Sunday 26 August 2012

Black woman becomes deputy head of US Navy

Getting respect and promotion in masculine institutions is hard work if you're a woman, and a black woman at that. But on Friday Michelle Janine Howard was promoted to deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces command in Norfolk on Friday. She's the first black woman to attain a three-star rank in the US's entire armed forces.

Born in 1960 and educated at Annapolis Naval Institute (in only the third intake of women, in 1978) she has been supported in realising a seemingly impossible ambition she had aged twelve by an ex-Marine husband, her Air Force Master Sergeant father, and British-born mother.

“When you look at where society was at the time, this was before there was even a woman on the Supreme Court, before Sally Ride was an astronaut, and it was also only five or six years after we became an all volunteer force in the military, so our society was still going through a lot of changes.”

“In the 1980s when the Navy opened the logistics ships to women, that was huge, because it allowed a lot of opportunities for women to serve at sea. Then it was just a few years later that we were engaged in Operation Desert Storm. So even though women weren’t serving on warships, women were still serving in a combat arena, and that started a national conversation."

Vice Admiral Howard has been a first before. In 1999 she became the first African-American woman to command a Navy warship at sea, USS Rushmore.

She was the first woman graduate of that academy to become a rear admiral, in 2009. That year she was also the first black woman to command an expeditionary strike group at sea.

Within a week of assuming command of Expeditionary Strike Group Two, whose job was to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, she led the the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips. He was commanding officer of the MV Maersk Alabama, which had been attacked by Somali pirates.

See: History maker: Aurora native first black woman to be 3-star admiral - The Denver Post

Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Spy who became a stewardess: Granville

I was delighted to catch a BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour interview with Clare Mulley, who's just written The Spy Who Loved: The secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain's first female special agent of WWII (Macmillan).

Granville, also called Krystyna Skarbek, was said to have been Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Bond's wonder woman Vesper Lynd. Christine Granville worked for SOE in WW2. But afterwards - ah afterwards, what does a redundant spy do? In this case, she works at sea, where the footloose people were.

Clare Mulley found that life on the New Zealand Shipping Company's brand new Antipodes-bound liner, Ruahine didn't suit this 43-year-old aristocrat. The crew were hostile and thought this female and foreigner was lying about her war experience.

Worst of all, a fellow steward who fell for her and supported her against the attacks ended up as her stalker and killer. She tried to give him the slip and worked on other ships such as the New Australia.

But Dennis Muldowney fatally stabbed her in the lobby of a down-market Kensington hotel in 1952. After he was sentenced to death, at the Old Bailey, he declared‘To kill is the final possession.’

I've given some thought to Clare's biography, in the light of all the interviews I've done with stewardesses of that period. Christine's story fits.

The hostility is plausible because ships then could be dog-eat-dog situations where seawomen (usually 1-3% of the entire crew) had to fight not to be put upon or sexually mis-used, in the very over-sexualised situation that a ship is. And female colleagues could be very rivalrous. Some seafarers were proof that travel does NOT broaden the mind.

Many of Christine's shipmates would have been through hard wars just six years earlier, torpedoed and lost everything they possessed. So they might have thought her story implausibly glamorous and therefore implicitly insulting - they knew they'd been though hell.

And an obsessive, co-dependent character like Muldowney might well have been at sea because it was a place that attracted people who felt themselves to be misfits. Ships' companies were very acceptant of square pegs, because people absolutely have to find a way to get on with everyone else in such a tight space.

So here's a new take on women's merchant seafaring in the post-war years. Christine Granville has got to be the most famous stewardess on any ship. And she's a tragic victim of possibly the only merchant seaman to be executed for killing a seawoman.

See Clare interviewed in the very London cafe that Christine and Polish forces used,

Sunday 22 July 2012

Fighting Naval discrimination

It's just been announced that a woman naval officer has been given an out-of-court settlement for the suffered sexual discrimination in the Royal Navy.

Although this blog happily reports women who DO make it to captain ships, etc, Jacqueline Cartner's long battle shows not only that she personally was passed over for promotion. So too were other women.

Michael Powell writes about her in 'Wren in sex equality fight settles case against MoD settlement,in the Portsmouth Evening News, published on Saturday 21 July 2012.

'After two years of legal battles, Jacqueline Cartner, 42, who served at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, has accepted a confidential payout and signed a gagging order preventing her from discussing her case.

'The MoD’s move has killed off the threat of a legal precedent being set which may have led to dozens more lawsuits costing taxpayers millions of pounds.

'Since 2010, two separate judges ruled Ms Cartner was passed over for promotion in 2008 on the grounds that, as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, she had elected not to serve at sea when the rules were changed to allow women on warships in 1993.

'Fearing a potential wave of litigation from other ex-wrens, the MoD spent £126,000 fighting the rulings. Last December, a High Court judge sent the case back to square one by ordering a fresh employment tribunal this autumn. But now the case has been dropped.

'A navy spokeswoman told The News: "We are pleased that this long-running case has now been concluded by mutual agreement. The terms are confidential between the parties."...

'Ms Cartner, who was made an MBE by the Queen in 2001, was unable to comment because of the confidentiality order she signed.The Navy said it will now review the case to see if ‘appropriate lessons’ can be learned.

'Former navy Wren and employment law expert Sue Ball, who is a director at Verisona solicitors in Portsmouth, said: "This looks like a good result for the MoD, although it must have stuck in their throat to pay out money.

‘"Litigation is always a risky and uncertain process and if the MoD had gone back to the tribunal again and it went against them then it would have had set a case law precedent that could have caused them a problem.

‘"If I was acting for someone else in the same position as Jacquie, I’d be annoyed because I would’ve lost the opportunity to have case law to support our arguments."’

Friday 13 July 2012

Edda Mussoloni nursed on a hopsital ship

I'm just finishing writing a chapter about British women nursing on hospital ships in wartime, and I couldn't resist creating a panel about this Fascist celebrity nurse being bombed on the hospital ship Po in 1941.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s favourite daughter Edda Ciano nursed on hospital ships (navi ospedale) from November 1940 to 1943. She hadn’t finished the two-year Italian Red Cross training but her famous father persuaded them to take her. A 30-year-old mother she left her children behind (in Turin.

On Helen Dashwood's blog ( I found more information about Edda on her hospital ship (Helen has just written an ebook The Driving Ambition of Edda Mussolini.)

