Sunday 26 January 2014

Pioneering women’s motility: Aileen Preston/Graham-Jones

This week you can hear from a pioneer of women’s mobility, in her own voice. AILEEN GRAHAM-JONES (Aileen Preston, before she married an Oxford doctor) was the driver for suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in 1911.
BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour this week (22 Jan 2014) played an archive recording of her talk for that programme in 1962.
Aileen Graham-Jones explained very forcefully how she came to mobility just over a hundred years ago. She took a motor mechanics course, became the first woman to qualify for an Automobile Association certificate in driving, and proceeded to seek work at the wheel, despite the astonishment of males in this very new industry.
Typical of many women pioneers breaking through into deck and engine work on ships from 1970s onwards (and to a lesser extent Victoria Drummond, the first woman marine engineer, who began training just eight years after Aileen), she found that once men discovered she was serious most of them were helpful in assisting her progress.
Aileen drove for the Women’s Social and Political Union Wolseley (donated by motor heiress Mabel Dodge) for six months.
Afterwards she went on to directly help more women become mobile. Professor Krista Cowman explained that in 1913 in Kensington Aileen opened up a motoring school for women where they could learn how to change a wheel and fix a vehicle. In WW1 she became a VAD.


She had counterpart in another WSPU chauffeur Vera (Jack) Holme. (see pic, driving Emmeline Pankhurst)

Now a heroine of some feminist lesbians, ‘Jack’s’ papers at the Women’s Library include this poem, The Home is her Sphere. By SM George, it highlights mobility:
A women may travel if she be so inclined
It is even supposed it may broaden her mind
Spend the spring at Biarritz and the winter in Rome,
But she never can vote, for her place is the home.

Of course, the women’s suffrage movement as a whole also led to women’s increased mobility and motility (the sense that one can indeed be mobile) because of its confident assumption that women’s place was everywhere, not just at the hearth.
It was too early to imagine that women would one day be at the helm of big ships, not only the small pleasure boats they were just beginning to use. But by employing ‘lady chauffeuses’ the WSPU certainly paved the way.
Pioneering women like Preston and Holmes proved that women could travel confidently, not just as passengers but with technical knowledge of the vehicles they commanded. They are the foremothers of today’s women captains, such as Inger Klein Olsen (see pic) celebrated in other entries in this blog.

You can hear it Aileen Graham-Jones’ recording on

Tuesday 14 January 2014

WW2 un/welcomes to servicewomen on warships

(Wrens were seen as suitable for serving grog ashore, not for drinking it at sea along with shipmates.)

Most people think women were never, ever, on warships in WW2. But I’ve just been to Portsmouth’s National Museum of the Royal Navy to give a very illustrated talk: ‘Grog, darning and gendered un/welcomes; Wrens and QARNNS nurses on WW2 warships.’ (Jan 8)
The point was to discuss the women who were exceptionally given passage on Royal Navy vessels in WW2, as semi-members of the crew. They were either Wrens being evacuated when overseas, or naval nurses (QARNNS) assisting homeward-bound British POWs as the war ended. Their warship was the first available ship that could take them.
For example, Jane Eldridge (below)was on HMS Renown because she was cyphering for Churchill, going to and from the crucial Tehran conference on this fast ship. He needed cypherers and coders with him.
(with thanks to the Association of Wrens:

Welcomes for these ‘lady intruders’ varied, depending on the time in the war, the seas, and the women’s roles and attitudes. They got in trouble if they asked for grog or got in the way of battle. But they were welcomed if they darned and kept to women’s traditional place.
A large portion of my talk was built around a fascinating 2004 mini-memoir by Mary Sturt (later Pratt) (Recollections of a War-time Wren, part 2,


Giving talks is a wonderful activity because of all the expertise you are offered by an audience afterwards. This evening was particularly useful because so many men there had been or were in the Royal Navy. They were able to say how the situation looked from their perspective.
Several sent me follow-up multi-page emails full of background information and advice about where to look for more evidence. The topic could well make an article.
Certainly the new knowledge I’ve gained will feed into the book I’ll be writing for 2017, on the history of women in the Royal Naval service (IB Tauris).
Thank you, everyone, including Radio Solent (Jan 8, the Julian Clegg show) and the Portsmouth News (Jan 13), who interviewed me and gave it publicity.

