Thursday 2 January 2020

All-women bosses aboard? Historic precedents for Celebrity Cruise's Edge

Some of Celebrity Edge's all-women officers and deck team. Pic: Celebrity Cruises.

Why would a cruise this March be of interest to historians who won't be on it? 
Because - seemingly the first time ever - a ship is sailing with all women officers (in the deck and hotel departments). That's how far we've progressed in a once very misogynistic industry.
On a Celebrity Cruises ship 26 women officers will sail in Captain Kate McCue’s team  on Celebrity Edge, from March 8-15 2020.

P&O Cruises almost managed a similar feat, with five women officers on the Pacific Pearl to the South Pacific in 2011. 
Kate (pictured left) is the US’s first cruise ship captain and says 'Excitement does not even begin to describe how I’m feeling about working alongside these incredible, barrier-breaking women ... on this truly historic sailing.'
This significant step really is a very important and inspiring breakthrough. Part of the global campaign to include women on ships, this voyage is a kind of crescendo to the International Maritime Organisation's year of empowering women, 2019.
Celebrity Cruise's part in this long struggle against cultural lack of diversity is that - under Lisa Lutoff-Perla, its path-breaking president and CEO - the company is pushing a Bridge the Gap initiative.
 Working on bridging that gap: Lisa, centre; Kate, second from
right, and other Celebrity officers. Pic: Celebrity Cruises


Have there ever been all-women-officered trips before, on big ships not just small boats? 
The answer seems to be 'Yes, twice. In 1,500 years: in Denmark and China.' 
And the veracity of those sailing stories seems a bit slippery. It's a good idea to read between the lines.
That's why I'm hoping the Celebrity Edge staff are going to leave much better accounts of their voyage, for posterity's sake.
Here are the two patchy stories of predecessors.


In this first story, the doubt is 'Did these events really happen?' Or 'Is the dramatic tale is just a product of a time when historians didn't distinguish between myth and history?' Fake news? Fantasy?
Saxo Grammaticus, artist's impression
by Louis Moe
Saxo Grammaticus's fifteenth-century telling of a fifth-century story, in The Danish History, Vol 4, goes like this: 
Princess Aflhild/Alwilda, the Goth king’s only daughter, had love problems that drove her so mad that she set sail as a pirate.
"Enrolling in her service many maidens who were of the same mind  [wanting to live as shield-maidens in a life without men, she set sail. After a while] 
'she happened to come to a spot where a band of [sea]rovers were lamenting the death of their captain, who had been lost in war; they made her their rover captain for her beauty, and she did deeds beyond the valour of woman.'
So her ship had been a sort of floating and very bustling convent, with Captain Alfhild as a seagoing Mother Superior crossed with a sort of Viking raider.
Then when the male seafarers showed they could accept a woman's authority - if she looked pretty enough -  women and men worked together on board.
Her 'Amazonian' crew would have numbered far less than 100. And they would have been what we'd now call Scandinavians. Celebrity Edge's crew is 1,377-strong and the women officers are of 16 nationalities.
Alfhild's team sailed for months, not seven days. They were in chilly Danish and Finnish waters that were sometimes frozen,not the warm Caribbean. 
The women’s business was raiding coastal communities, not giving 2,918 passengers a very nice time.

The two (royal) shield-maidens, left, were essentially raiders. Focusing on
customer service? I don't think so. Keen on esprit de corps, yes.

And Alfhild's was a small no-frills vessel. By contrast,  'luxury comes as standard' says Celebrity of its most powerful ship. It's so wonderful it even has a Magic Carpet (a grand sort of elevator-cum-mobile conservatory). 
The Danish maid-pirates endured months that probably felt like forever. Celebrity Edge is sailing for just seven days, which will probably feel like not enough. 
Pleasures will include inspirational talks, a  tournament where Fearless Female Officers and guests play sports, plus screenings of iconic movies by female directors.

Captain Alfhild; probably not
mistakable for Captain McCue. 

