Monday 28 July 2014

Sarah West: power, sex and sensible attitudes towards gender

This weekend one pioneering woman's new relationship (and that's "relationship" with a question mark after it, nothing's proven) has gone viral.
Or rather it's gone as viral-ish as is possible given that her employers have issued only three sentences about it.
A Royal Navy spokesperson said of Commander Sarah West, the first woman commander of any major Royal Navy battleship: "We are aware of an allegation of a breach of the code of social conduct on board HMS Portland, which we are treating seriously.
"Anyone who is found to fall short of the Royal Navy's high standards can expect to face appropriate action. It would be inappropriate to comment further."
Commander West, 42, from Isleworth, has had to leave her vessel, a Type 23 frigate, because it's been claimed she's had an affair with someone else on board.

Officers are allowed to have relationships if:
~ they don't undermine 'trust and cohesion'
~ They don't damage operational effectiveness

What now?

The next step will be for her superiors to discern whether this has happened: a kind of inquiry.
If 'found guilty' Commander West will face a range of moves including:
~ formal warning
~ reassignment to other duties
~ the end of her service
Implicitly media speculation is "Will she lose her job with ignominy and scandal?"

The point is rather what does this event and its coverage say about gendered attitudes towards women? Specifically, what does it reveal about attitudes towards women newly in power within institutions that for centuries have been male both in culture and in complement?
Once (shore) women were seen be a force that could distract seafarers from their duty and career.

Taken to be symptomatic?

The problem is that any publicity about this gives fuel to reactionary arguments along the lines of "See. We told you. Putting women on ships can only lead to one thing. Illicit sex. Even women at the top succumb. Keep 'em ashore."
Merchant navy women have been becoming deck officers since the 1970s, against the odds. In interviewing them for my current book they repeatedly talk about the strain of knowing that if they make a slip - indeed, if they do almost anything - then ALL women in their position are judged by that.
When women seafarers - who are now 13 per cent of the merchant navy - do something not quite right it's never seen as simply an individual's one-off action, as it would be if a man had done it. No-one says "See! That proves all men of 35 with grey eyes and a mole on their left shoulder shouldn't work at sea at all." Instead people would just shrug:"Oh, Geoff's slipped up on this one."
By contrast, a woman's action is still taken as irrefutable proof of one gender's intrinsic unsuitability for sea work. Ever. And as for someone in command being fallible...!
Women seafarers - and most pioneers doing "men's" jobs - find they are critiqued earlier, and for far more minor infringements, then men. Critics lurk, waiting for failure, so that they can argue that the old gender imbalance (men in charge/women in support) needs restoring.
Can it be rivalry and deep insecurities about gender that motivate people who grass up a shipmate? What are they doing causing trouble in that tiny space where solidarity is so crucial - and so tricky?

An old objection
Sarah West's situation, as represented, is not only typical of attitudes towards women working on ships in general.
The story of sexual activity as a hot issue on royal and merchant navy ships is hundreds of years old. For centuries it's been argued that having women aboard brings trouble, including rivalry about who has sexual access to whom.

In fact, it is gendered attitudes towards women and towards sex that are the problem. It's not a problem that women per se are on board.

The royal navy dealt with it by, at times, only allowing women (variously 'good' wives and 'bad' sex industry workers) on board a ship if it was in port, not sailing. Or turning a blind eye to women's existence.
And sexual activity on RN ships was always controversial. Nineteenth century opponents argued on the hand that the Admiralty was allowing the navy to be "brothelized". But permissive commanders contended that if you didn't allow press-ganged men their 'recreation' they'd mutiny.
Nobody's sure how much homosexual sex really occurred and if it really did sap morals.

Clearly sex on ships is a subject that needs thorough, wise, and un-bigoted airing.

