gaza, disorderly conduct, endangering soldiers, using a knife, disobeying orders, throwing Molotov cocktails and a hand grenade." And they were asked: How much money did they pay you?

'People were terribly distressed: 'One woman, wearing a black head covering that reached to her knees, put her hand on Alyon's hand and said: "Tell them that 16 of my friends were killed today, so how do they expect me to feel?"

'One woman, in jeans but with a black head scarf, boarded the Marmara with her husband. An academician, she works at a university in a small town in southern Turkey, and participates in taekwondo competitions on behalf of the country. Soldiers who saw her hiding a mobile phone in her bra held her and called Nahmyaz to translate. "My husband is dead," the woman said. Puzzled, Nahmyaz repeated: "Your husband is dead?" "Yes," she replied. "This morning he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier." If she was angry, says Nahmyaz, she didn't show it. That was already late Monday night. Nahmyaz couldn't ask any more questions; she understood the woman wanted to keep her husband's cell phone as a memento.

Significantly, 'The word "friend" turned out to be a translation challenge. "Did you board the ship with friends?" asked the interrogators, and the answer was usually "no," that people didn't know each other. One of the injured who was questioned in hospital mentioned "our friends," and the investigator raised an eyebrow: But he said earlier that he didn't know anyone. Nahmyaz explains. In Turkey people address each other as "friend" - even a stranger, as in Israel we say "my brother," even when not really referring to a brother.

'Nahmyaz says she has a friend who considered joining the flotilla. But as a secular woman the friend was deterred when the flotilla was adopted by the Islamic IHH.'

See the whole article at

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Gendering the Gaza Aid flotilla

Yes, there were women aboard the six ships carrying 700 activists who were attacked in such bloody fashion by Israeli commandos on Monday. Why not? Peace seeking is not an exclusively male business.

But how often their presence is subject to gendered attitudes.

Picking my way through Elena Becatoros' report for Canadian Press I found German lawmaker Inge Hoeger (see pic) said 'the women aboard the Marmara were locked into a big room below deck during the raid — but it was not clear if Israeli soldiers or activists had locked them away.'

What a horrific disabling that is, to be locked away and prevented from full participation.

Even worse, how undermining it is to not even know if your own side locked you in. If they did,it was for protective reasons, no doubt. But really such a move designates all women as vulnerable liabilities, instead of recognising that the world contains some people who are frail in some areas, some strong and competent. Gender is not the point.

And Turkish activist Nilufer Cetin - whose husband is the ship's engineer — told reporters in Istanbul that she was 'returned home after Israeli officials warned her that jail would be too harsh for her baby. ..

'She also defended her decision to bring a baby into such a volatile situation."We were aware of the possible danger" in joining the trip. But there are thousands of babies in Gaza. If we had reached Gaza, we would have played with them and taken them food."'

See the entire article at

Pirate hunters - artistes - do it in saunas

I became interested in pirate hunters because of having researched and written about women pirates. (By the way, my book on them - Bold in her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages - is still in print as a hardback. It's just that the paperback has now gone out of print).

Associated Press has just posted a fascinating article by Katherine Houreld about the pirate hunters now on the Swedish ship Carlskrona,at

Yes, there are women aboard: twenty per cent of the crew are women, and they live in non-segregated quarters. But the thing I love is the luxury in which they all live. In between sorties to find Somali pirates they enjoy saunas, massage, and four types of freshly baked bread each day, with wholegrains and syrup (see pic). And among the DVDs they watch is Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course!

On his blog Alexander Martin of La Jolla names this as his all-time favourite article on piracy. He's skipper of the US Force Platoon attached to a MEU that is just about to go pirate hunting to Africa. And he gives a really good picture of his reality.

As part of the Marine Expeditionary Force’s Force Reconnaissance Company he's one of 'a small band of sharply trained professionals who see their trade as an art form. They see their work as special, not themselves.

'The first thing that everyone should know about hunting pirates is that it is not as sexy as it sounds. ...we have been training to kill pirates for an entire year. Which is also not as sexy as it sounds. It's plain hard.'

See his witty blog War & Women (note that order of words) at

What appeals to me about all this? It's the contrast with silly myths about piracy.

It's not a sexy business for pirates, nor for their hunters.

And modern pirate hunters are not pompous aristocratic gents in frilly shirts and gold braid as in Errol Flynn movies. They're women (and men)workers with high-level skills, who sometimes get to enjoy a bit of pampering ...that feels ironic in the circumstances.

And the odds are that some of these piracy hunters - and the catering workers who suppor them - are LGBT people too, as they were in piracy's golden age 300 years ago. What an enjoyable contrast it all is to the macho and heterosexual myths.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Woman rowing champ, Venice, 1700s

My friend Linda has just returned from Venice with this Museo Correr picture for me ....which leads to a quest, a discovery.