On the former Lloyd Triestino Navigation liner, newly converted into a hospital ship Edda (1910-1995) had her own separate cabin, separate from the fully trained nurses. It was probably it was more to meet the high-status needs of Il Duce’s distinguished relative than to segregate the amateurs from the professionals. In that case she would have shared a multi-berth inboard cabin.

It’s not clear how much this lover-loving socialite was on board. Her autobiography My Truth contains nothing on bedpans and mal de mer.

On Friday 14 March 1941, during the Greco-Italian War, Edda was reading a PG Wodehouse novel on the Po just offshore at Valona (the Albanian port now called Vlorë) when the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers attacked.

The British held that Italy’s seven smaller hospital ships were 'fair targets' as they were actually used as carriers to pick up ditched air crews. But some of the eleven larger hospital ships, such as the Po, were sometimes attacked too. At least ten had been hit by May 1943.

The Po sank, in 16 fathoms of water. An unknown number of people died. Edda swam to the shore. Her autobiography records that once her father learned she was safe he told her husband ‘"Edda must immediately resume her duties so as to set a good example." That is what I intended to do, but I had to wait for a new nurse’s uniform. Galeazzo [Ciano, my husband] did not understand how my father could be so phlegmatic.’

Edda was not the only celebrity nurse at sea. Susanna Agnelli of the famous Fiat dynasty also nursed on hospital ships during WW2, when only 18. As all eleven of the large navi ospedale were attacked at some point she would have been in a disaster. Later Italy's first woman Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli’s autobiography is, ironically, called Vestivamo alla marinara (We always wore sailor suits). Edda’s were surely haute couture.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Studying the lives of people in port cities

Port city lives. Conference at Blackburne House, Liverpool, June 29 -30 2012

Organised by Liverpool University’s Centre for Port and Maritime Histories, this highly innovative two-day interdisciplinary workshop marked the re-launch of the centre. Port studies might be expected to involve the giant skeletal cranes that dominate quayside skylines, terminal logistics, dock roads layouts complex as airport runways, and the invisible diverse contents of all those seemingly identical containers only differentiated by their matt reds and blues and their stencilled names such as Maersk.

But the organisers’ deliberate focus was on ‘lives’. Therefore the discussions were of those in the borderlands who deliver and unload the goods; those such as sex industry workers who profit from proximity to seafarers and the liminality of the waterfront world; and those who organise trafficking from their high panelled offices far from the seagulls' cries.

Indeed, we were appropriately in a space endowed by cotton broker and abolitionist, George Holt. His profits enabled many privileged Merseyside girls to learn within these stylish walls and go on to Girton and St Hilda's from the early twenties. Edwina Currie attended school assemblies in the very hall where we assembled for our much more earthly purpose.
Blackburne House, formerly Liverpool Institute High School for Girls

If the topic is ‘lives’ then the question has to be ‘how did people in very different positions work together? What was the impact of the port on their lives, and what was their impact on all the aspects of the port's life?' And the ports in question ranged from Liverpool itself to Nantes, Barcelona, Thessaloniki, Matamoros, Rotterdam and Salvador de Bahia, Hamburg and Cork as well as Portsmouth and Hull. It was an international gathering but also speakers were international in their focus. And indeed, as both the keynote speakers showed, the people in question were global citizens, be they elite British merchants easily connecting to New York or the slavery triangle, or black seafarers in Cardiff with a Pan-Africanist focus.

Strands at this Port City Lives conferences include marginal workers, commerce and trade networks, networking and organisation in the early 20th century, case studies of early modern cities, culture and representation, memory and ‘restructuring, redevelopment and renewal.'

Participants came from a range of perspectives and disciplines, principally maritime history, business history, cultural geography, and migration studies, folklore and linguistics. One eynote speaker, geographer Dr Dave Featherstone (University Of Glasgow) dealt with a topic for too long occluded in maritime historiographer: black seafarers. The surprise was not only the extent of black internationalist activity in early twentieth century Wales. On one occasion, we heard, rank-and-file white seafarers actually supported their black colleagues. They did so in the face of lack of cooperation by their union’s leadership, which at that time was highly reactionary.

Ports are places changed beyond measure by palletisation, containerisation, fast turnarounds that don't allow the visiting seafarer any time ashore, the competition of air travel, and above all industrial decline.Three indelible images remain for me after the conference: sad grey photos of Hull’s rotting wooden jetties; advertising-bright images of the sleek access roads in Thessaloniki’s drastically restructured ports; and the replica of a wife’s severed head in Tunisia, on an old house wall above a tangled garden.

As Sarah DeMott explained, living in a port had enabled a local wife to meet a foreign sailor (and commit adultery with him). Maritime life had provided the ship that helped them move away. But the white carved head, a replacement for the real and bloody original, was the husband’s assertion of conventional morality and gendered power. Wives risk death if they choose new lovers, perhaps especially foreign ones. It underlines Dave Featherstone's point: it is important to not simply see ships as heterotopic spaces but to understand how the shore and the sea interact. Mores and values extend their tentacles from land as well as to it. It is the overlap as well as the exceptionality of ships that make ports such compelling foci for study.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Attempted rape of US submariner - officer sacked

Today's breaking news from the US is that, following eight months of anti-gay bullying (hazing) and attempted rape of sailor on the USS Florida, a Georgia-based nuclear submarine, a US Naval officer was sacked.

Associated Press has a leaked investigative report. It reveals that the US Navy relieved Charles Berry as "chief of the boat” due to dereliction of duty, in March. The investigators found that Berry was not involved in the hazing, but had knowledge of it and failed to inform his chain of command.

The story is published today at

LGBTQ Nation explains that 'Aboard a submarine, the chief of the boat advises the commanding officer of issues involving enlisted sailors.

'The hazing was directed at a sailor who reported that another man pulled a knife and tried to rape him in the port at Diego Garcia.'

Diego Garcia is one of the joint UK-US military facilities, in the Chagos Islands, which are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. We (the UK) evicted Chagossians in the early 1970s to allow the US establish this military base the largest island.

The victim can't be named, but 'According to the report, the victim was generally well-liked on the ship.'

This is the bit I find heart-breaking - not least because I know harassed women and black people who've tried the same strategy: Grit your teeth and wait it out, act pleasant. The submariner 'endured the anti-gay torment for months because he thought it would eventually stop'

It didn't.

