On Giving Ships the Female Gender and a Loss of Historicity in Medicine

I subscribe to the H-Maritime listserve. A recent string of correspondence there concerned an historian’s inquiry about the origin of the “female gendering” of ships. One reply noted that the Romans adopted the convention, and others that the Russians, uniquely, did not. One correspondent offered that ships were as mothers to sailors–providing succor and solace, and this naturally lead to their feminization. Others noted that sailors sometimes referred to their ship as “bitch” or “whore”; they deplored the feminization because it permitted such excoriation. Opinion tended toward the notion that such gendering of ships was inappropriate in nowadays, just as we’ve “de-gendered” (or more accurately, “bi-gendered”) hurricanes.

As I followed this string, it occurred to me that we have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize “large” things in order to make them understandable. The Greeks did it to their gods; Christ gives a literally human face to a distant and inscrutable Jewish God. This is also true with mechanical things. Just read Richard McKenna’s poetical description of a ship’s machinery in his novel San Pebbles to appreciate how intimate, how “human” the sailor-machinery relationship can be. Men are often heard to refer to their favorite cars as “she”. (I don’t know if women refer to their transport in male terms–help me out here, readers!)

As for ships as feminine entities, when I told my wife about the H-Maritime string and my comment that I still thought of the ship I served in as a “good and stolid old girl”, rather than resenting the allusion, Gina offered this additional notion: ships–at least Navy ships–are sleek, and powerful. Like the women we know. See; it just seems “natural” to anthropomorphize. As I thought more about it, I found myself a bit saddened by our tendency to “un-humanize” our ships, and other big things in a time when we probably need a good dose of “re-humanizing”, in this our technical world.

Here’s the history of medicine connection: there is also a trend to “un-humanize” diseases and syndromes; that is, to disassociate them from the men (usually) who first described or discovered them. Thus, “Addison’s Disease” becomes “adrenal insufficiency”, etc. In an effort to appear more scientific we are losing a sense of the long and often glorious history of discovery and progress in medicine. We lose an opportunity to be reminded of the hard work, the genius, and sometimes the suffering (I think for instance of how Semmelweis was ignored and even hated for his attempts to evangelize the importance of cleanliness in preventing perinatal infections) that went into the advance of our knowledge and our art.

Ironically we are in both spheres (and likely more) “de-humanizing” in a world that cries out for much more “humanity”.

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