The Sexist History of Naming Hurricanes After Women Only—And How 1970s Feminists Fought to End It
In January 1972, Roxcy Bolton showed up to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conference to talk about “her-icanes” and “him-icanes.”
The problem was that there were no him-icanes: Federal officials had been christening storms with traditionally female names since the early 1950s.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing that ‘Cheryl was no lady as she devastated such and such a town,’ or ‘Betsy annihilated this or that,’” the Florida feminist said. “As long as people can name her-icanes after us it’s just another way of putting women down.”
She even offered an alternative: Why not draw inspiration from the roster of U.S. senators? After all, she explained, they seemed to appreciate serving as namesakes for just about everything else.
“Can’t you just see the headlines like, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater annihilates Louisiana, or U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits destroys New York,” she said in an interview a few months later.
Perhaps predictably, this suggestion was rejected. But Bolton’s mettlesome crusade shone a spotlight on a sexist custom that had started long before the mid-20th century—and, with her help, would end before the decade did.
Female Force Winds
People have been naming storms for ages; 16th-century Spanish settlers, for example, sometimes named North American gales after saints whose feast days coincided with the natural disasters.
The personification trend gained momentum when British meteorologist Clement Wragge—or “Inclement” Wragge, as he was known—came along in the 19th century. By the late 1880s, Wragge had settled in Brisbane, Australia, and started publishing a highly editorialized forecast bulletin in which he named Oceania’s weather events after basically whatever and whomever he felt like.
There was Lewis, a monsoon named for “a supporter from Tasmania,” and Sir Joseph Ward, an “Antarctic disturbance” who shared its moniker with a New Zealand politician (and future prime minister). For a while, Wragge worked his way through the letters of various alphabets.
But the whiskery weatherman’s most lasting appellative legacy was his penchant for picking what he referred to as “the soft dulcet names of the dusky beauties of the South Sea Islands.” In other words, Wragge was naming tropical storms after Polynesian women. Cyclones Eline, Mahina, and Leonta, to cite a few, arrived in the region between 1898 and 1903.
He hoped the publicity would encourage expectant mothers to opt for these names over “the harsh stereotyped appellations of ‘Susan,’ ‘Jane,’ and such like.” The more notable outcome, as E. Brewster Buxton wrote for Weatherwise in 1970, was in “setting an early precedent for the current practice of giving feminine names to hurricanes.”
Inspired by Wragge, George R. Stewart styled the titular tempest “Maria” in his popular 1941 novel Storm—a book that helped kickstart the U.S. military’s habit of choosing female names (often of wives and girlfriends) for Pacific storms during World War II.
In 1947, the Air Force Hurricane Office started tagging Atlantic storms based on the Army and Navy’s existing phonetic alphabet, which began with Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog; and the U.S. Weather Bureau adopted that system a few years later. But the protocol got muddled once the phonetic alphabet underwent changes in 1952, and the Bureau made the switch to women’s names for clarity’s sake the very next year.
Alice, Barbara, and Carol became the inaugural monikers.
Plenty of people did enjoy the new tradition; the Bureau even fielded requests from women who wanted hurricanes named in their honor. But it had its fair share of objectors, too. Some felt that attaching women’s names to hurricanes trivialized very real threats.
“There’s nothing feminine about one of these killers. And nothing pretty,” Charles Dugan, a reader of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote to the paper in 1960.
Others found the practice disrespectful to very real women. “When I asked people [why hurricanes are named after women], I got wisecracking answers, such as: ‘They make a lot of noise, do a lot of damage and are always changing direction,” one Pottstown, Pennsylvania, housewife named Debbie wrote in 1961. “Whoever is responsible for the naming, has about as much consideration and respect for women as Paris dress designers.”
The misogynistic quips didn’t just come from laypeople. “A hurricane is as unpredictable as a woman and that’s as good an excuse as any,” acting Weather Bureau chief Delbert Little said while justifying the practice in 1954.
