Saturday 4 May 2019

Ships as she: anthropomorphism, linguistics and girly vessels

‘Stark staring bonkers...  political correctness gone mad… an insult to a generation of sailors, the ships are seen almost as a mother to preserve us from the dangers of the sea and also from the violence of the enemy”.

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

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’:

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'.

Silly or?

The usual protesters are naval, not maritime, people – and mostly older males. They’re not anti-women. They just don’t understand that they’re perpetuating old and destructive attitudes that positioned women as - at worst - Jack Tar's totty, incompetent outsiders, sex-providers, objects of up-skirting, and protectees (see images).

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 it

In 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?’
The answer is a complex one.  I write about it here now because for years I’ve been collecting stories, funny postcards and tea-towels on 'ships as she' as part of my work on gendered maritime history. 
I would like to highlight the following points. They build up, step by step, what I hope is a sage and fair-minded fresh view on the subject.


Visitors to UK museums are rightly puzzled when they see, as in Glasgow Maritime Museum’s case, labels that refer to a ship as’ she’, and not as a gender neutral ‘it’.
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

An unknown visitor scratched out the ‘she’ and the ‘her’ on Glasgow’s labels: The change was called 'graffiti', and the protester called a ‘vandal’. But actually the visitor-observer had informally made a correction that the museum was anyway going to effect when it could afford to do so.
The useful debate that has ensued brings to our attention two things: widespread, under-informed, deeply-held bigotry; and the fact that museums are too cash-starved to update their displays and descriptions as they wish.
My book on the history of seafaring women (which had an appendix on 'ships as she') was launched on board the Glenlee, a ship moored at Glasgow Maritime Museum - and referred to as 'she' on Wikipedia. So I know the museum well enough to be clear that its ethos is to embrace diversity, which most museums now do.
Australia’s National Maritime Museum was ahead of the all this and switched in the late 1990s. Although the radical move brought controversy, the sky did not fall. Princess Anne and George W Bush still visited; the Sunday Times still put it on their list of ''the world's 10 coolest museums'' in 2010.


Gendering a ship is part of the long-established general practice of attributing human qualities to inanimate objects, and to pets. Psychologists and anthropologists, for example, tend to see this as a creative problem-solving strategy: humanise a significant thing can give us an illusion of having some control over it, as well as bringing us closer to it.
'I love him, my necessary machine.'
Image courtesy of  The Atlantic, Dec 2017,
 by Christopher Delorenzo
Lonely and overwhelmed simple seafarers working on sailing ships, when navigation was less developed, must have especially needed strategies to help them cope with long bleak months of unpredictable and unknowable vicissitudes.
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.   


But attributing (white) female gender to every inanimate object in a category - e.g. vessels - is troubling for our society. It's a sign of the habitual sexist thinking in the old navy.
Auto Trader’s website doesn’t refer to its vehicles as ‘the ladies’. No airport announces of a plane ‘she is boarding now’. 
Understandably, people on a ship come to ‘love’ their 24:7 residential workplace and to esteem its abilities to get them from A to B. Anyone can grasp that. Their collective lives depends on a good relationship with the machine, which some may see as a protective parent (female) – even a kind of god (dess) or simply their dearest pal and pet.
Feminising is not a consequence of the speakers being male. I, myself, a some-time boat-dweller, have called ships ‘she’. So do some seafaring women I know.  However, I’ve usually been fitting in politely rather than feeling convinced.
Individuals have the right to anthropomorphise their personal car, ship, fridge or cat if they want. It’s their private business. I stand back, too, when friends see their car as a naughty child or a treacherous tyrant.   It's their right be irrational – and it doesn’t do systemic harm to an already-oppressed group of humans: women.

Anthropomorphising can assuage loneliness. But is it alright?
Image by MJL,courtesy of

Humanising OK, but...

However, in the anthropomorphising process, people in a gendered society feel they have to decide whether their inanimate object is female or male.
Whatever the choice, it will bring entrenched and overwhelming stereotypes.
The controversy about gendering vessels comes up because some individuals are still basing their views on disrespectful and outdated ideas about women.
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.  
Humanising should not not mean gendering, nor perpetuating negative stereotypes about one gender, race or class.


In my years of collecting such material, including teatowels like this one, (pictured below, right) no ship is ever seen as male. But women are seen as ships, such as fancy frigates who a swain  proudly parades in port. 

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’.

Beyond binarity

The nineteenth-century products of patriarchal societies, who’ve been away in all-male situation since their boyhood, are understandably under-informed about the realities of everyday women and equal, non-dominating comradeship.
They've known women only as idealised personifications of home or workers in the waterfront sex industry. For all sorts of reasons such exiles feel the need to reassure themselves that malestream is still mainstream.
Boys and men were away  for months or years; unrealistic ideas
about distant women developed.
  Illustrated London News. 10.2.1883.

Changed times

But education and the seafaring profession are today much less gender-segregated.
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.
Unacceptably sexist behaviour has never been more discussed than in these #MeToo times. It’s now recognised that society should stop routinely denigrating anything seen as female and locking it in the Bad Corner until it conforms to men’s rules.
The time for placing 'ladies' on fanciful pedestals is long gone too.
We live in a new age. So it’s appropriate that twenty-first century museums, publishers, writers, navies and seafarers move on from routinely ascribing hackneyed gendered characteristics to rectangular vessels.

Respect helps

There is room for acceptance of diversity. This includes people’s personal right to call their cars Fifi or Henry and their right to call their ships ‘her bloody ladyship’ but also ‘his effin nibs’. If such anthropomorphising helps them work in harmony with their machines then it's fair enough.
But no one should impose systemic sexist irrationality across the board and thereby perpetuate negative stereotypes. Respect helps us all.

1 comment:

Dr Jo Stanley, FRHistS. said...

Here are some responses via facebook:
Elisabeth Solvang Koren: I learnt a lot from reading this. Thank you! And it is wonderful that you have collected all these illustations.

Jo Stanley: Thanks, Elisabeth. It's been a very big talking point here in UK, the last week. Are ships gendered in your part of the world?

Elisabeth Solvang Koren Yes, I think they are gendered in all the Scandinavian languages. However, in Norwegian grammar we use gender. So maybe it is more usual to call a thing 'she' or 'he' in Norwegian than in English.
Jo Stanley: Fascinating, Elisabeth. So in Scandinavian countries other than Norway do maritime museums 'still' call ships she? Thank you.
Sari Maenpaa: There is no gender in Finnish grammar but ships often have women's names apart from icebreakers which are often gendered as masculine. In other words, we do not have she or he.
Jo Stanley: So are icebreakers more macho than say, yachts?!
Sari Maenpaa: At least by naming convention. They used to be owned by the state and some were called in men's names which ment bravery and energy ( Urho, Tarmo).