The merchant navy's past attitudes towards sex on ships has included only employing mature and motherly-looking women, preferably wives of men already employed aboard. Some shipping line personnel officers deliberately rostered camp gay males as cabin stewards, on the grounds that then women passengers wouldn't be bothered by heterosexual advances from crew.
People keep relationships secret, certainly from head offices ashore. When found out, it was usually the case that the woman, not the man, was moved to another ship. She was quietly seen as the more culpable one.
Women today on merchant ships often deliberately chose not to have relationships with shipmates because it's too difficult. It's too gossiped-about; the team tensions it can cause are tedious, especially if you break up in mid-voyage; and if you then take up with another partner on that same voyage you can be branded as slag and traitor.

When women were allowed to sail in RN ships from 1990, some naval wives protested that adultery would inevitably ensue. Ex-Wrens told me most heatedly that of course there would be trouble: in a tin box full of testosterone-fuelled young men, rampant sex must be the outcome.
The women sailors themselves replied 'Eh? Why? We've already got our own partners already, ashore, actually.' And among the 3,150 in today's navy (9 per cent) a number of women on ships have relationships with each other.
Cartoonist Smiles(the late Charles Smiles) made the implicit point (see cartoon below)that when women sailors were revealed to have agency and be actively desirous it changed the position of male sailors as the more powerful, knowing gender on the ship.

CAPTION: "They have to go through your [the women's] messdeck and they might see the pinups!" Cartoon by Smiles, Navy News, Nov 1990

As part of the preparation for writing my next book, on women and the Royal Navy, I've been collecting newspaper cuttings on cases of women sailors who've come up against male shipmates' sexualised and discriminatory attitudes.
Given the RN's impressive record of struggling to be a truly equal opportunities employer it would be invidious to list these. I'll just say that included in that picture are cases of rape (which are dealt with very firmly), but also a very noticeable decline in stories about sexist behaviour these days. Even tabloids can't find stories of the 'HMS Lusty' kind.
The RN's record of good gender discrimination policies - and policies firmly enforced - is much better than the MN's. And women officers appear to be well-respected. I don't believe this picture is just a matter of better silencing of accounts of discrimination. It's real.
But old attitudes towards women and their sexual activity take much uprooting.

It's no fluke that in the weekend newspapers there's another gender-related story along with Sarah West's: the Archbishop of Canterbury's letter to the Pope acknowledging that the recent vote supporting the ordination of women bishops is a problem (but urging that it not be).

Religious life is simply another key area where we see that major, male-led, institutions are troubled by the idea of women having power - and behaving differently. Gender divisions are still a problem. But decades of solid evidence proves that gender does not have to be an obstacle on ships.

As male masters in both navies repeatedly agree after they've had real experience of women working on board, most women are assets to be prized for their diligence, creative problem-solving and team-bonding skills.
Once-sceptical WW2 officers enthusiastically asked for more Wrens, not fewer, when they'd seen the usefulness of the Real McCoy.
Post-1970s MN masters repeatedly say that women can be even better seafarers than men.
They are a precious resource and that was recognised by the RN in 1997 when it first employed women commanders for ships, to some shock.
See Smiles' cartoon below, Navy News, March 1998:
"Hey Chief! There's a lady in the skipper's cabin!" "You're right on both counts, my flower!"

So what if some people sometimes have on-board affairs.
In both navies attitudes towards on-board relationships may yet take a few more decades to sort out. But why waste good personnel over trivial matters?
And when ever did a male commander get ditched because he loved unwisely?
I can think of two appropriate adages.
1. Let good people get on with doing their jobs.
2. And judge everyone on their own merits, not on supposed gender characteristics. This matter must not lead to the Navy hesitating over appointing more women to positions of command.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Chinese women sailors in navy

Since writing a few days ago about Soviet women sailors, this 2013 article about Chinese women seafarers has been drawn to my attention. I'm re-posting part of it here, plus the link ( some extra pictures.
(It's worth saying that earlier Chinese history women sailing on, and even commanding, 19C pirate vessels, and Sisters nursing on naval hospital ships in WW2. They don't seem to have been ordinary merchant seafarers as the post-1930s Soviet women were.)