It didn't because bullying becomes systemic and expressive of many complex and buried feelings. This collective aggression is a focus of many personal grievances and insecurities, including, perhaps, the crew's feelings about how they themselves are respected or not by the US Navy. It's got to be partly a product of how they are trained to hate 'the enemy' Other.

'Among other things, this submariner was called a derogatory term for a gay person and referred to as Brokeback, a reference to the gay-themed movie Brokeback Mountain. In addition, someone posted a drawing of a stick figure being sexually assaulted.

'Before a group training session on the repeal of the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the sailor was subjected to comments about coming out of the closet...

'Other sailors asked when they could meet his boyfriend. They asked whether his boyfriend was Filipino, the nationality of the person he said tried to rape him.

'After eight months of harassment in 2011, the sailor eventually wrote a note saying he had suicidal thoughts ... that he could snap and hurt himself or someone else.

'The report says there was a culture of hazing and sexual harassment aboard the submarine...There was inadequate knowledge about the Navy’s policies against it to stop the behavior before the sailor reached that point.'

Among the posts responding to this article are:
# one that hopes that this revelation will now mean women's complaints about being harassed will be taken more seriously
# John D Cox, a veteran who'd been bullied in the Vietnam era who says 'Please see link: for information regarding sexual assaults according to the Dept of Defense.
'A higher percentage of females in the military admit to sexual assaults than males. However, due to the much greater numbers of males in the US military when compared to females, many, many more males are sexually assaulted in the American military.
'It is mostly an invisible fact which most Americans don't want to know. And yet, supposedly, "We Support The Troops."
'I didn't report the ... harassment and...assault on me, nor the accompanying depression and my suicidal thinking because I knew ... the US Army would blame me for the incidents which occurred back during the Vietnam War Era...the 1st sergeant of my company not only knew of the sexual and physical assaults on my person, he also participated. It's taken years of intense psychotherapy... and I know that, regardless, I'll never be "cured." '
# Debbie Brady: 'As a Vietnam era Navy veteran, I am glad to see justice in this harassment case. As a transgendered woman I know the level of harassment that can occur on board a Navy ship.'

The point is not to make a scapegoat out of Berry. It's to ensure no-one bullies, and that at all officer ensure people, whatever their gender, sexual orientation or race, can get on with their job in relative peace.

That's especially important on a sea-going vessel, which is also a worker's accommodation. Submarines and ships are not places that victims can escape from at night and do some recuperating at home. This is home'.

Saturday 23 June 2012

WW1 Women seafarers captured by Germans: anniversary

Pic;Brussels stewardess at Holzminden internment camp, summer 1916.

Today, in 1916, five British seawomen were captured by the enemy. Despite wartime dangers women crew were still sailing. These stewardesses were on the Great Eastern Railway ferry Brussels looking after Belgian refugees.

After leaving the Hook of Holland for Britain on a routine trip their ship was captured after Captain Fryatt was accused of sinking a U-boat.It was Friday 23 June 1916.

German crew who boarded the ship wondered at the women’s calmness. ‘Aren’t you afraid of being shot?’ they asked. After all, Edith Cavell had been executed by firing squad just seven months earlier. ‘“We are Englishwomen” was considered sufficient reply,’ claimed the women’s company magazine afterwards.

When the captured ship was taken to Zeebrugge then Bruges the women's blue uniforms with brass buttons caused a confusion about identity. Germans took them for fighting women: England’s last hope.

Their male shipmates were sent to Ruhleben, a civilian detention camp near Berlin, As females, the stewardesses were interned at the Holzminden camp, near Hanover.

Hungry and miserable, they must also have been worried. Internment meant the women lost earnings. Many seawomen were family breadwinners so their dependents were at risk.

No shipping company paid crew who were not working. Wages stopped the day after shipwreck. For the Brussels women this meant six months without an income.

They were only released in October. One of them, Edith Smith, went straight back to marry her fiancée by special licence, just before his unit left for Egypt.[3]

During their incarceration a high-profile publicity campaign was waged. Diplomatic initiatives attempted to free the women. Indeed, they got more publicity than any other seawomen in that entire war. Media headlines spun the story into another shocking tale of Hunnish brutality.

Surprisingly no newspaper ever suggested the women should not have been working at sea.

This is just one of the surprising stories of courageous women at sea to be found in my new book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, which will be published next year by Yale University Press

Sunday 17 June 2012

Norland Crew celebrate Falklands anniversary in Hull

Friday June 15 2012. It was raining, on Hull’s furiously busy Hessle Road. It was teaming down like a wintry day in the Falklands. And Frankie’s Vauxhall Tavern was crowded and jolly with the previous week’s jubilee bunting. You could almost fail to spot the inflatable phalluses, scarlet furry willies, and cutely grinning silicone mega-dicks under all the Union Jacks still festooning its raunchy walls.

But this was a special day with serious intent – to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Falkland’s conflict and in particular the role of the Norland, the former Hull-Rotterdam ferry that took part in it. Indeed some of the photos of drag queens and favoured divas and - surely not – Her Maj were temporarily covered over with photocopied snaps and battered newspaper cuttings about the Norland’s extraordinary voyages to the South Atlantic in late Spring 1982.

Frankie, the pub’s co-landlord, had been the Captain’s Tiger on the Norland. And now he was hosting this event that would bring not only his old shipmates through the doors of the campest pub in the East Riding. It would also bring, from all over Britain, the former Paratroopers whom the ship had carried. They’d be stepping into this cross between an Anne Summers sex shop en fete and a BDSM dungeon that seems to float on ignoring that heterosexuality exists.
Shipmates: Frankie Green (Captain's Tiger) and Jean Woodcock (Stewardess)

It was to start at 12 midday. The prelude was quiet and the former crew kept to their own little group. Now mainly retired, their long tousled hair and droopy moustaches were long gone and replaced by blue blazers. The biggest absence was the beloved captain, Don Ellerby, who has passed away.

Everyone was waiting for Wendy. Wendy the most famous gay men in the Falklands War. Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson for whom they’d hired the joanna. (It wasn’t his favourite piano shade, pink, but heigh-ho, it had resilient keys and an impressive loud pedal.) Wendy, who would, in his glitzy waistcoat, do his Liberace numbers as always and bring morale up higher than Dusty’ Springfield’s beehive hairdo.

When he arrived at two, frazzled from a morning’s tedious domestic tasks but in a suit so immaculate he could have been a Premier league football manager, he greeted everyone. At last, it could start, properly.

