In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many of us New Yorkers are feeling devastated and afraid; our secure NYC granite foundation has been shaken. Today I am both humbled and scared by what I have seen and felt over the last 24 hours. Fortunately, my power has outlasted the storm and I have been glued to my TV – watching a slew of storm coverage broadcasts. Over the hours, I’ve heard the gendered language that has been bantered back and forth surrounding Sandy and Mother Nature in general.
We can date the etymology of Mother Nature back to the 1600s and Mother Earth back to around 1580. The term is a personification of nature that focuses on the life-giving and nurturing aspects of a mother. Following suit, countless images of women have depicted Mother Nature throughout the generations.
On the other hand, Mother Nature can also be depicted as a “temperamental lady” when it comes to Natural Disasters. Here, we see an example of gendered politics concerning the behavior patterns of women. The association of language and gender is further embedded within our society when we explore the naming of natural disasters – like hurricanes.
In 1953, the United States and the National Hurricane Center named hurricanes solely after women and did not stop this practice until 1978 when men’s and women’s names were included in the Eastern North Pacific storm lists. In 1979, male and female names were included in lists for the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico (National Hurricane Center). Hurricanes are named alternating between typically female-gendered names and typically male-gendered names although a few typically gender-neutral names enter the litany (Frances, Noel).
So is Sandy a gender-neutral name? I suppose the best way to answer this question is to listen to the language used when discussing Sandy. So far, I haven’t heard anyone refer to Sandy as a “he”.
What does this gendered language say about women and nature? That they are temperamental? That they are nurturing? That they are destructive? That they are unpredictable? That they are similar? As we tune in to the storm coverage, we must make certain that we do not tune out and listen to the language used to discuss destruction.