Chronicle of events of Chinese female sailors on warships

● In 1991, a hospital ship of the South China Sea Fleet of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy carrying 17 servicewomen made a round of visits to the Nansha Islands in South China Sea. This is the first time for the Chinese naval servicewomen to carry out tasks along with a ship.

●In 2002, four servicewomen participated in the first around-the-world voyage of the PLA Navy.
Since December 2008, many batches of female sailors of the PLA Navy have participated in the escort mission in the Gulf of Aden. Previously, they had mainly undertaken such service and support work as medical treatment, translation and culture.

● In 2010, 14 female soldiers were temporarily assigned to the combat duty posts of signal, radar, steering and boatswain of the Chinese naval escort ships in the Gulf of Aden.

● In March 2010, the first female sailor training team was founded at a training base of the North China Sea Fleet of the PLA Navy. After a five-month-long training, the first batch of 24 female sailors acquired at least eight professional skills including damage control, knotting and chemical defense of surface ships, and became the first batch of female sailors of the PLA Navy.

● In September 2012, the PLA Navy attempted to expand the service scope of female soldiers in surface ship units, and gradually established and improved the system and measures for organization and equipment, education and training, and management and support of female soldiers."
Female soldiers in China-Russia joint drill come into focus
(Xinhua) 08:25, July 15, 2013

"Female sailors of Chinese Navy participate in escort mission in Gulf of Aden
(People's Daily Online November 05, 2013).Female sailors of the 'Jinggangshan' ship under the escort taskforce of the Navy of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) are holding combat positions in escort mission in Gulf of Aden.They have completed the training of common subjects, such as seamanship, damage control and battlefield rescue, and professional subjects, such as navigation, radio operation and signal."

Sunday 6 July 2014

Reading about women seafarers

This is a select list of books and articles on women seafarers and women at the sea’s interface. Intended mainly for non-academics, it's to share, a resource from which many can benefit.
I hope people will send me additions to it. It would be good to include publications from countries other than the UK, particularly Scandinavia, China, and Asian and African countries.


Phillip Belcher, Helen Sampson, Michelle Thomas et al, Women Seafarers: Global employment policies and practices, International Labor Office, Geneva, 2003.
David Cordingly, Heroines and harlots: women at sea in the great age of sail, Macmillan, London, 2001.
Margaret S Creighton and Lisa Norling, Eds, Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore and London, 1996.
Linda Grant De Pauw, Seafaring Women, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1982.
Diane Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
Joan Druett, She Captains: Heroines and hellions of the sea, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1999.
Leon Fink, Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant seamen in the world's first globalized industry, from 1812 to the Present, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2011.
Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Women Under Sail: Letters and journals concerning eight women travelling or working in sailing vessels between 1829 and 1949, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1970.
Merja-Liisa Hinkkanen and ‎David Kirby, The Baltic and the North Sea, (three chapters on maritime women, Routledge, Abingdon, 2013.
Colin Howell and Richard J Twomey, Eds, Jack Tar in History: Essays in the history of maritime life and labour, (four chapters on gender) Acadiensis Press, New Brunswick, 1991.
Celia Mather, Sweatships: What it’s really like to work on board cruise ships, War on Want, London.
Jo Stanley, Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates across the Ages, Ed, Pandora, London, 1995.
Minghua Zhao, Seafarers on Cruise Ships: Emotional Labour in a Globalised Labour Market, Seafarers’ International Research Centre, Cardiff University, 2002.