His old shipmates thought the rest of us nutters for being avid for the Gibson touch on the waiting keys. No man is a hero to his valet and no queen is a hero to his/her shipmates. They’d become over-sanguine about his abilities to entertain. But the Paras, it seemed, wanted that old sound that had accompanied them to war.

And oh boy could he belt it out. Wendy played con brio and in brief sessions. The crowd noise grew louder as men downed their ale, and the rain outside grew more torrential. People passed round albums gone sticky with age and started to tell stories about their connection with the Norland. At the tops of their voices, standing, happy, buffeting by others weaving their way through the melee selling raffle tickets for the South Atlantic fund, they told each other their chunk of the story.

Happy to connect. Happy to remember. Happy to be almost-back-there, revelling in the preferred version without the deaths, the Argies, the privation, the mixed feelings about the war’s rightness and the unvoiceable doubts about Mrs T’s gung-ho defence of these ‘somewhere-off-Scotland-surely?’ islands.

Each time Wendy stopped playing (yes, roll-out-the-barrel-you-are-my-sunshine-my-old-man-said- follow-the-blue birds-over) some brawny young man would come up to him, often in a Para t-shirt, with an album extended and say ‘My dad sailed with you. He’s always talking about you. Still. You made his war.’ And Wendy would get excited and honoured and think he remembered. It was his day. But not only his.
Wendy (left) and shipmate.

I’d planned to film it for posterity. At the last minute the crew weren’t able to come but I still felt obliged to get to know what I could. I sidled round the pub wondering who I could ask about what, and would that be alright.

What was impressive for me, an outsider, was the irrelevance of my question, ‘But how come you could accept all the pouffery?’ I asked the military guys ‘How is it, given the armed forces’ homophobia then, that you could tolerate someone camping it up on your way to war?’. They said I’d got it wrong. They weren’t anti-gay. They were just against furtive closeted types who wouldn’t stand up like men and brandish their happiness at being more Martha than Arthur.

I asked the members of his former crew how they copied with the queens on board - as queens were on most late twentieth century ships, war or not, creating gay mini-heavens. They too said I’d got it wrong. On ship everyone accepts everyone else. ‘See, you’ve got to get on, in that enclosed space. You’ve got to accept people whatever they are. And you do.’

So … It was bonhomerie all round. And yet I knew that armed forces guys had gay-bashed one camp ship’s steward. And I knew, because I’d lived through the 1980s, that homophobia ashore could be vicious and that therefore no ship could be entirely exempt from that. From my interviews with other gay seafarers I knew that camp man had deliberately toned themselves down so as not to antagonise their military passengers. A ship is never an entirely heterotopic space. It’s never that Other, especially when it’s a vessel that’s home several times a week , unlike the deep-sea gypsies touring the globe for weeks and months.

When at 5 I left the party was in full swing. In fact the swing was getting fuller and louder. The Norland crew seemed to be pretty much still gathered in their own small groups and not mixing with the other revellers. But certainly they were doing plenty of their own collective revelling.

Wendy was the one who wove in between, linking them all. And certainly his nieces were happy to look at the albums shown them by a proud Para’s son. Certainly there was no ostensible secrecy about his or Frank’s sexual orientation. Not a hair was turned about the exuberantly cheeky décor in this knees-up. The hundred-strong crowd were as glorying in their way as revellers at VE day celebrations in Trafalgar Square’s fountain.

It was a party, and a re-remembering. And of course the spectacles we like to wear are the rosiest ones possible. And for once it’s a shade of pink that every man was wearing happily in that changed ex-maritime heart of the entire east coast. It was the good old days, again, for at least a day, and not unlike the party they'd just had for that other queen, Elizabeth R.
Frankie and colleagues behind the bar in the Vauxhall Tavern, Hull.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Feminist sea shanties and music for the people

'Before I die one thing I crave
To round the Horn on a microwave
' (Pat Wilson, Housework Shanty)

Cleaning, date rape, pubic hair,career vs kids dilemmas, shopping: they're all there with heave-ho choruses, in the highly amusing sea shanties that feminists appropriated in the 1970s and 80s.

Catch my illustrated talk on this genre at an exciting Un-Convention on Sat June 27 2012. A women's choir will accompany it, singing the songs sailor boys never did as they rounded Cape Horn and crossed the Spanish Main singing of rum, yella gals and Spanish ladies, terrible storms and Bucko mates.

Un-Convention is a radical and innovative international organisation that aims 'to bring together like-minded individuals to discuss the future of independent'.

In the past three years alone 'Un-Convention has happened 35 times around the globe, in over five continents,and from Swansea to Sao Paulo.It annually involves 1,500 artists and bands, 16,400 participants, 36,000 gig goers and 140,000 people online. Of those attending Un-Convention, 40% of people are from disadvantaged backgrounds.'

This month on Sat June 27 2012 Un-Convention(36) is at Teesside in Middlesborough, North East England. Hosts are Shipyard Songwriters, a collective of songwriters, musicians and other artists interested in exploring how songwriting can be used today as a positive force for change.

If you want a taste of a (funny and astute) women's reworking of a feminist shanty listen to Sisters Unlimited's song, Childbirth's no Bed of Roses. You can do so via

Friday 1 June 2012

Polari-ing all the way to the Malvinas/Falklands conflict

Photo courtesy of Hull Daily Mail, showing the most iconic gay man of the war, Roy 'Wendy' Gibson, a steward on the Norland.

If you want to read about gay seafarers' role, see my just-posted article in Polari magazine:

It's a lite version of a paper I gave on May 20 at the National Museum of the Royal Navy conference: The Falklands War, 30 years on. That version also showed the extent of women seafarer's participation in that conflict.

Monday 28 May 2012

Milestones in Royal Navy equal opps - achieved with feminist agency

Sarah West: commanding.Picture by Leading Airman M Hogan, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011

Commander Sarah West (40) on May 27 became the first woman to command a major warship in the British Royal Navy. She joined the Type 23 frigate HMS Portland in Rosyth. It's only taken 450 years.

Looking at the media coverage is interesting. Everyone is for it, apart from the odd misogynist tweeter. Everyone says that of course she must be a highly competent person, gender aside, because you don't rise to such heights otherwise. The Navy can't afford to let just any new driver loose on its pricey real estate. An estimated 93 per cent of men don't reach command level.