This woman, Maria Boscola da Marina, was a regatta rowing champion for 40 years. She was also the mother of five boys and a smallholder too. She rowed her produce from Marina de Chiogga to the Rialto markets in a caorlina, a six-oared vessel, about ten metres long, with a crescent-shaped bow and stern.

The question is, was she unique or typical? More the latter it seems: Venetian women participated in regate from at least 1493. And how could it be that women were accepted as rowers?

Partly because the church and nobility were big supporters of regate - she was not going against the grain. (However, after 1784 women did not race in regate for almost two hundred years.)

Partly because any market trader uses the most appropriate and cheap form of transport to get her wares to market. In a canal-based city it would be as normal for women to row as in other countries it is normal to walk barefoot ten miles with a bundle of produce on your head. A woman on the water was not something anomalous then.

And what's Maria Boscola da Marina holding in this image? Banners from five regate. She won the first in 1740 and the last in 1784.

There's a 2007 novel about her (because there are no facts)- Maria della laguna by Alda Monico, published by Corbaccio (see cover pic, right). Unfortunately it's only in Italian yet. Roll on the translation, for all the English-speaking women who love their small boats.And for all of us interested in the parts gendered transport and mobility play in working lives.

First women on US submarines

On Friday (May 28 2010) the first eleven women who will serve on nuclear submarines had their commisioning ceremony at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis. Hooray! Imagine what the future's submarine movies are going to be like. Nothing like the above poster: 'He volunteered for the submarine service.' No more all-male enclaves

I'd rather not have war at all. But people who want to do a job and are suited to it should be able to do it, regardless of gender, orientation, race or whatever. Equal rights are simply and unarguably crucial.

When is every country, including Britain, going to follow suit?

At the moment UK naval women aren't allowed on subs for fear that nuclear radiation will damage any foetus who might be stowing away on board. It's a tired and implausible argument - other countries dodn't use it.

But I've heard a whisper that the newest UK subs have just been built with extra accommodation, to allow separate quarters for women. And one UK solution allegedly being discussed is that women may have IUD contraceptive devices inserted, to make really sure no one gets pregnant while aboard.

Associated Press's Brian Witte reports that the very supportive US Vice President Joe Biden said on Friday it was a milestone year for US Naval women in training. It's only a month since Congress agreed to end the ban on women in subs. They have been working on surface ships since 1994 (whereas in Britian they began in 1993), although they still aren't at sea in equal numbers. Of this year's 1,028 Annapolis graduates, women were just 21 per cent.

In October about twenty trainees will be going to the US Navy's Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina. It's a 15 month-programme, minimum.

After qualifying in 2011, this first batch - all officers - will work on two sorts of subs: guided-missile attack and ballistic-missile. These have more living space than the other subs. Later women will work on the smaller subs as they are refitted.

The plan for stage one is that three women will be in each submarine's rotating crew. They will share a cabin with other women, and a bathroom with 12 other officers. A sign on the door will show whether a women or a man is using it.I can't see the point, myself. I mean, what house do you know with a sign saying who is occupying the loo? The signs may soon 'get lost,' I imagine.

But at least we're getting there.


Wednesday 26 May 2010

The Pirate Woman, a trashy delight

I've just found that Project Gutenberg has made an EBook out of the gorgeously trashy novel that led me to write my - perhaps less gorgeous - book about women pirates: Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates across the ages.

The Pirate Woman, by Aylward Edward Dingle, was originally serialised in four installments in All-Story Weekly magazine from November 2 -23, 1918.

It was this wonderful cover image that triggered my first explorings into women's piracy. At the time I was studying more prosaic women seafarers: matrons and stewardesses.

I was excited by this cover and Dingle's book. It made me think there had to be a REAL story too, of women who actually worked with pirates. At that stage, 1992, I didn't even know that there had been female buccaneers, although as a kid I'd enjoyed the movie Anne of the Indies.

Dingle's heroine is Dolores. She's a total fantasy - but an interesting one: bold, sexy, tough and of course beautiful. You can read about her for free at

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Lesbians aboard in US navy. Secrecy is undermining, so repeal DADT

Former Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenny Kopfstein, a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, has just written a public letter to President Obama as part of the current campaign to repeal the controversial law affecting LGBT people in the services. She was on the combatant cruiser USS SHILOH - and a lesbian.

She writes '“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) made it difficult to have normal conversations with my shipmates. If I said I had a dog, someone might ask, “Who takes care of him when you’re at sea?” Answering the simplest questions can get you kicked out.

The crew of my ship was my extended family. Keeping parts of my life secret and separate from them is an unnecessary burden, and no American sailor or soldier should be forced to bear it.