US & Canada
Charlene Atkinson, Sue Ellen Jacobs and Mary A Porter, Winds of Change: Women in Northwest Commercial Fishing, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1989.
Lesley Leyland Fields, The Entangling Net: Alaska’s Commercial Fishing Women Tell their Stories, University of Illinois, Urbana and Chicago , 1997
Lucy Gwin, Going Overboard: The onliest little woman in the offshore oilfields, Viking Press, New York, 1982.
Vickie Jensen, Saltwater Women at Work, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 1995.
Jeanne Marie Lutz, Changing Course: One woman's true-life adventures as a merchant marine, New Horizon Press, Far Hills, New Jersey, 2003.
Sari Mäenpää, ‘Shipping Out: “The Story of America's Seafaring Women”’, International Journal of Maritime History, Vol 19,no 2, 2007, p472.
Nancy Taylor Robson, Woman in the Wheelhouse, Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Maryland, 1985.
Cristina Vignone, 'Women Workers and Gender Equality on the Ocean Liner,' Crossing on the SS Normandie,

The Antipodes
Patsy Adam-Smith, There was a Ship: The story of her years at sea, Penguin, Ringwood, Australia, 1995.
Sally Fodie, Waitemata Ferry Tales, Ferry Boat Publishers, Auckland, 1995.
Dee Pignéguy, Saltwater in Her Hair: Stories of women in the New Zealand maritime industry, VIP publications, Auckland, 2001.

Olive J Roeckner, Deep Sea ‘Sparks’: A Canadian Girl in the Norwegian Merchant Navy, Cordillera, Vancouver, 1993.
Mira Karjalainen, In the Shadow of Freedom: Life on board the oil tanker, The Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters, Helsinki, 2007.

The Soviet Union
Jo Stanley, Soviet women Commanding Ships, 4 July 2014,

The UK
Linda Collison,
-Surgeon’s Mate,(The Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series of novels), Fireship Press, Tucson, AZ 2010.
- Barbados Bound, Fireship Press, 2012, Tucson, AZ .
Crabb, Brian James, Beyond the Call of Duty: The loss of British Commonwealth mercantile and service women at sea during the second world war, Shaun Tyas, Donington, 2006.
Cherry Drummond, The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond, The Institute of Marine Engineers, London, 1999.
Violet Jessop, Titanic Survivor: The Memoirs of Violet Jessop, Stewardess, John Maxtone-Graham, Ed, Sutton, Stroud, 1998.
Mary Lacy, Mary Lacy ‘The Female Shipwright’, Margarette Lincoln (intro), Caird Library Reprints, National Maritime Museum, London, 2008.
Sari Mäenpää,
-'Women below Deck: Gender and Employment on British Passenger Liners, 1860-1938',
The Journal of Transport History, Vol 25, no 2, 2004, pp57-74.
- ‘Comfort and guidance for female passengers: The origins of women's employment on British Passenger Liners 1850–1914’, Journal for Maritime Research, Vol 6, no 1, pp145-64.
Jo Stanley,
- Women at Sea: Canadian Pacific Stewardesses in the 1930s, self-published, Liverpool, 1987.
- ‘The company of women: stewardesses on liners, 1919-1938’, The Northern Mariner/ Le Marin du Nord, Vol 9, no2, 1999, pp69-86.
- ‘Black Women on British Ships’, The Black and Asian Studies Newsletter, no 28, pp10-13, 2000.
- ‘Co-venturing consumers “travel back”: Ships’ stewardesses and their female passengers, 1919-1955’, Mobilities, Vol 3, no 3, 2008, pp437-54.
- ‘Caring for the poor souls: inter-war seafaring women and their pity for passengers,’Gendered Journeys, Mobile Emotions, Gayle Letherby and Gillian Reynolds, Eds, Ashgate, London, 2009, pp121-32.
- ‘We were skivvies / We had a ball: Shame and interwar stewardesses,’ Oral History, Vol 38 (Emotions issue), no 2, 2010, pp64-74.
Suzanne J Stark, Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1996.
Michelle Thomas, ‘"Get yourself a proper job girlie!" Recruitment, retention and women seafarers’, Maritime Policy & Management, Vol 31, no 4, 2004, pp309-18.
Caroline Walker, David Peart, and Alan Gleaves, ‘Problems in the construction of gender and professional identities for women in a United Kingdom merchant navy training school,’ Research in Post-Compulsory Education, Vol 8, no 3, 2003, pp285-304.

