Hurricanes and Mother Nature

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Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video

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.

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Courtesy of katinthecupboard

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.

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10 thoughts on “Hurricanes and Mother Nature

    • I was basing my information off of the National Hurricane Center’s naming history page, from 1953 to 2012. According to their list they do not alternate. I had thought the same! But this is also including the names from 1953-1978, which were exclusively women’s names.

      • Thanks for the info! I’ll update it! And yeah, definitely nuts that they used only women’s names for so long! I didn’t really investigate the change as to why men’s names were added, but I wonder if it had something to de with the feminist movement of the 1970s? Happened right around that time…

  1. stole the words out of my mouth i was going to write an article about this…i wonder if this hurricane was given a male name the gendered rhetoric around it would have been different…guess i will just have to quote you if i ever do get around to writing my version of this article

  2. Great post! I would also encourage you to think about how a hurricane might impact women/men differently from a gender and health lens. Some questions to get you started: Are shelters divided by sex/gender? If not, what are some of the consequences? What are some of the basic needs of women after a hurricane (i.e. what supplies do they need access to and are they getting them)? Do women have access to regular obstetric, pre-natal, gynecological care? Are provisions made to ensure that female guards are available? What are the bathroom/showering facilities like? Do lactating women have access to more food/nutrients?

  3. Pingback: A Gendered Tale: Hurricane Skanky….I Mean Sandy « demeliou

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