After Hurricanes Inez (1966), Gladys (1968), and Agnes (1968) swept through neighborhoods in Florida, feminist and community activist Roxcy Bolton had enough.
“Women are not disasters,” she announced, “destroying life and communities and leaving a lasting and devastating effect.”
Bolton was referring to the practice of naming hurricanes with only female names.
Until well into the 20th century, weather forecasters in the United States named hurricanes based on the storm’s time period, location, or intensity. For example, there was the Great Hurricane of 1722, the Galveston Storm of 1900, or the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
During World War II, U.S. military meteorologists plotting storms in the Pacific sought a way to distinguish hurricanes when analyzing weather maps. Some began naming storms in honor of their wives. In 1945, the recently created National Weather Bureau (which later became the National Weather Service) introduced a hurricane naming system based on the military phonetic alphabet, but by 1953 those options had been exhausted.
The next year, the bureau embraced forecasters’ informal practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology at the time, many other countries adopted the same practice.
By the 1960s, some feminists began addressing the gendered naming practice. The most vocal of these women was Roxcy Bolton, a Miami activist who was also an early member of the National Organization for Women. Appealing to the National Weather Service in the early 1970s to drop its gendered hurricane-naming system, she instead recommended naming the storms for senators – who, she said, “delight in having things named after them.”
Following pressure by Bolton and other women activists, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association finally ended the gendered practice in 1979 by adopting an alternating practice of using both men’s and women’s names. More recently, the list of names is determined in advance. Names can be then repeated after an interval of six years. The list also has been diversified to reflect the many regions where hurricanes occur. The list changes only as the names of the most devastating storms are permanently retired, such as Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992.
Changing the policy of naming hurricanes for women was one of many battles Bolton took on in her lifetime. She fought to change policies that hurt women and worked to improve the treatment of rape victims in Florida. Some of the issues she fought for are still being debated today, such as her campaign for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Women like Bolton saw discrimination in many forms and fought for equality for women.