SEXISM ON SEA? WHY ARE SHIPS ALWAYS A ‘SHE’…..

The late, great SS. Norway was unquestionably a lady...

The late, great SS. Norway was unquestionably a lady…

“I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second. May God bless her, and all who sail in her…”

With those immortal words on September 20th, 1967, our current sovereign affirmed the gender of the newest Cunard liner as she slid gracefully into the steel grey waters of the River Clyde.

She also inadvertently committed one of the greatest howlers in maritime history in that same breath.

The ship was simply intended to be called Queen Elizabeth. But, because of that slight and avoidable slip, she would be for evermore the QE2. At least she got the gender right.

Didn’t she?

Most people almost always assume that ships are a feminine presence, for reasons that I’ll get to shortly. But not everyone has always bought into the logic of the feminine gender.

Captain Ernst Lindemann was the first- and as it turned out the last- commanding officer of the Bismarck. That tiger shark of a battleship was commissioned in Hamburg on August 24th, 1940. Lindemann insisted that his crew refer to the Bismarck in the masculine sense; he believed that something so big and powerful could only be masculine in gender.

Gender notwithstanding, Bismarck went to the bottom after the most incredible single ship hunt of all time. Lindemann went with her, too. As did most of her crew.

But most ships are referred to as a ‘she’, and this is especially so in the cases of ocean liners and their naturally evolved cousins, the modern cruise ships.

And again, QE2 serves as a modern paragon for that gender. She could roll the milk out of a cup of tea when in a bad mood. She was capricious, whimsical and prone to change her mind at a moment’s notice. Yet she was also a ravishing beauty, like many of her predecessors. And, once met, you couldn’t help but fall hopelessly in love with her.

Ocean liners as a whole were beautiful, usually welcoming and accommodating, and always immaculately turned out. There’s doubtless some subliminal feminine connection there.

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

Yet even the French- of all people- in the 1930’s tried to assert that their brand new, record breaking Normandie should be known as ‘le’ rather than ‘la’- a kind of attempt at gender neutral assignment that fooled no one who ever boarded her. For, despite all her size, strength and power, the Normandie was not only ladylike; she was in every respect a femme fatale par excellence.

No one caught on to this better than the travelling public. At the height of the rivalry between Normandie and Queen Mary in the thirties, one Englishwoman who had sailed on both liners summed up the personalities of each with this beautiful quote;

“In my opinion, the Queen Mary is like a grand Englishwoman in sportswear. And the Normandie is like a very pretty French girl in a beautiful evening gown.”

It became something that we probably did subconsciously over centuries. Something as beautiful, stately and elegant as a passenger liner could only really be defined as a feminine presence. You could argue that tugs and dredgers are masculine, I suppose. But very few of those ever took passengers across oceans.

And, of course, hanging over it all there is always the long shadow of the Titanic…

Though that ship never had a formal naming ceremony, there is no doubt in my mind that the ill fated juggernaut is, without doubt, the Marilyn Monroe of Atlantic liners. Sleek, stylish and beautiful; a goddess taken down at the very height of her youth, beauty and vitality. The idea that the Titanic might ever have been thought of as masculine seems more than faintly ridiculous to my mind.

So, there you go. That’s my take, for what it’s worth. What’s yours?

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2 comments

  1. In the French language, ships take the masculine gender. That’s all there is to that. It does create a problem for French persons with delicate ears to hear the phrase “Le France” but that’s life in the language game.

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