Role of women in Royal Navy celebrated in exhibition

A new exhibition at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard reveals the remarkable stories of naval women.

The exhibition celebrates the recent government announcement that women will soon be able to join any branch of the Royal Navy so long as they have the necessary skills — a stark contrast to a century ago when the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) motto was ‘Never at Sea’.

Titled ‘Pioneers to Professionals’, the exhibition honours women’s contributions to the naval services for the past 250 years.

It will feature objects which illustrate the stories of early pioneers who disguised themselves as men or accompanied their husbands to sea on 17th century warships, through to the professionals in the Naval Nursing Service and WRNS, as well as women who serve in the naval forces today.

The work of these pioneering women, and many others, led to the integration of the WRNS into the Royal Navy in 1993.

Today, females in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines make up 9.3% of the force in the UK Regular Forces and Future Reserves. Furthermore, the percentage of officers who are female in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, in the UK Regular Forces, stands at 10.6%.

NMRN’s exhibition comes at a time when equal rights for women in the armed forces will see a significant change. Recent government announcements have lifted restrictions on women serving in close combat roles, removing the last remaining barriers.

Coinciding with the centenary, historian Jo Stanley will be releasing a new book, A History of the Royal Navy: Women and the Royal Navy, the first accessible gendered analysis of WRNS and their successors.

A glance at the history of women in the navy

The exhibition launches on 8th March 2017, on International Women’s Day — a day which celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.

Women’s contributions to the Royal Navy has been overlooked in the past. It is commonly perceived that until the introduction of the uniformed women’s services, the navy was an exclusively male domain. However, women were living on warships as early as the nineteenth century.

Artefacts on display at the exhibition will include the logbook of HMS Queen Charlotte, which records William Brown being dismissed for being female, proving women’s existence on ships.

Women such as Hannah Snell, who served for four and a half years in the Royal Marines as a man named James Gray, highlight how women were perfectly capable of carrying out manual seafaring tasks.

She dressed in men’s clothes and managed to hide her true identity, even when she was badly-wounded during the siege of Pondicherry in 1748. In 1750, Snell revealed her true gender and became a celebrity, appearing on the London stage dressed in her uniform.

Unusually, her military career was officially recognised, and she was granted a pension by the Royal Chelsea Hospital. A print of Hannah Snell will feature in the exhibition.

The formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1917 was an important milestone for the history of women and the Royal Navy. The service allowed women to work in an official capacity in shore-based roles, thus releasing men to work on the ships. NMRN’s exhibition will feature photographs from the early days of the WRNS.

‘Pioneers to Professions’ will display not only women’s roles in an official capacity, but also their leisure activities, concerns of equal opportunities and pregnancy, and the growing equality through to women’s role in service today.

Today, women play an active role in a wide variety of naval operations, many having risen through the ranks to senior positions. In some cases, women have received gallantry awards for their actions. A picture of Kate Nesbitt is set to be one of the artefacts on display in the show — she was the first female member of the Royal Navy to be awarded the Military Cross as a result of her actions in Afghanistan in March 2009.

Curator Victoria Ingles said: “Historically, the work of naval women was rarely recorded and often overlooked, yet thousands have actively contributed to worldwide naval operations over centuries.

“During this time, women have undertaken a huge range of jobs and have often confounded expectations about what they could do and this exhibition seeks to bring some of these inspirational stories to attention.

“We are also keen to highlight the everyday experience of naval women past and present and are encouraging visitors to contribute their own stories helping us to fully reflect the scale and significance of women’s work within the navy.”

Find out about the National Museum of the Royal Navy and their sister museums on the NMRN website »