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 NiƱos (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.