'Commander West said:"Taking command of HMS Portland is definitely the highlight of my 16 years in the RN so far. It is a challenge that I am fully trained for and ready to undertake."'

'Commander West, who lives in Middlesex, joined the RN in 1995.Born and educated in Lincolnshire, she graduated from the University of Hertfordshire with an honours degree in mathematics. Trained as a warfare officer, she has had a number of sea appointments, which included a deployment to the Gulf... She commanded HMS Ramsey, HMS Penzance, HMS Pembroke and most recently HMS Shoreham as part of the 1st Mine Countermeasures Squadron.'

So when/how did it become alright to have women in such top roles?

And what has it taken? 40 years of battling for equal rights to reach this point. Many career failures and many life-wrecking anti-discrimination cases preceded this victory. Sarah West's promotion could not have occurred without hundreds of courageous women and men battling for decades for change within the Navy, WRNS and maybe the MoD. So let's raise a glass to them.

To celebrate the progress the MoD published a list of milestones that tell the story. See

It omits the role of some very clever quietly feminist campaigners, of obstructions and of statistics, which can put matters in perspective. So in the interests of justice this is an slightly amended version.

My changes are in bold. And my statistical calculations are open to challenge, but based on the best that can be from data on the internet research. I'll be doing fuller calculations with MoD stats later.


1917: The Women’s Royal Naval Service is launched following heavy naval losses in the first world war and a manperson power shortage and pressure by high-powered feminists. It's headed by a suffragist with naval family, Katharine Furse. But women are not allowed to do seagoing work. Wrens number 7,000 at peak, one per cent of naval forces (407,316. Britain's is the largest navy in the world with 700 ships.

1919: WRNS are disbanded The total 100 per cent of the remaining 4,281 women lose their role, by comparison to 61 per cent of the men in the navy (from 407,316 in 1918 to 192,000, but 640,000 served in total). Ex-Wrens continue to develop women's maritime skills through the Sea Rangers. The Association of Wrens keeps up the solidarity and pride

1939: WRNS are re-formed with the onset of the second world war numbering 74,000 women doing 200 different jobs. But less than 100 are allowed to work deep sea, despite their willingness to do so. Many use the opportunity to work on small boats, sail out to moored ships as boarding officers, and to travel overseas. Vera Laughton Mathews, the director is a former journalist for suffrage journals and also from a naval family. The navy has at least 700 ships. There are 923,000 men in the Royal Navy in WW2, at peak, so the WRNS are one twelfth the size.

1946: WRNS are reduced to 3,000, just 4 per cent of their wartime total. This compares to male staffing levels being cut to 20 per cent of the former total (By 1947 there were 195,000 men in the Navy as opposed to 923,000 at peak). Britain's is now the second largest navy in the world, after the US, with 800 commissioned ships that year. Again the Association of Wrens keeps up the solidarity and pride.

1974: An impartial survey takes place, which finds women should be integrated in the Royal Navy.

1976 WRNS officers' training is integrated with naval men's training, at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. This means that men start being able to see for themselves that women can be competent and are human beings, not an inferior but charming sub-species.

1990: Because of a lack of sufficiently competent male applicants, navy formally allows women to go to sea with men. In fact they'd been wangling ways to do so for years.

1994. The WRNS becomes part of the Royal Navy. Officially 'Wrens' no longer exist; naval women personnel do.

2009: Medic Kate Nesbitt is the first woman in the Royal Navy to be awarded the military cross after braving Taliban fire to tend a fallen comrade in Afghanistan.WW2 Wrens had earlier won awards for bravery.

2011: Navy says women will join men aboard submarines from 2013, many years after other navies had accepted them. The excuses that there was not enough space for separate toilets, and that nuclear subs might affect unborn children seems to have dropped away.

2012: The first female commander of a major Royal Navy warship Cdr Sarah West takes charge of HMS Portland. The MoD says it expects three more vessels will be commanded by women by the end of this year, meaning 5 per cent of its 79 commissioned ships. The number of women has dropped from 4,535 in 1990 to 3,400 today. They are 10 per cent of the total 34,4000 people in the Royal Navy. Some roles are still closed to women. In terms of personnel, the UK is no longer in the top ten of the world's navies. In terms of tonnage it's fourth after the US, China, and Russia. The US has 369,000 personnel and 430+ ships.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Piratical theatricals and 1970s feminism

Pic by Tristram Kenton.

This new play about women pirates (The Pirate Project, Oval House, London, May 20 - June 2 2012) is an expression of the way some (I'm sorry to say, rather naive) feminists like to think of women pirates: as swashbuckling heroines rather than as lower members of a hierarchical maritime workforce.

Some lines from Brecht's Galileo seem appropriate. 'Pity the land that hath no heroes' a pupil says to the great physicist. Galileo replies 'Pity the Land that hath need of them.'

When I wrote Bold in her Breeches: Women Pirates across the Ages a lot of film and stage companies got in touch with me about making productions based on such sassy interpretations. And I spent a lot of time trying to inject realism: 'I don't think piracy was that glamorous, really. Try thinking about them as a gang of minicab drivers or squaddies. They're not Tina Turners and Madonnas in dominatrice gear.' Yes, I enjoy strapping on my shoulder parrot and strutting with my cutlass at fancy dress parties. But it's not real.

And then, well over a decade later, real-life Somali pirates stepped in and disabused everyone, finally. Pirates were revealed in all their seedy thuggery: just macho crims side-stepping poverty, brutally, and much less privileged than all the high-level bankers engaging in heists with pin-striped chutzpah.

Two reviews of The Pirate Project sum up the problem of perceptions of historic women pirates. Sally Stott, in the Stage (21 May) wrote 'Like an assertiveness training session for women, the first show of Oval House’s OUTLAWS season suggests getting in touch with your inner pirate in order to find out who you really are, (sisters). However, despite plenty of self-conscious roaring and lines like “stop oppressing me with your patriarchal bullshit”, the realities of pirating and feminism are contradictory bedfellows. When being a pirate is essentially about violence and theft, how can it also be a part of aspirational modern womanhood?'

Quite. But also there's no evidence that women challenged these essentially patriarchal institutions, albeit outside the law and more communal than naval and merchant vessels. And although a few iconic stories suggest two or three pirate women spoke and acted boldly, I have to say that I suspect that most non-cross-dressed women on pirate vessels were more likely to have been gang-banged and systemically relegated to reheating the turtle stew (again).