A better excuse, which the Bureau and various newspapers parroted throughout the ’50s and ’60s, was that the names were short, memorable, and unambiguous—ergo, especially resistant to transmission error. As for why male names couldn’t be added to the mix, one columnist argued in 1962 that “there are just not enough common boys’ names to go around.” Never mind that by that point, the Bureau had already begun reusing women’s names on a four-year cycle (which the columnist himself mentioned in the very next paragraph). “If a hurricane behaves worse than her wild relatives,” he wrote, “its code name is struck from the lists for ten years.” That phrasing, coupled with the mention of Hurricane Esther’s “raging relatives” mere sentences later, hinted at a different reason boys’ names never made the lists: Men simply thought it made more sense (or was just more fun) to liken storms to errant or hysterical women.
Dissenting voices never disappeared. In a 1968 entry of The Billings Gazette’s “Consult Kathryn” column, one writer—who signed their letter as “Mad”—called the custom “character assassination.” Kathryn chatted with a Weather Bureau official who said it was an “old weather bureau custom.” In other words, “That’s just what we’ve always done” had apparently already started to become the prevailing rationale. “Don’t blow up a storm, doll,” Kathryn wrote to “Mad.”
The 1960s also saw an occasional self-appointed white knight vowing to come to the rescue of women, who evidently lacked the mental wherewithal to strike down the tradition for themselves. No, literally.
“The ladies, God bless ’em, must certainly feel resentment but amazingly, they do not seem to resent. So allow me to come to the rescue,” Ernest M. Gurtner of Cape Coral, Florida, wrote in a 1967 letter to the editor. “Being of French origin I have always maintained their belief that the ladies are man’s greatest, most important gift to our society. … So how about it men? … Let’s get an organization started called ‘Don’t Name Our Dames After Hurricanes Association.’” Gurtner allowed one exception: that a storm be named after his late mother-in-law.
Reporter Ed Grimsley echoed the need for a new naming system in a 1969 column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, with a jingoistic twist. “Who knows, for example, how a story saying ‘Hurricane Ho Chi Minh battered the East Coast yesterday’ might affect public opinion on the war in Vietnam. People might transfer their displeasure with the storm to the North Vietnamese and intensify their support of the war effort,” he wrote.
Fortunately, neither Grimsley nor Gurtner’s suggestions made it all the way to the top of the Bureau. But Roxcy Bolton’s did.
Roxcy Bolton States Her Case
By the early 1970s, Roxcy Bolton was already a well-respected force in the feminist community—especially in Florida, where she lived and focused her efforts. In 1968, the remarried mother of four founded the Miami-Dade chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She once spearheaded a sit-in at the University of Miami over unequal pay and a lack of female leaders in the administration, and she helped National Airlines flight attendants secure maternity leave (before that, anyone who got pregnant got fired). Thanks largely to Bolton, a couple Miami department stores started letting women dine in their men-only lunchrooms. She was also a key player in getting the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment to Congress, and in lobbying then-President Richard Nixon to declare August 26 Women’s Equality Day in 1972. Two years later, she founded the first rape treatment center in the country.
But Bolton’s progressivist record was peppered with incongruities. For one thing, according to one 1972 newspaper feature, she was “a dues-paying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.” She also quit NOW in 1976 in part because her regional branch established a lesbian task force, newsletter, and Pride week. Though Bolton wasn’t against same-sex relationships, she thought sexual habits in general should be kept quiet, and she felt that NOW’s lesbian advocacy was tacitly motivating women to shirk what she considered their societal duty to become mothers.
“It perhaps encourages and recruits women to a lifestyle that they might not otherwise be inclined to live. They’re trying to establish a third sex.” she told The Miami News. In short, Roxcy Bolton was no bastion of intersectional feminism or champion of the gender spectrum.
The hurricane issue was a natural fit for a traditionalist agenda. Bolton’s binary world contained men’s names and women’s names, but rainy cyclones of doom and destruction only used the women’s names. Gender inequality didn’t get much simpler than that.
