If you think these words about officially referring to ships as gender neutral were roared by dinosaurs a century ago, you’re in for a surprise. The comments were made just last week by a fairly progressive retired Admiral, Lord Alan West; see https://tinyurl.com/West-ship-mother
The hoary ‘Is a ship a “she”, not an “it”?’ debate re-emerged when Glasgow Maritime Museum said it would now be referring to ships as gender neutral. Director David Mann said the museum ‘recognise[d] the changes in society’: https://tinyurl.com/glasgow-museum
Lloyds List made a similar decision in 2002: these floating bits of real estate are to be called ‘it’. That arbitrating decision brought a huge postbag too. Then thing settled down, although the Royal Navy carried on 'she-ing'.
And it’s rather silly, ostensibly. Or is it? BBC Radio 4 News Quiz comedian Andy Zaltzman joked that a ship’s determining genitals were usually hidden. So you could only tell and mummy and daddy ships apart when the lady had little baby ships - called ‘submarines’
Behind itIn the last week of April 2019 the matter became transformed into a fuzzy and sentiment-led debate. The words ‘cultural imperialism’ and ‘anthropomorphism’ were not used. But in essence they lay behind the argument: ‘Why shouldn’t we be allowed to call our inanimate things whatever we want?’
English is not a gendered language, so it does not make sense for us in the UK to gender ships - or bicycles or nail extensions.
So it would be good to hear from experts on gendered languages explain this 'need' to assign gender to inanimate objects, taking a calm, systemic, approach based linguistics and neuroscience.
|Mann and un-named colleague with the altered sign: image from Irvine Times 23.4.2019.
Protest and change
|'I love him, my necessary machine.'
Image courtesy of The Atlantic, Dec 2017,
by Christopher Delorenzo
In that loneliness a ship was an intimate companion. Befriending it was a good tactic. And if the seafarer didn't want to be accused of being homosexual or odd it was clearly politic to call that darling a she.
Auto Trader’s website doesn’t refer to its vehicles as ‘the ladies’. No airport announces of a plane ‘she is boarding now’.
Anthropomorphising can assuage loneliness. But is it alright?
Image by MJL,courtesy of www.chucklingdog.com
Humanising OK, but...
Whatever the choice, it will bring entrenched and overwhelming stereotypes.
This behaviour is part of the climate that led to misogynists, especially under sail, superstitiously hating Woman’s presence on board and sabotaging real women's right to maritime work.
Published justifications for calling a ship ‘she’ range along a spectrum from filial devotion to the patronising.
- NOBLE: At the one end, the mighty container is something grand: a goddess to be worshipped and placated. Those aboard position themselves as merely devoted minions of the sainted Virgin Mary-like ship, sometimes created as a figurehead. (This may not encourage teamwork because it disables the worshippers’ sense of agency).
- GIRLY: At the spectrum’s other end, a ship is a demanding, vain flibbertigibbet who asks too much of men – as all women do. An example of this is the saying ‘the outfitting she wants costs more than her hull’.
- CONTESTED AUTHORITY: Somewhere in between is the view that ‘She won’t be controlled, you have to woo her to get her to bow to your will. Humour her and she’ll eat out of your hand’.
|Boys and men were away for months or years; unrealistic ideas
about distant women developed.
Illustrated London News. 10.2.1883.
People are actively looking for new, more embracing personal pronouns such as ‘ze’ or ‘hir’, not just 'they'.
In the West, women’s rights have been on the agenda for nearly 150 years. The past five decades have seen some advances. Women are less often positioned as second-class or treated as jokes - at least in public.