Tropical Storm Emily surprised Florida without much warning on Monday. By Tuesday, Emily had been downgraded from a “tropical storm” to a “depression,” which meant it was time for internet jokes about Emily and her feelings.
Although the World Meteorological Organization now names hurricanes after men and women, storm names weren’t always so equally divided by gender. From roughly 1953 to 1979, U.S. hurricanes and tropical storms were actually only named after women. This week’s conversation around Emily offers a peek into why that changed.
For at least 150 years, storm names were “fraught with racism and sexism, personal preferences and vendettas,” reports Atlas Obscura. “[T]heir names have also been borrowed from places and saints, wives and girlfriends, and disliked public figures.”
Although there was plenty of precedent for naming storms after both women and men, the U.S. decided in the early 1950s to settle on a system that only used female names. It’s not entirely clear why, but the maritime tradition of referring to the ocean as a woman may have played a factor.
Once these storms took on female names, weathermen began talking about them as if they were women. They used sexist clichés to describe their behavior—saying that this one was “temperamental,” or that another was “teasing” or “flirting” with a coastline.
Understandably, female meteorologists and feminists activists weren’t impressed.
One of these dissenters was a Roxcy Bolton, the Florida feminist “credited with founding the nation’s first rape treatment center and who helped persuade national weather forecasters not to name tropical storms after only women,” according to her New York Times obituary (Bolton died earlier in May 2017). “Women, Ms. Bolton said at the time, ‘deeply resent being arbitrarily associated with disaster.’”
Campaigns by Bolton and other women eventually persuaded the U.S. to start using male names again in 1979, but it didn’t happen without a fight. Some argued that male-named hurricanes wouldn’t be as feared as ones with female names—which is actually the opposite of how people react to hurricane names today, a study last year found.
But old habits die hard. Even years after U.S. stopped giving storms exclusively female names, a Washington Post editorial lamented in 1986 that “many of the male names don’t convey either the romance or the urgency that circumstances might warrant.” And in Bolton’s NYT obituary this year, the male author still described her—in the very first line—as a “tempestuous Florida feminist.”