Bolton had become interested in the matter at least as early as 1968 or so, when she penned a letter about it to The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan. Though Friedan didn’t take up the cause herself, the missive did prompt her to tap Bolton as the founder of NOW’s Miami-Dade chapter, putting the Florida feminist on a path that would deposit her on the doorstep of the Weather Bureau’s National Hurricane Center. When Bolton first met with its director, Robert Simpson, in March 1970, it was in her newly acquired capacity as NOW’s national vice president.
While Simpson did report that Bolton “presented her case in a very creditable way” and his team was “sympathetic to her request,” per the Associated Press, he also said it was too close to hurricane season to play a different name game. A bout of bureaucratic restructuring later that year rebranded the Weather Bureau as the National Weather Service, which now fell under the purview of the newly formed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In 1971, 1972, and 1973, Bolton repeated her case at NOAA’s annual Interdepartmental Hurricane Warning Conference. Her suggestions to name storms after birds or U.S. senators proved unpopular with officials (all men), who opted instead to stick to the status quo. After the 1973 conference, they decided to table the topic altogether.
But the winds of change were beginning to blow through other parts of the world.
In 1975, the Fiji National Council of Women successfully lobbied New Zealand to introduce male monikers to its theretofore female-only list of storm names, an update Australia made that same year. Then, in 1977, freshly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter appointed the first-ever female U.S. Secretary of Commerce: Juanita M. Kreps. Her dominion included NOAA, and she wasted little time in telling its leaders to add men’s names to the roster posthaste.
As historian Liz Skilton detailed in a 2018 article for the Journal of Women’s History, this caused a slight snafu for the National Hurricane Center, which had recently yielded control of naming decisions to the World Meteorological Organization. As part of Region IV, the U.S. now had to work with delegates from other North American, Central American, and Caribbean nations to christen territorial tempests—and the committee only consented to the update for the 1979 season and beyond.
To push through Kreps’s directive for 1978, the U.S. and Mexico came up with a quid pro quo: Mexico would allow a binary lineup for Pacific storms, as long as it featured some Mexican names. Fico, Rosa, Sergio, and Vicente all made the final cut; American offerings on the male side ran the (rather limited) gamut from Bud and John to Norman and Paul [PDF].
In a May 1978 article by The New York Times, NOAA director Richard A. Frank insisted that the addition of male names was unrelated to the Department of Commerce having a woman at the helm, but rather that NOAA had just “decided that in this day and age it was the sensible thing to do.” But he also mentioned “pressure” from NOW, Miami-Dade’s Commission for Women—which Roxcy Bolton had founded—and feminists Dorothy Yates and Patricia Butler. In other words, it couldn’t have been clearer that women deserved the credit for NOAA’s sudden enlightenment.
And while Bolton had more or less laid down her burden as the harbinger of hurricane-related gender parity several years earlier, a number of newspapers hat-tipped her for kickstarting the movement. “I still think, as I suggested in 1972, that it would be very appropriate to name them after U.S. senators,” she said in 1979, as Bob, David, Juan, Larry, and more male names joined the Atlantic’s list.
Sure, people complained about the reform, but the discourse mostly involved certain names’ failure to instill fear—the same tired sentiment that had been around since the ’50s. “I can grudgingly accept men’s names for hurricanes, but not Bob. Bob is a friendly, non-violent nickname,” one columnist wrote. Another, “Prof. Faren Heit,” asked how someone could “get properly frightened by a hurricane named Herbert, Ivan, Joe or Larry?” The subject continued to be fertile ground for criticism as the 20th century waned; in 1995, a columnist suggested naming hurricanes after the likes of Nazi leaders and Jeffrey Dahmer instead.
But thanks to Bolton, Kreps, and their fellow feminists, the link between women and stormy weather has grown thin—though that’s not to say a misguided turn of phrase doesn’t slip through from time to time. When Bolton died at age 90 in 2017, New York Times obituaries reporter Sam Roberts described her as “tempestuous.”