Director Lucy Foster created a devised production (an Improbable Associate Artist Project). Stott writes that the play light-heartedly reworks (is that code for 'inauthentic' or 'fancifully trashes'?)real-life 17th and 18th-century pirates Annie Bonny, Mary Read and Ching Yih Shih.'By the final scene the cross-dressing heroines are denouncing killing and setting up an on-board creche... Performers... add their own life experiences to the mix, but the “it’s OK to be yourself” message is familiar and risks sounding condescending, despite good intentions.
... the play’s conclusion feels disappointingly traditional - a celebration of women who excel at multitasking, caring and being honest. It could be braver.'

Lyn Gardner, in the Guardian (20 May) asks 'Will learning to say "Haargh" very loudly like a pirate further the cause of feminism? The creators of this playful oddity clearly think it's a step in the right direction as they weigh anchor and invite us on "a journey of empowerment over an ocean of self-discovery to find the treasure buried within us".

'It's like a 1970s consciousness-raising meeting with added swashbuckling....In these stories of women who stepped outside the rules of conventional society, there's scope to explore why so many of us want to be good girls, conforming to ideas of how a woman must look and act. But that's never examined in any depth in this piece, which is intellectually and theatrically at half-mast. "A pirate doesn't ask permission, she just takes what she needs," we're told. Yes, so do many modern-day pirates, including Somali raiders and hedge-fund managers, but that doesn't make them good role models.

At the end there's back-tracking and a suggestion that we should all be touchy-feely sharing pirates. But the show isn't well thought-through and tries to disguise its lack of rigour with a messy DIY aesthetic. There are some filmed snippets (sometimes hard to hear) of older women talking about their lives and motherhood, and some acted-out scenes from 17th- and 18th-century women pirates' lives – even these have an oddly romantic gloss. A sadly wasted voyage.'

Saturday 12 May 2012

Basque children’s evacuation – and their seafaring ‘aunties’.

75 years ago, on May 21 1937 British philanthropists helped thousands of children from a Spain being torn apart by war ( Los Niños (pictured on arrival, above) were to stay in England for up to two years.

And today 12-13 May 2012 a conference, reunion and exhibition at Southampton celebrate that mercy mission and its aftermath (

Let’s give praise where praise is due. Women, socialist women, were the main organisers of that 1937evacuation. They were led by Leah Manning (later a Labour MP)(see pic)

of Spanish Medical Aid, along with Edith Pye of the Society of Friends, and the Tory but progressive Duchess of Atholl, President of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief.

Women, particularly single left-wing teachers, were the main people who joined the famous evacuation on an especially chartered ship, Habana. They looked after the children on the two-day voyage.

I found this when researching women who had been escorts on other ships, for my new book, Risk: Women on the wartime seas (Yale University Press, 2013).

In world wars, women, almost always volunteers, escorted children and also disoriented adult refugees on British ships. Often they were not even being paid expenses. Some were even killed during their WW2 voyages, captured and interned.

Called ‘aunty’, many of the women were experienced travellers and lively independent types, at a time when women’s mobility was still limited and their solo travel problematic. Unsung and overlooked, these pioneers deserve recognition. They were members of a minority who cleverly utilised gendered conventions (‘women are suitable carers for little ones’) to do all the travelling they could, despite low incomes.

WW1: women escorts, especially Quakers, often suffrage campaigners, escorted Belgian families fleeing to Britain, or German women and their children who were being repatriated (usually against their will).

WW2: female escorts were employed by CORB, Children’s Overseas Reception Board, CORB, in summer 1940 to take British children to the US, Canada, the Cape and Australia.

1937: In the Spanish case the children and their escorts sailed as a result of following intense British socialist campaigning, after Guernica was destroyed, on April 26 1937. The British Government insisted that this was a one-off voyage.

Homerton graduate Leah Manning, Dr Audrey Russell and others went out to fetch the nearly 4000 children, helped load them in Bilbao and then sailed back to Southampton. Evacuations almost always meant ships were worryingly overcrowded. The ship too, which was supposed to carry around 800 passengers, actually carried 3840 children, 80 teachers, 120 helpers (escorts), 15 catholic priests and 2 doctors.

Teachers’ and escorts’ work was not only to help children find places to sleep – even lifeboats. It was also to help them settle despite the difficulties such as separation trauma, disorientation and homesickness.

On the Habana, said Leah Manning, ‘Head to tail the senoritas laid out our precious cargo - on the bulkheads, in the swimming pool, in the state rooms and along the alley ways. [They were] for all the world like the little sardinas about which they were always singing.’

The Bay of Biscay is notoriously choppy and it was on that voyage too. Most of the children were so seasick, that ‘for two dreadful days and nights … [we] slipped and slithered from one pool of diarrhoea and vomit to another… assuring them it wasn’t the fascists who had stirred up the troubled waters against them,’ wrote Manning.

No one has mentioned that the escorts must have been suffering seasickness too, as they tried to do their job. New research has shown that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be seasick.

So these escorts were labouring under additional difficulties. But their main role was trying to figure out how to handle the unknown children, who were all too often unhelpfully reserved about their agonies, which were instead expressed through bed-wetting.

Such seafaring escorts still accompany children travelling alone today. Some are employed by the Universal Aunts agency, which was founded by Gertrude Maclean, who escorted her nieces and nephews from far parts of the empire to boarding school before WW1. The ship in the image makes clear the lure of travel. (

Others were/are paid employees of shipping lines. Usually stewardesses and children’s hostesses, they were seconded for this function.

And sometimes, although they initially fancied a ‘free voyage,’ as well as wanting to support a worthy cause, escorts must have been very glad when the ship reached its destination. Many such ‘aunties’ continued to maintain contact with those they escorted.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Queer voyages to the Falklands/Malvinas war

Today I've just written a piece for Pink News ( about gay merchant seafarers' voyages to and from Falklands/Malvinas war, thirty years ago this Spring.

Read the article for more on these topics:
Steward Roy 'Wendy' Gibson on the ferry Norland (see pic) kept up morale with his piano and became the most famous out gay man of the Falklands/Malvinas War, as well as an honorary Paratrooper.

GBT men have been omitted from Falklands/Malvinas War history because it’s inconvenient news for stereotype-lovers that gay men can be brave. But as Wendy said ‘I may be a Mary but I’m as hard as the next, we gays had to be.... We’re still men.’