Women at sea as part of the UK royal navy services.
Vera Laughton-Mathews, Blue Tapestry, Hollis & Carter, London, 1949.
Marjorie H Fletcher, The WRNS: A History of the Women's Royal Naval Service, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1989.
Paddy Gregson, Ten Degrees Below Seaweed. A True Story Of World War II Boats' Crew Wrens,
Merlin Books, Devon, 1993.
Kathleen Harland, Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, Journal of the Royal Naval Medical Service, London, 1990.

Sari Mäenpää, Catering personnel on British passenger liners, 1860-1935, PH.D, Liverpool University, 2002.
Jo Stanley, “Wanted: Adventurous Girls”: Stewardesses on liners 1919-1939, PH.D. Lancaster University.


2.WEBSITES (US Women's Maritime Association) (Women's Maritime Association, New Zealand) (International Transport Workers’ Federation, women's section)
http://www. genderedseas. (Gender, sex and the sea) WISTA (Women's International Shipping & Trading Association)/ English Heritage, history of maritime women) (Women in Maritime History, San Francisco Maritime Museum)


Donna Bridges, Jane Neal-Smith and Albert J Mills, Eds, Absent Aviators: Gender Issues in Aviation, Ashgate, London, 2014
Lucy Delap,
-'Thus Does Man Prove His Fitness to Be the Master of Things': Shipwrecks, Chivalry and Masculinities in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain, Cultural and Social History, Vol 3, no 1, 2006, pp45-74.
-‘The Woman’s Dreadnought: Maritime symbolism in Edwardian gender politics,’ The Dreadnought and the Edwardian Age, Andrew D Lambert et al,Eds, Ashgate Publishing, Abingdon, 2011, pp95-108.
Priyanthi Fernando and Gina Porter, Eds, Balancing the Load: Women, Gender and transport, Zed Press, London, 2002.
Margaret Grieco, Laurie Pickup and Richard Whipp, Eds, Gender, Transport and Employment: Impact of Travel Constraints (Oxford Studies in Transport), Avebury, Aldershot, 1989
Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983.
Robin Law, ‘Beyond “women and transport”: towards new geographies of gender and daily mobility, Progress in Human Geography, Vol 23, no 4, 1999, pp567-588.
Eileen F Lebow, Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation, Brassey's Washington DC, 2002.
Gayle Letherby and Gillian Reynolds, Eds, Gendered Journeys, Mobile Emotions, Ashgate, London, 2009
Rosa Matheson, Women and the Great Western Railway, History Press, Stroud, 2007.
Liz Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace: 1922-1937, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 2008.
Alain Pelletier, High-Flying Women: A World History of Female Pilots, Haynes & Co, Sparkford, 2012
Nancy Pagh, At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest, University of Calgary Press, Calgary and University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho, 2001.
Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1999.
M Thea Sinclair, Ed, Gender, Work and Tourism, Routledge, London, 1997.
Jo Stanley,
- ‘The Swashbuckler, the Landlubbing Wimp, and the Woman in between: Myself as Pirate(ss)’ in Women’s Lives into Print: The Theory, Practice and Writing of Feminist Auto/Biography, Pauline Polkey, Ed, Macmillan, London, 1999, pp216-28.
- ‘And After the Cross-Dressed Cabin Boys and Whaling Wives? Possible Futures for Women’s Maritime Historiography,’ Journal of Transport History, Vol 23, no 1, 2002, pp9-22.
- ‘Putting Gender into Seafaring’, in Hilda Kean, Paul Martin and Sally J Morgan, Eds, Seeing History: Public History in Britain Now, Francis Boutle, London, pp81-104, 2000.
Marian Swerdlow, Underground Woman: My Four Years as a New York City Subway Conductor (Labor & Social Change), Temple University Press, 1998.
Chuchu Vivian, Entering a man's world; Women bus drivers in South Africa, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing , 2012.
Margaret Walsh, Ed, Journal of Transport History, Vol 23, no 1, 2002 (special issue on women).
Drew Whitelegg, ‘Places and Spaces I've Been: Geographies of female flight attendants in the United States’, Gender, Place & Culture, Vol 12, no 2, 2005, pp251-266
Giles Whittell, Spitfire Women of World War II, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008.
Helena Wojtczak, Railwaywomen: Exploitation, betrayal and triumph in the workplace, Hastings Press, Sussex, 2005.



