Jessie Kenney and women seafarers

What does a woman do after she’s fought for and won the vote? She pursues her next goal. And 90 years ago this April, Jessie Kenney, a key figure in the suffrage movement, fulfilled the first stage of her next dream.

It was this summer, nine decades ago, that this ex-Secretary of the Women’s Social and Political Union found her dream could not be realised. There were too many obstacles for women, even those as determined as Jessie Kenney, to get past.

In researching for a new book about the history of women at sea I’ve found that gendered notions of suitable careers for women blocked, and continued to block, their logical next career stages. Jessie was the most high-profile rejectee in her particular job category.

Her story matters because it’s a previously unknown example of women’s struggle to work at sea. It shows that even a great warrior of the suffrage movement, fresh from partially winning the vote five years earlier, could not get work in a ‘boy’s toys’ job. And more broadly, it shows how the shipping industry wasted the potential contribution of one, talented, half of the population.

Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst and women ‘hams’

Throughout the first years after WW1 Jessie (1987-1985) was figuring out a way to fund her passionate interest in science, especially the very new wireless science. It was as exciting then as the internet first seemed in the 1980s.

Although a fairly unusual interest for women, many women, including New York suffragettes, were radio hams.

When Jessie told Mrs Pankhurst of her dream, the WSPU leader pointed out ‘My dear child, you need unlimited means to pursue science.’ Lacking money, Jessie thought about it, took advice from Marie Curie amongst others, and decided to become a marine wireless operator at sea. It would allow her earn a living, travel, and to study the latest advancements in wireless science.

At that time the pioneering ‘Marconi men’ who sailed the seas pounding out messages in Morse were often in the media. This new science had led in 1910 to the spectacular on-board apprehension of murderer Dr Crippen and played a key role in the iconic sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

A hardy and dangerous career?

In her notes for her autobiography Jessie recorded ‘I reasoned thus: women have never been wireless operators at sea. But there are stewardesses. Surely a wireless operator’s career cannot be more hardy, more dangerous and more exacting than that of stewardess …

‘ If I go to Wireless College … and take my First Class certificates surely I should be allowed to practice, just like women doctors and women barristers… I could not for the life of me get rid of the idea.’

In fact, with her sisters’ financial help, Jessie went to the new North Wales Wireless College. She took her course, and in April 1923 passed her First Class Certificate in Wireless Telegraphy and her Valve Certificate.

KP.JK.1(2) jessie cert

A woman candidate was so unusual that no blank certificate forms existed for women. Someone took a fountain pen and crossed out words such as ‘he’ and replaced them with ‘she’ on her Post Master General’s First Class Certificate of Proficiency. (It’s in the Kenney Archive at University of East Anglia.!the%20kenney%20papers.pdf .)

In fact she wasn’t the first. In working with Willie Williamson, the archivist for the Radio Officers’ Association, I’ve discovered that at least 38 women marine radio operators qualified in 1916-1917. But they didn’t sail, it seems, not even on coastal minesweepers (which were usually converted fishing boats and may well have been manned by their fathers and brothers).

Mountains of prejudice against women

Events this summer exactly nine decades ago showed Jessie that, like her wartime predecessors (about whom she seemingly had not heard) would not be allowed to operate at sea.

‘When the time came for me to get an opening to practice as a wireless operator I found myself up against very formidable obstacles. There was Marconi House, the Board of Trade, the Wireless Operators’ Union, Shipowners and a mountain of prejudice to overcome.’

The problem was partly ‘that it was thought impracticable for a woman to hold this position at sea’. Partly it was that and men, including ex-servicemen, were being prioritised in the jobs market in this very depressed period.

One of the very top gatekeepers, Sir Godfrey Isaacs, Managing Director of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphy Company, put her application letters in the bin. She heard afterwards that ‘he had made up his mind he was having no women wireless operators’.

Obstacles were cultural but masked by practical justifications based on stereotypes: women crew couldn’t be berthed in areas where there were no women’s cabins and toilets; a radio hut wasn’t comfortable enough for a lady; and the job was too hard, dirty (and responsible) for a female.

Also, it was becoming an officer-level job. Shipping companies found it unthinkable that women, other than nurses, should become officers on ships. Victoria Drummond, who was to become the first female ship’s engineer, was fighting a similar battle at that time.

Men’s dark and impenetrable notions

Jessie battled on but to no avail. ‘These gentlemen … had dark and impenetrable notions on the subject.’ Instead she ‘decided to go to sea as a stewardess in the hopes that later I may be allowed to practice as a wireless operator.’

(Victoria Drummond had similarly been advised to give up and become a stewardess, but refused.)

By autumn 1926, Jessie was working on the Otranto – as a stewardess. She sailed for ten years with Furness and Orient line, and kept her dream fed by reading science and philosophy books when she could, as the lists in her diaries show.

But ‘How often I looked up at the wireless cabin … afterwards. How I had longed for the peace and solitude of the wireless cabin where after my labours I could study in peace.’ She wasn’t even accepted in WW2.

KP.JK.9(2) jessie at wireless

By the 1950s British women such as Angela Firman were passing similar exam as Jessie’s. But these new women Radio Officers were only accepted on Scandinavian ships. Women did not sail as radio operators on British ships until the 1960s, and then only rarely.

A marked but small improvement in the window was created after the 1970s equality legislation. But the changes in British shipping in the 1980s meant fewer British ROs, never mind female ROs, sailed. And the job is now extinct.

In the US, by contrast, there was an early window that then disappeared. Graynella Packer sailed on the small coastal steamer the Mohawk in 1910. Other women ROs worked on the Hudson River in WW1.

The Soviet Union is thought to have many seagoing ROs and other women officers doing technical work in WW2. That practice seemed to die out in the 1960s. Canada had at least 22 women ROs in WW2, although they were only allowed to work on Scandinavian ships, where female operators were already readily accepted.

Jo Stanley (c) June 2013

Dr Jo Stanley (F.R.Hist.S.) is an expert on women seafarers and gendered maritime history. She is currently writing Women at Sea: From cabin ‘boys’ to captains, History Press, 2015. and http: //