Lots of sex with virile young soldiers is only the stereotype but....

These merchant seamen don’t think of themselves as Falklands/Malvinas War heroes. ‘No, I was just ironing the captain’s shirts’ joked Norland steward Frankie.

Their unsung contributions not only include treating Argentinean prisoners like human beings and keeping mum about being gay-bashed and insulted by sissyphobic troops.

In Frankie’s case when their ship was being bombed ‘I went into my Peggy Mitchell mode, screamed ... it was my way of coping… it gave men the chance to express their fears too. Maybe us gays were better off than some of the straight people, because when we was frightened we could say “I’m frightened”… we could let it out.’

Daily living changed homophobia. As Para Ken Lukowiak wrote in his memoirs ‘it is true to say that he [Wendy] now gets more of a mention than the likes of Colonel Jones, VC... And no longer is Wendy referred to as …an arse-bandit … “Gay boy” is about the worst you will hear and it’s always … said with affection. You see, we do live – and we can learn.’

As for the veteran seafarers, in ports throughout Britain they'll be celebrating the June 14 end of the war, some in gay-friendly dockside bars. They're just glad they're back in one piece, even if their nerves are still frayed. So what, they say, if the record is silent on their contribution: 'We know what we did.'

I myself just want them to be properly recognised.

Monday 30 April 2012

Falklands Conflict seafarers: women & queers

I’ve been tracking down stories about GBT seafarers and women seafarers who were in the Falklands War. It’s for two articles, as well as a conference paper at the Falklands War 30 Years On conference at the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth on May 19-20 2012.

Finding them is a needle in a haystack job, not least because so many survivors don’t want to talk about that traumatic time. Also many traditional historians prefer the story that only tough hetero boys were there, so it’s hard for people with hidden histories to speak out with confidence.

Researching has been fascinating. The best part of the process was this week:
• by a miraculous accident bumping into 'Wendy' the most famous gay seafaring man of that war, a steward on the Norland, and finding he’d let me interview him.
• discovering that a pioneer woman was there doing ‘men’s work’. She was a Second Mate on the BP tanker British Tamar. Next step is to find her. I’d thought only women doing ‘female work’ – such as nursing - were in that war.
• interviewing a stewardess on one of the non-posh ships in that war, Jean Woodcock on the Hull ferry Norland

My work is going to be published gradually. But you can already read two key things that other authors have made available:
• Sally Children, the Assistant Purser on the Canberra, tells her story at
Canberra’s acting deputy purser Lauraine Mulberry’s diary extracts, in John Johnson-Allen, They Couldn't Have Done it without Us: The Merchant Navy in the Falklands War, Seafarer Books, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2011.

And there are two autobiographical books by women, which don’t focus on gender:
• War artist Linda Kitson’s The Falklands War: A Visual Diary, Mitchell Beazley, London, 1982.
• Nursing Sister Nicci Pugh’s recent book, White Ship, Red Crosses, Melrose Books, Ely, 2010.

And a book that doesn't deal with women at sea but the wives of the combatants who sailed: Jean Carr's Another Story: Women and the Falklands War, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1984.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Fishermen's strike and domestic violence

On Sunday Usha, a 34-year old woman from Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, attempted a water-borne solution to the domestic violence her in-laws were apparently inflicting upon her. She ended up inadvertently precipitating an indefinite strike by over 4,000 fishermen and 800 boats.
The Times of India today reported the event. It seems from early evidence that Usha used the St Antony's feast on the islet of Katchatheevu as a way to get away to India.
She joined the 3,700-odd pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and about from 2,000 Sri Lanka who were ferried there for the day’s celebrations.
Usha and her child Neera were found stranded on the islet after the feast. She told authorities that she was from Rameswaram (India) and that the fishermen who had brought her there had left, unaware that she was not on board, and she needed to get ‘back’ to Rameswaram. A number of people, including naval authorities, believed her story and helped her get on a boat ‘home’.
When she arrived in India marine police arrested her and the men on the boat. Later police in Mandapam found she was a ‘run-away.’ The five fishermen who helped her have been detained, charged with violating the Passport Act.
It is in protest against the accusation that they had assisted illegal entry that the strike has been called. The men see themselves as innocent but duped parties who thought they were simply being helpful.
The point, really, is not that Usha is now regrettably incriminating those who helped her, but that domestic violence is so hard to escape. If the victims of it were more adequately supported they wouldn't have to take such desperate steps.
For more see

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Blogging and talking about the process

This blog is - I'm honoured to say - one of those the British Library has chosen to archive. I like that because it means material on the gendered sea that is not saved in any one place elsewhere will have a long, useful and certain life - and will be easily available to all the people who don't have physical access to specialist libaries.

Today the BL has just uploaded my articles about having my blog archived:
~ UK Web Archiving:
~ BL readers stories: http://

In the UKWA article I say:
'In 2011 when staff from the UK Web Archive at BL emailed the news that my blog was one of those selected to be archived for posterity that really gave me a boost.

'And it changed my blogging practices. I write more frequently and more carefully, because of a greater sense of its significance. My entries are now made at least twice a month. I spend hours, no longer minutes, writing each entry as vividly and elegantly as I can; I make more effort to explain significances and acronyms.

'Having your blog harvested feels an oddly alienated experience. It’s like being a rose that knows the gardener is plucking it, but never feels the secateurs nor sees itself finally arranged in the vase with all the other blooms.

'So it really helped when the Head of Web Archiving Helen Hockx-Yu took the time to show me how the process worked. In her office papered with Chinese poems on the Underground I saw the crawler in operation, scuttling round and scooping up other’s blogs and websites like some diligent crab from a William Gibson sci-fi story.

'Finding out the program’s name, Heritrix, seemed to make the process feel more comprehensible. OK, it’s just another clever piece of software, like Photoshop.

'Hearing that I was one of the 10,000 websites owners and bloggers helped me see my in/significance within the UK Web Archive; it’s a bit like looking your house via Google Earth.

'And understanding that my ‘donation’ was collected every six months helped me get a sense that there was someone listening.'

Thursday 19 January 2012

Costa Concordia - so it woz a woman, a Russki blonde, wot donnit!

Well, we might have known it all along. It wasn't really the Captain's fault. No, it was a woman. A Russian-speaking (former USSR) woman. Well, they'll get up to anything, won't they!