Pat Ayers, ‘The Hidden Economy of Dockland Families: Liverpool in the 1930s’, Pat Hudson and W
Robert Lee, Women’s Work and the Family Economy, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp 271-90, 1990.
Jan Brøgger, Nazare: Women and men in a pre-bureaucratic Portuguese fishing village, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, Boston, 1992.
Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell, Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800, Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden, Boston and Tokyo, 2012.
Sally Cooper Cole, Women of the Praia: Work and lives in a Portuguese coastal community, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1991
Elaine Forman Crane, Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports and Social Change, 1630-1800, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1998.
Helen Doe, Enterprising women and shipping in the nineteenth century, Boydell Press, Rochester, New York and Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2009.
Hanna Hagmark-Cooper, To Be a Sailor's Wife, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012.
Margarette Lincoln, Naval Wives and Mistresses, 1750-1815, National Maritime Museum, London, 2007.
Sena Jeta Naslund, Ahab’s Wife(a novel) Morrow/Perennial, New York, 1999
Lisa Norling, Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women & the Whalefishery, 1720-1870, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000.
Michelle Thomas, Lost at Home and Lost at Sea: The predicament of seafaring families, Seafarers International Research Centre, Cardiff, 2003.
Henry Trotter, Sugar Girls & Seamen: A journey into the world of dockside prostitution in South Africa, Jacana Media, South Africa, 2008.

Several slightly less relevant categories are excluded:
~ women recreational sailors
~ (in section 1) seagoing wives of masters (as they are not, quite, employees
~ women passengers
~ Only in exceptional cases are novels included; this means some of the fabricated 'autobiographies' of cross-dressed women sailors such as Hannah Snell and Lucy Brewer aren't here. Maybe they should be.

Friday 4 July 2014

Soviet women commanding ships

Pic: Valentina Orlikova and colleagues on the bridge of WW2 merchant ship

In surfing yet again for women seafarers’ history in different countries I realised that a new researcher doing the same thing,looking for Soviet women at sea, could easily be under a big misapprehension.
The prominence on the internet of Soviet pioneers Anna Shchetinina and Valentina Orlikova might lead people to think they were exceptions, like Victoria Drummond.(This British marine engineer pictured below was, like them, breaking through in the 1930s.)

In fact, Captains Valentina and Anna were two of many thousands of Soviet women in the merchant navy from the 1930s who did ‘men's' jobs: deck, engineering and radio work, rather than hotel-side work.
~ Anna Shchetinina (1908-1999) certainly was the first Soviet woman in the world to serve as a certificated captain of an ocean-going vessel. (see pics below, and many other images on the excellent Russian-language website about Anna:

~ And Valentina Orlikova(1915-1991), with her movie-star looks, certainly was the most internationally-fancied woman deck officer in the world. Her high profile was created after she was featured in a USSR/ New York publicity drive in 1943.
But evidence of the mass of women is hard to find, even for Russian speakers. Use the search term 'women sailors' on the RIA Novosti press agency site and there’s just an implausibly smiling woman cleaning up a nuclear ship in 1964, and a young woman on Far East service, who looks rather planted.

