As It Happens

Ships are called 'she' because they protect and nurture like mothers, says admiral

Adm. Alan West is critical of the news that the Scottish Maritime Museum will exclusively refer to ships as "it" going forward.

Retired naval chief critcizes Scottish Maritime Museum's move toward gender-neutral language for vessels

Ain't she a beaut? The Royal Navy's newest aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth departs Portsmouth dockyard on Oct. 30, 2017 in England. ( Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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Referring to a ship as "she" is a sign of respect and admiration, says a retired British naval chief.

Adm. Alan West is critical of the news that the Scottish Maritime Museum will exclusively refer to ships as "it" going forward after one if its informational signs was vandalized to scratch out all references to "she" and "her." 

That prompted Britain's Royal Navy to issue a statement to the Guardian newspaper that it "has a long tradition of referring to its ships as 'she' and will continue to do so."

West says he's glad to see the Navy is upholding the tradition. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Are ships still "shes" for you? 

They most certainly are. They've been so for centuries. It's quite a warm, reassuring feeling that they are and I can't see any reason at all that that should be changed.

Ships have been the most amazing achievement. They're beautifully constructed. They look after you. They, in a sense, nurture you.- Adm. Alan West, British Royal Navy 

We've heard from the Scottish Maritime Museum that they think that there should be gender neutral language for ships and they should be "its" like other objects. What do you say to that?

I find that quite extraordinary. As I say, ships have been known as "she" for centuries.

They are, in a sense, like a sort of mother figure. They give you succour. They protect you out in pretty horrible, stormy conditions at times. Even in military terms, they protect from danger of the enemy as well. It's very much this sort of mother aspect of it that I think has encouraged sailors over centuries to think of them as "she," even people like the Irish pirate queen who sailed up the Thames to visit [Queen] Elizabeth I.

I do not think it has any strains of agenda connotation at all. It's traditional, it's appropriate and there's no need to change it at all.

But isn't there a long history of songs and little ditties and expressions and jokes about ships that might suggest that this language is sexist? And I'm going to give you a few of them. Like, there is one, "A ship is like a woman; she's unpredictable." And, "A ship is always referred to as a 'she' because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder." ...  So do you think that maybe that's why there is a desire to see it changed? Because it's an old way of looking at things?

I think there are always examples and cases where some people maybe are slightly inappropriate about things. And sometimes when you're feeling grumpy and things have gone wrong, people might say silly things like that.

But I think, generally, when you look at a ship, you think of it as something rather amazing that looks after you out in the wilds of the ocean.

I mean, over centuries ships have been the most amazing achievement. They're beautifully constructed. They look after you. They, in a sense, nurture you. All of you on board pull together to work with that person. These are all wonderful attributes and, you know, women or men should be very proud.

There are groups, small groups, who are perennially being offended and want to take offence about things when actually human nature, it's not absolutely perfect and there are little nuances. And I think that is not a reason to change something that is so fundamentally important to so many seafarers.

Adm. Alan West poses with the statue of of Lord Nelson in London's Trafalgar Square in October 2005. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The Royal Navy is not going along with that. If they did, if the Royal Navy decided that they were going to go to calling ships "its" and not "shes," how would you react?

I'd be very disappointed.

I actually wrote a study in Britain as to whether women should be allowed to go to sea in warships and I very firmly came down with the view that they should, which made me not necessarily popular with quite a lot of old maritime people and men. But it was absolutely right and there are equal opportunities for women at sea and our navy and we have women captains of ships.

If I really felt this made a difference to the opportunities for women, then I would be absolutely against it and say this has got to change. But that is not the case. As I say, it's a small group of people.

It's a bit of a cave-in. If you let a tiny fraction of the population, because they vandalize things, and you say, "Oh gosh, we can't afford to have things vandalized, we'd better change," that's a slippery slope. Goodness me. I think all sorts of things could happen.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Richard Raycraft. Q&A had been edited for length and clarity.



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