And guess what colour her hair is (at least currently). Yes, it's another (bottle-) blonde who's causing all that trouble.

Even worse, she's an artiste - a dancer. They're known for it, aren't they. Destabilizing kings. Making rich earls marry them. Seducing perfectly upright politicians.

Did she inveigle him into drinking that carafe of wine just 35 minutes before the sinking? Well, such a responsible, fatherly-seeming man wouldn't have done it otherwise, now would he! See how they cause trouble wherever they go, these women.

And she hadn't even paid properly to be onboard. Well!That's the giddy limit.And there she was on the bridge with him, on that sacred site where only Real Men are allowed.


This silliness can be seen in the latest Costa Concordia stories today. See summary at

The trouble is that it sort-of fits. Vain men do indeed behave foolishly when beautiful young women are around. But the problem is such immature behaviour, men's socialisation in a sexualised society, and a culture that pushes the over-use of booze not the object of the attention.

The woman is being sought, which adds to the mystery and frisson. But isn't this all speculation by the media, designed to keep readers engrossed, and thereby keep the coffers filled?

I suspect that this tack will continue and the next article will reveal that she's done glamour modelling, propositioned other crew,and neglected her two-year old daughter. And is her phone already being hacked? Poor woman.

Pic: The dancer, Domnica Cemortan, of Moldava.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Piracy and tampons

Modern women have been appropriating the idea of piracy for several decades now. Scores of US female soccer and basketball teams have swashbuckling names, such as the Orange Coast College Pirates. The point is to stress the values of teamwork and bold courage.

But this witty product really takes such appropriation of piracy to a new level.I'm not sure it's for real.(found at

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Women and children first? Costa Concordia controversy has precedents in suffragettes' history

The 'men were pushing women aside, and they shouldn't' saga goes on. Woman's Hour today has just aired some useful modern arguments showing chivalry is not the province of just one sex. People help other people anyway, said evacuation expert Ed Galea.

In researching women's history in sea disasters I've found that when men gave women priority as the Titanic sank in 1912 some suffrage campaigners said later they wouldn't have accepted that particular gendered sort of gallant treatment. They wanted equal rights - including the vote - so why would they accept such inequality on a ship? It would have been hypocritical.

Of course right-wing men attacked this 'rebuff':

~~~ GK Chesterton (see pic), the high-profile writer, who was later to be in the government’s War Propaganda Bureau, was outraged that month by the (now untraceable)feminist response and particularly put out by
‘the displeasing incident of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, who, immediately after the disaster, seems to have hastened to assure the public that men must get no credit for giving the boats up to women, because it was the "rule" at sea.
'Whether this was a graceful thing for a gay spinster to say to eight hundred widows in the very hour of doom is not worth inquiry here… What does Miss Pankhurst imagine a “rule” is--a sort of basilisk?
'Some hundreds of men are, in the exact and literal sense of the proverb, between the devil and the deep sea. It is their business, if they can make up their minds to it, to accept the deep sea and resist the devil.
'What does Miss Pankhurst suppose a “rule” could do to them in such extremities? Does she think the captain would fine every man sixpence who expressed a preference for his life?’

~~~ anti-feminist journalist Harold Owen insisted in 1912 that ‘The wreck of the Birkenhead is man’s answer to the cry for equality of the sexes.’He meant that, because every woman was saved, men could say 'See, if we'd given you equality you'd dead now. We save your lives by ensuring you are not equal.'

But as socialist-feminist campaigner Charlotte Despard argued, ‘We want a new conception of chivalry. We want it to go outside the shell of conventional manners ....a chivalry, the reigning principle of which will be reverence for every honest worker, with special regard for the weaker amongst their number.’

Such new chivalry meant respecting women enough to give them the vote, and working on the principle that no one sex is necessarily more or less disposable than the other. Respect for those in the greatest need was the point.

Look out for my book next year: Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas! Yale University Press.
PIC: My art work using logo from Pankhurst's newspaper

Monday 16 January 2012

Costa Concordia - saving women and children first, still?

Women and children have been prioritized in shipboard evacuations since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. And such prioritizing has been challenged by feminists for at least 100 years, including by suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst when the Titanic sank.
Gender does not confer intrinsic privileges, they argue. People should be given priority according to their need - which would mean older poorly people would be disembarked first.
And arguments that for the good of the race's future children and reproducers(women) should be saved don't wash in our over-populated times.

So it's rather interesting that at least one survivor of the Costa Concordia still expected the old rule to apply. And was shocked when it didn't.
Today's Daily Mirror reports that British retired policeman Edwin Gurd revealed men on board pushed past terrified women and children to get to the lifeboats first.
He said “My wife got on lifeboat No 17 and we got as many women and ­children on as possible.
'"But later there was quite a lot of panic from the men who were forcing their way onto the boats.
'"The men were stressed and panicking. They were pushing in front of women who should have got on first. There was a real danger of people being crushed.”'

I found in researching women on the wartime seas that the generous and gallant practice of men standing by while women were allowed into lifeboats became established as the Birkenhead Drill. It's named after the iconic occasion when soldiers stood on parade on deck, to let women survive as HM Troopship Birkenhead sank off the coast of South Africa in February 1852; 55 men died.
However, in looking at many wartime evacuations of sinking ships I now wonder if the principle may have sometimes caused more loss of life. The first, hastily- launched lifeboats aren't necessarily the safest. Also a boat without sufficient people able to row and navigate had less chance of success.

It's not sensible to have a boat disproportionately full of:
# people who were untrained in those 'unfeminine' and adult skills
# mothers who may well have been too focused on helping children to also pay attention to what needed to be done on the boat. Sometimes it was urgent to row hard to avoid being sucked under as their big ship sank
# people, ie children, who were likely to be so distressed that they required extra attention and reduced morale
Each lifeboat needs a more balanced population, including trained seafarers.

Today, when so many women get rowing practice in gyms, they might be far more of an asset than they were in the past.
Also, formerly, corsets hampered arm and back movements and caused the death of shipwrecked women in one 19C case. The tightness so high under their armpits stopped them reaching up to clutch at a spar from which they could have swung and so leaped to safety on the nearby rocks, dress reformers argued.

PIX: the ship yesterday, and ship's dancers Rose Metcalf and unnamed colleague.
See 'Costa Concordia cruise ship crash', by David Collins, Daily Mirror ,16/01/2012