A much-admired media icon
By contrast to the now-invisibility of the mass of Soviet women merchant seafarers, the Milwaukee Journal of February 28 1943 headlined an article ‘Pretty little Soviet girl is officer on cargo ship.’

And the Illinois Alton Evening Telegraph celebrated Valentina:
Any preconceived pictures you have of Soviet women as tall husky Amazons will have to be revised for Orlikova. She is four feet ten. Gray eyes. Brown hair. Slender little figure in a dark blue suit. She is the wife of a Soviet seaman and the mother of a two year-old boy.
‘In stormy weather or calm seas she stands her watch on the bridge, helping direct navigation through mine-sown and submarine-infested waters. She has directed the evacuation of a ship truck by a mine and has leapt from a flaming vessel into the sea, o be rescued by a submarine. And she talks about it more calmly than most people discuss rationed hoes.’

US writer Anais Nin wrote:
<'A photo of her had appeared, which all of us fell in love with... She conveyed firmness and capability, without hardness or coldness. She became a symbol of woman’s most secret wishes: to be free and in command of her own destiny, responsible without loss of her womanliness.

'We wanted to imitate Valentina Orlikova. We saw ourselves trim, efficient, capable captains of our ship and our own lives. It was not a desire to be a man, but be free and capable of self-direction and professional growth.
’ And Nin cross-dressed in her husband’s tuxedo and cut her hair short, in emulation.
So wartime needs for women’s labour, and new temporary alliances of Allied powers, were helped by her not being fitting the burly Russian Bear stereotype. The message was that you could be cute AND a tough worker and a married Mom - and someone from the land of Communism.
(Pic: Anais Nin cross-dressed,from

The reality was that Valentina Orlikova was a dual-ticketed engineer and deck officer, aged 28. And one of thousands of women who were in the USSR merchant fleet long before the war started.
The socialist revolution gave many rights to women, including doctors and scientists, which were astonishing in other countries. By 1933 British economist Sidney Webb had recorded that there was ‘a steadily increasing number’ of women sailors, engineers and wireless operators, usually dressed in trousers. They went to marine training schools along with men.
When they docked in foreign ports the women were seen as novelties and featured in the press.
For example when the Chelyuskinet arrived in New York with exhibits from the Soviet Pavilion at the Worlds Fair in February 1939, the women officers along with what we could call ‘stewardesses’ were pictured by a news agency(see picture below.)

Caption: Left to right Uliana Lebedeva, Mess Girl; Elizabeth Gierorga-Pulo, Radio Operator; Galina Gradsaya, Second Mate; and Nina Todory, Mess Girl.


The Soviet defensive navy had the same trouble as most defensive navies in letting women sail in this all-male organisation in WW2. (Finally the USSR did. Britain didn’t, except very exceptionally. And the Canadian navy rejected women radio officers, who instead joined the Scandinavian merchant vessels)
According to historians Markwick and Cardona, 21,000 women worked in the USSR's defensive navy. Some rose as high as captains in the Amur River Fleet, sailing on the relatively safe Amur and Sungari rivers. Those on the Astrakhan, carrying and ammunition, troops, wounded people, and supplies, were much decorated. In the Black Sea Fleet were 2,854 women.
Not all were seagoing and they faced misogyny. Captain Taisa Rudenko-Sheveleva, the first woman naval officer, who had got in by pretending to be a man, said cats and women were traditionally seen as unlucky.
By comparison, the intensively-trained professional seafarers Anna and Valentina were some of the long-accepted technical officers on merchant vessels routinely going deep-sea in dangerous waters, including the horrific Murmansk route.

