From 1953 to 1978, names assigned to hurricanes were all female. But, during the 1970s, a feminist charge to include male names met resistance on the grounds people would not take storms seriously if names did not evoke images of female fury, archival press accounts reveal.
Discussions about hurricane names and sexism date back to the 1960s.
In 1969, the National Organization for Women at its national conference passed a motion “that a communication be sent to National Hurricane Center in Miami asking that hurricanes not be named exclusively female names” according to Twiss Butler – who curates the Web site Equality4Women.org and lobbied against naming hurricanes after women in the 1970s.
Early efforts to include male names were not taken seriously, it would appear. “Rejecting a feminist’s suggestion that hurricanes be named for Congressmen, the Weather Bureau has stuck to its tradition and picked women’s names for 1972 tropical storms, starting with Agnes,” begins an article printed in the New York Times, April 23, 1972. The article was headlined: “Weather Men Insist Storms are Feminine”
When it became known a proposal for adding male names was picking up steam, some resistance grew strident. Consider this commentary from Houston Post (image above), published January 4, 1977 (bold text indicates my added emphasis):
…. beginning in 1979, a committee representing 21 North American, Caribbean, and Central American nations will select names for hurricanes, and feminist forces are lobbying for a break with tradition.
Why, these groups ask, should the temperamental characteristics of these excesses of weather always be associated with women? Why indeed? Still, would a hurricane with a man’s name convey the same sense of imminent danger as, say, a Hurricane Carla? Chalk it up to the feminine mystique, but it’s doubtful that a National Hurricane Center bulletin that Tropical Storm Al had formed in the Gulf or Hurricane Jake was threatening the Texas Coast would make us run for cover quite as fast.
In the spring of 1978, the hurricane community caved to pressure to include male names. The New York Times broke the news with the headline “Another Sexist Bastion Falls: Hurricanes Renamed” on May 13, 1978. An excerpt from the article:
Asked about the policy change, [NOAA director Richard A. Frank] said that there had been “pressure” from individuals and groups. He identified some of them as Patricia [Twiss] Butler of Houston, Dorothy Yates of Miami, the National Organization for Women and the Commission of the Status of Women in Dade County, Fla., where the National Hurricane Center is situated.
After the change was made, the Houston Chronicle’s Joe Doggett lashed out in a column July 11, 1979 when Hurricane Bob formed – the first male name in the new system. Excerpt:
Like many seafarers who look south to the winds and tide of capricious fate, I am insulted and offended by this sell-out labeling of storms. “Bob” rather than “Barbara” or “Brenda” or “Betsy” typifies the lack of character that seems to be stifling the 70s.
Whoever insisted that a proportionate number of tropical storms must now sprout whiskers certainly couldn’t be from around here. That decision, which shows a total void of tropic sensitivity and respect, was surely made in some landlocked office far removed from salt breeze and common sense.
The sea is a “she.” Fisherman and sailors around the world know that. Boats and ships that ply the open currents are “shes.”
Fast forward to September 28, 1986 and there were still, apparently, advocates – for a female-only hurricane names. This was from an editorial in The Washington Post (bold text indicates my added emphasis):
Eight years have passed since meteorologists stopped giving only women’s names to these storms and started calling every other one by a masculine name. Eight, years, and still this non-sexist nomenclature has a funny ring to it. Somehow many of the male names don’t convey either the romance or the urgency that circumstances might warrant.
The irony, of course, is that three decades later, new research claims people take storms named after females less seriously because men are perceived as stronger and more violent.
Perhaps the solution to this decades-old debate is to do away with gender names altogether.
Twiss Butler, who lobbied against naming hurricanes after women on the basis it unfairly perpetuated they were destructive, erratic, unreliable, and even deadly, advocated instead for “neutral nomenclature”.
“I think it’s foolish to pretend hurricanes are people,” Butler told The Daily Citizen on June 25, 1978 – even after the hurricane community had decided to introduce male names.
In an email, Butler said she urged adoption of neutral nomenclature “because it appeared that keeping ‘people’ names would just prolong the sexist fun and games – as it has.”
(Thanks to Twiss Butler for providing archival newspaper clips used in this blog post.)