Friday 3 January 2014

Sex and the sea exhibited: Rotterdam

I’ve just been to the Netherlands to see the new Sex & The Sea exhibition ( at Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum and talk with the people who organised it.
It’s fascinating and very successful in discussing sex in a straightforward, thoughtful and stimulating way.
This is the world’s first exhibition to be absolutely about sex and blue water seafarers (though there has been related ones in Vancouver and Oostduinkerke). So it’s bravely pioneering.
And it’s an important model that many maritime museums – knowing that sex sells – are watching before they follow suit or not.
One huge exhibition hall shows a range of material, from the literal (nineteenth-century stuffed mermaids) to the highly aesthetic: projected images on three canvas screens ten foot high, accompanied by music.
Conceptually central to it all is a series of ten filmed interviews with eight Dutch seafarers or ex-seafarers of varied sexual orientation, a port medicine and a barmaid. They are shown against an ever-changing backdrop of sea and sex-related images, devised by internationally-acclaimed film-maker Peter Greenaway and Dutch multimedia director Saskia Boddeke.

As this blog is about gender I’m going to comment here on two gender aspects of the exhibition. You can read more generalised discussions in my forthcoming review articles in the International Journal of Maritime History and the Journal of Transport History among others.
First, the principle nexus shown here is that women – that’s poor and pimped land-based women - are the providers of heterosexual sex. Mobile men are the buyers.
They can be affectionate, to be sure. But nevertheless they are ones with most power in a transaction that for women is a negative equity situation. If her customer doesn’t act responsibly he’ll sail away and she’ll remain, with a disease that stops her earning for weeks if not months, possibly proving fatal, and even an unwanted child.
So for me the most poignant sound in the exhibition was the (recorded) cries of a baby, which underlined seafarer Dirk Tang’s story about a child sleeping near their bed as his prostitute does her job.
Equally the most poignant sights were the blown-up snaps showing sad eyes of the women standing by to service the partying seamen in a Thai brothel.

Second, the interpretive element of the exhibition feels to me to be a man’s story about men. Only one of the ten seafarers interviewed is a woman; the other woman is a bar worker in the maritime area of Rotterdam, Katendrecht.
That’s an excellent ratio, given that women are less than two percent of the world’s seafaring population. But these women don’t talk much about their own sexuality, only that of the men Monique, a second mate, for example heaves them out of brothels to get them back to the ship. But where did she herself go for sex, or why didn’t she?


So I came away feeling that there was a lot more that could have been said. But to do so a museum needs the impossible: a big budget that would enable it to interview not only seafarers, but workers in port sex industries and ‘steady’ partners back home, and to give each interviewee days – not minutes – to explore how to create the most profound version they can.
Rotterdam Maritime Museum have created something rather romanticised and charmingly domestic, but also surprisingly touching. Endlessly thought-provoking, it will be valuable as a model for other museums of work or transport which, in our sexualised times, will be mounting exhibitions about the subject too.

If you’re interested in seafaring life and subjectivities this is a must. For those who can’t get to Rotterdam before December 2014 there is an affordable ‘catalogue’, a special edition of the museum’s magazine Brave Hendrik. museum’s magazine Brave Hendrik. It’s illustrated but in Dutch. You can download it for free from the website:
The museum has also created a Whores’ Trail (again only in Dutch) for use on smartphones. De Hoerenloper is full of (non-titillating) photographs and includes a walker’s map of 29 historic locations in the city, particularly near the waterfront bars that seafarers used.
Sex & The Sea, Maritiem Museum, Rotterdam, Leuvehaven 1, 3011 EA Rotterdam,The Netherlands. Tel: +31(0)10 413 2680. On until 19 December 2014, from 10 to 17.00 hours daily (except Sunday 11-17). An on-line summary in English can also be seen at