~ Captain Anna was transporting cargo in the Baltic. She took part in the ‘Russian Dunkirk’, on one of the 190 ships of the Baltic Fleet evacuating people from Tallinn in August 1941. She was also sailing as master of a Liberty ship, transporting Lend-lease supplies from the US, and therefore at great risk of Axis attack.
~ Valentina was working as a mate on cargo ships, including as fourth mate on the armed Dvina, sailing from Archangel to New York in 1942 and 1943 delivering US arms to the USSR.
She’d been ‘serving as mate on hospital ship in the Baltic Sea … the Nazis sowed mines directly in our path. Our ship hit one of them. I shall never forget the terrible moments that followed – the explosions, the flames, the wounded all around needing help – and through it all the faces of my women comrades, strong and heroic…[the water rose, the ship listed]
‘I was on the upper deck, in charge of lowering lifeboats … Despite the frightful danger facing everyone on ship, my heart was calm. I saw there was no room here for weakness. All the women around me, young and old, nurses and crew members, were working quickly, efficiently, confidently….I did not see any of the women make even a gesture towards saving their own lives.’

The ship managed to get to a small island where the wounded were unloaded. The ship temporarily repaired so that it could limp to the home port and be properly repaired.
When the wounded were re-embarked and the ship ready to sail again, I ordered the women to take some rest. With tired, but happy, smiles, they refused …noiselessly they glided through the cabin helping to bring back to health those who had been wounded,’ she told the US media.

In typical ‘women can do it’ and Rosie the Riveter style, the Alton Evening Telegraph reported Orlikova is the only woman mate on her ship. But she does not intend to stop there. Her ambition is to be a ship's captain. She thinks in three more years she should make it.
‘"It's good to have women on ships," she says. "They keep everything clean and in good condition. They are exact as doctors and radio operators, too. And they are not afraid of anything." Have any of Orlikova's order ever been questioned because she was a woman. "Never," she says with a grin.’

• Anna Shchetinina (Captain on numerous vessels)
• Valentina Orlikova (Captain of Storm, etc)
• Vera Mitsai (First Mate of whaler Typhoon)
• Alla Rezner (First Mate)
• Lydia Kochetkova (Second Mate)
• Nadejda Zabardayeva (Radio Telegraphist)
• Vera Gorlova (Radio Telegraphist)
• Nadejda Neoslenaya (Surgeon's Assistant)

Pic: Unnamed WW2 woman in Pacific Fleet landing party on their way to Port-Arthur,Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 1945.Photographed by Yevgeny Khaldei. Courtesy of RIA Novosti.

After the war
Both Anna and Valentina women survived the war, and were much decorated.

~ Captain Shchetinina went on to captain six ships of the Soviet Baltic Shipping Company, MV Askold, Baskunchak, Beloostrov, Dniester, Pskov, and Mendeleev. Then, aged 41 in 1949 she came ashore and taught in the Leningrad Marine Engineering College College where Valentina had studied two decades earlier. Anna later became Dean and wrote a very entertaining lifestory, not yet translated.

(Pictures from, with thanks)

~ Captain Orlikova
worked on whalers sailing to the Far East from 1947-53. Under international law Russian-style factory whaling was illegal and controversial. She attained her dream to be captain, working on Storm.
Many women were on whalers in both 'male' roles such as scientists and radio officers, and in domestic roles such as cooks, and laundry. Valentina never got the same publicity again.

Pic: Soviet whaler Aleut, 1958. Photo by Yulia Ivashchenko

It’s rather peculiar that the progressive trend of women doing ‘men’s work’ at sea didn’t continue in the USSR. However though this 1960s photo of some Soviet women seafarers visiting Warsash Maritime Centre (now Academy) in Hampshire, indicates they not only existed but traveled. In the 1980s there was at least one woman, Valentina Plutova, a First Officer.

Yet when Nina Baker, Britain’s second women deck officer, sailed to the USSR in the 1970s Soviet officers (male) deliberately visited her ship to see this phenomenon: a woman on the bridge.
(This blog entry is part of a longer article to be published elsewhere, later. Suggestions for additions are welcome.)