The Gender Saga Behind Naming Storms
Hazel killed hundreds in 1954. Camille flattened cities in 1969. And Agnes cost billions in 1972. These twister-sisters weren’t messing around.
For more than a quarter century, hurricanes in the Atlantic basin — the area that recently brought us Harvey, Irma, Jose, and pals — were only given women’s names: Alma. Betsy. Cleo. Delia. Ethel. Fifi. Gladys. Hilda …
While apologists say the practice took its cue from the time-honored tradition of seamen referring to the ocean as female, more experts guess it was an inside joke by those in the male-dominated meteorology field. Some even say the scientists named storms after their girlfriends.
Get it? Tropical cyclones are destructive, capricious, and terrifying — just like a dame! Ha! With their … uncaged … unsettling … emotions ’n’ stuff! Haha! Nudge nudge.
Speaking of science, it harks back to ancient Greece, when even Plato believed that women were physically predisposed to “hysteria,” a medical condition with symptoms ranging from nervousness and irritability to sexual desire and, according to an 1859 physician, “a tendency to cause trouble” (sound familiar, Irma, you devastating diva?). What caused passionate women to become hysterical? Sexual deprivation, conveniently. She had a fever — and the only prescription was more intercourse. Also recommended: refraining from mentally taxing tasks like reading. Or coping with the idiot dude doctors of the day.
And then one blustery morn, Roxcy Bolton blew into town. The women’s rights activist was having none of this female-typhoon nonsense. In the early 1970s, she petitioned the National Weather Service to change its naming practice — even suggesting they change the word “hurricane” to “him-icane” to give gals a break.
Roxcy’s raucous ideas took a while to make landfall, but in 1979, the hurricane-naming practice finally broadened beyond broads. The first man’s name to be added into the rotation — in what could only be an act of petulant defiance by a cranky weatherman — was Bob. Not Bruno, Boris, or Bartholomew. Just Hurricane Bob, which was a tropical depression because it really had no other choice.
Oh, the backlash, though. People (with penises) were outraged that their storms had been gender-reassigned overnight. They wanted their cruel, unpredictable weather phenomenon to be a vixen — not a Vic.
“Chalk it up to the feminine mystique,” wrote a commentary in the Houston Post at the time, “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.”
Here’s the irony: In fact, a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that people actually perceive hurricanes with female names as less threatening than those with male names (I mean … would you evacuate for a Fifi?). Because they’re less frightened of the girly gales, folks do less to prepare — which in turn does wind up making the Betsies and Ethels of the world more deadly and destructive.
Alas, there’s no point in arguing over which human sex is more hurricane-like. Statistics invariably show that men are more violent and more aggressive and commit more crimes. But I won’t pretend I don’t have a cyclone button of my own; truth is, if I hear one more joke about women being savage, mercurial lunatics, I may level a small fricking island.
Outrage isn’t choosy these days, though; it feels as if everyone’s on edge. While our planet’s climate is burning down the West, drowning the South, and trying to blow Puerto Rico off the map, our political climate has immigrants fearing for their futures, citizens panicked about their health care, and peaceful protesters labeled sonsabitches by the guy who runs the armed forces. Category 5 is the new normal, my friends. So whether you’re dodging a Delia or evading an Al, just hunker down for now, stay safe — and never give in to hysteria. We’ll regroup after Poostorm Donald passes.