What happened eventually on Captain Alfhild's un-named ship?
Kismet. After a period of depredation Princess Alfhild (pictured right) came face-to-face with her old beloved, Captain/Prince Alf, sailing on an enemy ship. She somehow dropped her enmity, as did her second-in-command. 
Xenophobia  melted away in a kind of smiley but macho double-date. 
Alf 'took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man's apparel for a woman's; and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid. Also Borgar wedded the attendant of Alfhild, Groa, and had by her a son, Harald.'
It seems the pirate maidens agreed to swap their oars for kitchen utensils, staying on land while their men returned to sea roving.
Is this a happily-ever-after story, as in post-WW2 movies about women delightedly downing their welding torches in favour of baby's bottles? Or did Alfhild's team realize that their capitulation was a Terrible Glitch in women's progress towards fulfillment in STEM careers? 
We don't know. 
And the whole thing seems very unlikely anyway because how could a group of women and an aristocrat have instantly accrued enough skills to sail a ship? Few, if any, women would have been allowed the opportunity to develop sea skills. (See Jo Stanley, ed, Chapter six, pp78-92, in Bold in her Breeches: Women pirates across the ages.)

So Captain Alfhild probably had little in common with Captain McKue except the ability to lead. 
Indeed, with so few voyages to her CV would Alfhild have even got a Cinderella-type job picking lentils out of the ashes in a Celebrity galley?

CHINA. 1970

As for the all-women-officer team  sailing on the Fengtao in Chinese waters over forty years ago... well, what exactly was that about? Was it just mainly women? 
The difficulty is that the only available translation is incoherent. And the link to the original memo is now broken. (See a fragment of commentary by Minghua Zhao online at Working Paper Series Paper 14 - ORCA - Cardiff University, p10)

Captain Kongqing Fen's Feng Tao. Picture courtesy of

This is what I can piece together from the memo: 
From at least 1976 to 1980 eleven women officers sailed on the Shanghai Ocean Shipping freighter Fengtao
Compared to the Celebrity Edge the Fengtao was tiny. It weighed 10,365 tons and was 528 feet long; the Celebrity Edge is over ten times the size: 129,500 tons and is 1,004 feet long.
Captain Kongqing Fen took her ship mainly from Shanghai to Japanese industrial ports including Yokohama and Kobe, as well as Dubai and Hong Kong. She didn't go to lovely resorts. 
Trips were short and repetitive. The team made seventeen voyages in 1978-79, round the Japanese coast.
Fengtao's freight was not, of course, happy holidaymakers sunbathing and splurging freely all over the ship. 
Instead the holds were crammed with cotton when teh ship was outbound, usually. When homeward bound the cargo contained  pipes, groceries, televisions, sugar, and cement.
The eleven women crew, who were assembled especially for this ship, ranged in age from 20 to 42. It seems their roles included accountancy, medical work, marine engineering, and translation. 
Because these were revolutionary times the ship also carried what the Celebity Edge never would: a political commissar. Such people can be seen as a cross between a welfare officer, a public relations expert, and a Master at Arms (security staff). The Fengtao's Yin Lingzhen had formerly been deputy secretary of the CPC Shanghai Municipal Committee.

How did it happen? 
Chinese seawomen had been working coastally and on rivers and docks since at least the 1950s, including with engines. Some had been ABs and greasers. 
Few had crossed oceans but China's revolutionary leaders wanted women to be able to segue into all sorts of non-traditional jobs.  
Doing just three weeks of training in ocean-going skills - on top of their pre-existing coastal skills - doesn't sound like enough. So there must have been some experienced male officers too, surely.  
Certainly we know that the male crew were warm towards the women and keen to help with heavy jobs. Both women and men staged theatricals to entertain each other. 
When abroad the women appeared at many diplomatic events. They were acclaimed as path-breakers.

Why arrange a women-only ship, and at this time, in China?
Possibly it was because of shortages of labour. Maybe it was to create some positive publicity in foreign ports, at a time when women's liberation was just being discussed. 

Celebrity Edge today

Given this sparse record, it's clear that anyone on the Celebrity Edge in March 2020 is going to be sailing in a very different style in the hands of these modern officers. 
This pioneering sort of voyage will become increasingly unremarkable as women take up jobs on ships.
But for now such a women-only experience is something to be valued. 

Finding out more

You can read news interviews with sea women via: