Why Are Boats She?

When addressing boats, you’ve probably heard people use the pronoun “she”. Even if you don’t spend time around boats or have any nautical familiarity (you know, because boats are expensive), you’ve probably seen it addressed on the silver screen or on TV. Whose bright idea was it, though? Why are boats all she?

We Gender-Roled Everything

If you have any passing knowledge of how gender interacts with our conception of society, then the statement “boats are gendered because we gender absolutely everything for no good reason” probably made you roll your eyes with how obvious it is. 

You’re also probably not surprised that our gendered-boat-traditions might have a lot to do with old superstitions. Superstitions that, traditionally, have been used to oppress women. A lot. Sailors and superstition go together like macaroni and cheese, so much so that there’s a dedicated Wikipedia page to the superstitions they have. These range from never setting sail on a Friday to bananas being considered bad luck. We guess sailors can’t say they’re a little-stitious.

Anyway, of these superstitions, you’re likely familiar with how women and redheads were considered bad luck to have as passengers. In the Middle Ages, mostly associated with European folklore, women were largely barred from being on merchant or military vessels (as passengers or crew). The superstition held that women would anger sea gods, but also topless women would calm the seas. Women at sea, though, wasn’t an abnormal phenomenon. While sailors generally didn’t allow women to compete for leadership roles or have other jobs at sea, it wasn’t uncommon for women to just… do it anyway. Records of captains discovering male members of the crew were actually women in disguise or babies being born at sea are floating around quite plentifully. 

But on gender roles and boats, it’s widely accepted that sailors would come to view their ships as a mother figure—hence the pronouns. 

If you’re doubting how powerful gendered culture is, the torpedo had a hard time being adopted in the US and Britain because it wasn’t perceived as a chivalrous or masculine way to go about naval warfare.

Gendered Nouns

Some languages like Spanish or French have gendered nouns. In the 14th century ships were personified as feminine, possibly having to do with Argo Navis. The Latin Navis is one of the roots for the English “ship,” and was considered a feminine noun. Eventually by the 17th century ships started becoming more masculine, as masculine ship classifications like man-of-war, or merchantman became common. Most of these ships were classified as such because they were either for military use, or they just were armed. 

See if you know your movie ships here.