Feeling deeply conflicted between the requirements of DADT and the Navy’s Core Values, I wrote my Captain and told him I was a lesbian. I was being forced to lie on a daily basis by DADT. I did not want to get out of the Navy, and I said so in my letter. I wanted to stay and serve honorably, and to maintain my integrity by not lying about who I was.'

Jenny continued not only to work, but to work very effectively. And she continued not only to be accepted, but popular, and even represent the ship. Her commanding officers did not want her to go to.

'I qualified as Officer of the Deck, and was chosen to be the Officer of the Deck during General Quarters — a great honor.
I also earned my Surface Warfare Officer pin. During my pinning ceremony, the Captain removed his own pin — off the chest of his uniform — and pinned it on mine. That was one of my proudest moments.

Mr. President, help Congress repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now. We cannot afford any delay.'

With respect, Former Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenny Kopfstein, US Navy.

Her point is so important. On a ship you're in a team. Witholding a key thing about yourself undermines your happiness, and it undermines the trust that's so crucial aboard. Of course LGBT people should be able to tell - and continue to do their job.

Monday 24 May 2010

War Brides: Leap of Faith...tears and brine

I get particularly excited when artists interpret history, going beyong literal documents to conveying the deeper meanings of the past. So it's very exciting that Bev Tosh has created an exhibition on war brides.

It's currently on at Otago Settler's museum, New Zealand, until August 31 2010. See an image from the exhibition (left). Right: Bev Tosh with the late war bride and writer Eswyn Lyster.

Never before 1945 had such huge numbers of women sailed on ships: bare, war-damaged troop transport ships at that; young women accompanied by babies and toddlers at that.

War brides, especially the 1945-46 tranche involves in 'Operation Diaper', are a key unacknowledged category in Britain's maritime history. Their stories are on warbride websites, alright. But they are not embedded in the wider histories of the sea, and of merchant shipping's many diverse passengers, as they should be.

This exhibition helps augment that history. Alas! I can't fly there immediately to enjoy it, especially the 'tear bottles.' But here's what James Dignan in the
Otago Daily Times says about it (20.5.2010):

'In a multimedia display, photographs of war brides have been treated in numerous ways. The exhibition is bookended by two series of photographs projected on to white parachutes. These symbolise the leap into the unknown taken by the women and simultaneously reflect in their form the shapes of wedding dresses.

Between these stands a row of wooden panels, each painted with an image from a bridal photograph. These panels, which carefully use the grain of the rough timber to enhance the images, stand shoulder to shoulder, a rank of women to match the military ranks of the men.

The often fragmentary paintings speak of intrepid hope, and the images form a fine centrepiece to the exhibition.Other works displayed include a series of "tear bottles" containing individual portraits encased in vials of sea water, representing both the long journey of the women to their new homes and their shed tears. '


  • can see the artist and more pictures of the exhibition when it was in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2009. Go to

In the chapter on warbrides I am just writing, for my forthcoming book (Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press) I write that:
'At least 180,000 British war brides sailed to start new lives.Very many were going to the US... The ships they sailed on were not only troop carriers but also some of Britain's iconic liners such as Cunard's Queen Mary, albiet still stripped of their peacetime glamour. The Queen Mary made 13 trips carrying over 12,000 war brides and their children.

Other ships were not fit for purpose - and the migrating women were often too upset and seasick to be presentable as heroines . One Welsh war bride said that by March 1946 photographers were officially banned from bride ships because earlier paparazzi had photographed the women in pretty awful conditions.'

So the lack of evidence about the truth of women's voyages makes exhibitions like this one at Otago all the valuable.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

P&O's first woman captain

Finally, more women are becoming captains of cruise ships. After 173 years P&O cruises has appointed its first woman 'Master.' Having served 21 years with the company Captain Breton now commands the 1,200-passenger Artemis.

This is a download from P&O's website, 20.4.2010:

'Captain Sarah Breton said: “Growing up near the water I always loved boats and the ocean, so it really does fulfil a lifelong ambition of mine to be a Captain with P&O Cruises. It is made even more special to be Captain of the first cruise ship I ever served on, after joining P&O Cruises as third officer back in 1989.”

Sarah, now 45, has served on board Royal Princess (now Artemis), Sky Princess, Canberra, Pacific Princess (the original Love Boat), Grand Princess and Star Princess as third officer, second officer, navigator, first officer and safety officer. She was first promoted to staff captain in 2001 on the original Pacific Princess and then went on to serve onboard Coral Princess, Tahitian Princess, the new Pacific Princess, Artemis and most recently Ocean Village.

Captain Breton lives on the Essex Coast and when on leave spends her time in the garden, sailing - whenever the weather permits, and watching Six Nations rugby and Formula One motor racing.'