Event, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Parliamentary debate: Should women work on warships?

Women served with the British Royal Navy since 1917. But their motto – perhaps said through gritted teeth – was ‘Never at Sea.’ Officially, members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) were only allowed to help the war effort from the shore. It was to their great regret. Most avid boaties or would-be world travellers joined up longing to climb the gangway to a proper naval ship – but to no avail.

A few men in high places recognised their desires and their competence. In the House of Commons seminal debate on March 10 1943 about whether Wrens should be allowed to work at sea, Harwich MP Stanley Holmes pushed for an extension to their role in shore establishments. ‘Surely, the Admiralty… must consider whether there are not afloat jobs such as communications, supply and clerical work which could be done by women, so releasing young men for harder service.’

Richard Pilkington, the Civil Lord of the Admiralty and MP for Widnes, said yes, but…. ‘I have no doubt that if you gave the WRNS half a chance, they would be perfectly prepared to sail a battleship.’ This recognition delighted Wrens. Of course they would be prepared to do so! And they only needed to be given a hundredth of a chance!

These would-be sailors had already made some steps, as he acknowledged. ‘ In fact, when the Wrens go overseas now they do take part in service on the ship and help the men in a good many ways day by day.’ Indeed, by that time hundreds of Wrens had sailed as passengers on warships, as they headed off to be cypherers and stenographers in Malta, Egypt, Italy and so on. (After 22 Wrens died on the torpedoed passenger ship Aguila on August 19 1941 en route to Gibraltar, the Admiralty decided to allow Wrens to sail, whenever possible, on armed naval ships and troopships to ensure their safety).

However, the drawback was in Pilkington’s follow-up remarks. ‘But the real difficulty about this proposal is accommodation on board. In all designing today the utmost and absolute economy of space has to be effected, and quite obviously if men and women are serving alongside you cannot have the same economy of space as if there are men only. That is the real objection to my Hon. Friend’s suggestion, but at the same time I can assure him that if, when and where it is found practicable to employ Wrens afloat that will certainly be done.’[1]

Holmes withdrew his amendment. Maybe it was only fluke, but a few weeks later an exceptional 30-odd seagoing Wrens began handling signalling and communications at sea. These Cipher Officers and Coders worked on large passenger liners (where, of course, there had traditionally been space for women), not on battleships. They were designated as ‘supernumeraries’ in the Merchant Navy, i.e. not ‘proper Navy’. Perhaps this is the way the Admiralty side-stepped the anomaly: naval women actually doing naval work on ships.   

‘We can’t afford the space for women’ meant many things including ‘we don’t want to be bothered installing female and male toilets.’ More deeply it meant ‘mixed-sex situations in enclosed spaces bring troublesome sexual rivalry and even sexual scandal. We can’t have serving personnel falling in love or getting pregnant.’

 An even more profound reason, I suspect, was that allowing women legitimate places as equals on ships would be too troubling to the existing misogynistic order. It challenged the cherished notion that women’s place was at home, admiring the men whose role it was to be brave at sea. If women were men’s co-workers at sea it would implicitly mean that maybe bravery wasn’t just men’s prerogative. It would also mean that women witnessed lack of bravery (because of course wild seas and warfare on the ocean wave cause sage folk to tremble). Keeping Woman off ships was a way of keeping the existing gendered social order.

 That argument about ‘no room  for Woman on Royal Navy ships’ was to go on for another thirty years, as I found when writing my book on gender and the sea: (Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press). But actually, as many captains found when they did work with real women on ships after 1993, female personnel were at least as useful, competent and brave as men.  However, women still are not allowed on (the now very spacious) submarines in the UK. The reason given is that it could harm their reproductive organs.

Jo Stanley is an expert on gender and the sea, who is currently researching WAAC travels for her forthcoming book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press.  See her website and her blog.

[1] HC Deb 10 March 1943 vol 387 cc758-830.

Tagged , , , , ,