Thursday 27 January 2011

Women at sea in Royal Navy: The transition years

Kath Sherit made an interesting presentation about Wrens and their seafaring, at the Institute of Historical Research yesterday (Wed 26 Jan 2011).

The long saga in the 1970s and 80s about whether Wrens could be allowed to go sea in Britain's defensive navy is a tangled tale. Using official reports and participants' revelations, Sherit has created a clear summary of what was going on. It's part of her Ph.D.

One of the key reasons women were finally allowed into men's hallowed vessels is that there simply were not enough men - competent men - to do the job.

The picture above is one I tinted from a photo. Although it's a Wren (a Boarding Officer) from an earlier period, it is a really good illustration of the way men possessed the high ground - and the way women were positioned as interlopers.

Because I know about women in the Merchant Navy Kath asked me later why sea service had lost its appeal in the 1970s and 80s. I don't think it did in the Merchant Navy,in relation to women - but I have found no stats to prove it. It would be great if someone working in personnel in shipping offices at that time could send me some information.

My hunch is that throughout the 1970s and 80s, opportunistic women landlubbers continued to be attracted to the sea. They were interested both in:
# the newly-opened up 'men's jobs' like electrician following the two 1975 equality laws
# the glam newish jobs like croupier, beautician, and ship's photographer.

I sense that in the 1970s and 80s the MN and RN attracted very different sorts of women. The Merchant Navy drew adventurers who wanted to be at sea for a while and didn't necessarily have a sense of vocation or national commitment.

By contrast the Wrens probably attracted women who wanted to be in institutional settings, women who'd been in sea cadets or had family in the forces etc and were looking for a solid career, maybe in defence.

The Greenham Common effect meant that in the 1980s very many lively women (potential seafaring material) were peaceniks opposing Trident, and eschewing the military-industrial complex. Belonging to the Royal Navy would not have made such women popular in some circles - let alone enviable, as they sometimes are today.

On the equal opportunities front these days, the Royal Navy is a much better employer. It has really good anti-harassment policies and practices. But Merchant Navy women are captaining bigger ships.

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