As I’ve said before, there are fascinating stories to be found in the obituary sections of newspapers. I’m specifying “newspapers,” rather than the “news,” because if you’re not physically turning the pages of a print edition, it’s easy to miss anyone whose death doesn’t make the homepage of a website or the top of a television program.
Yesterday, I came across a big New York Times obituary with a compelling headline: “Roxcy Bolton, 90, Fighter for Equality, Including in Naming Storms, Is Dead.” I’m old enough to remember the first hurricane with a male name: It was Bob, in 1979. According to the Times, Bolton — a “pioneering and tempestuous Florida feminist” — complained about storm names as early as 1968 in a letter to feminist leader Betty Friedan. A year later, the National Organization for Women passed a resolution calling on the National Hurricane Center to switch things up. This alarmed various publications, including the Houston Post, which wrote in 1977:
“It’s doubtful that a National Hurricane Center bulletin that Tropical Storm Al had formed in the Gulf or Hurricane Jake was threatening the Texas Coast would make us run for cover quite as fast.”
Even after the fact, in 1986, the Washington Post remained bothered.
“Eight years, and still this nonsexist nomenclature has a funny ring to it. Somehow many of the male names don’t convey either the romance or the urgency that circumstances might warrant.”
Oh, the poor Washington Post! These things are so difficult. Of course, it was exactly that so-called romance that Bolton disliked. As the Times obituary noted about the all-female naming system:
“… weathermen — and they were mostly men — were applying sexist clichés to the storms, like suggesting that they were unpredictable or ‘temperamental’ and were ‘flirting’ with barrier islands or coastlines.”
Thirty-one years later, I suspect it would be harder to find reasonable people who have any fucks to give about every other hurricane having a male name. (I said “reasonable.” I’m sure you can find unreasonable people being upset somewhere on teh Interwebs.) It’s like I said in this 2014 “Never Is the Next New Thing™” post: Cultural and industry shifts that are initially shocking are eventually accepted to the point of “meh.” New generations come along and perceive the formerly scary novelty as tradition. This acceptance process is something I’ve thought about a lot. I’ve also written and spoken about it before, including in a speech I gave to Columbia University’s undergraduate newspaper, the Spectator, in 2015. At the end of my six-year term as chairman of the Spectator’s board of trustees, I said:
“During my tenure, Spec alumni and current staffers have frequently shared their fond memories of Spec’s traditions with me. What I’ve learned from that is that you don’t all have the same memories of the same traditions. … In fact, I’ve identified just two real traditions: one is Spec’s core mission as [previous speaker Daniel Friedman] described it. The other is constant change.”
One of the “traditions” I was referring to was the name of the annual dinner where I gave that speech. Certain generations of Spectator alumni were furious when I pushed through a new name for the event. It was changed to the “Columbia Spectator Annual Awards Dinner” from the “traditional” name of “Blue Pencil Dinner.” (If you’re under 30, try to guess what the latter name means!) The thing is, that when I spoke to older Spec alumni, they were like, “What? I’ve never heard of a Blue Pencil Dinner.” It turns out that the big tradition wasn’t something that Spectator had had since it was founded in 1877 — not that greater longevity would have made it more relevant today. That name existed for just a few decades, outlasting by years the use of literal blue pencils in the editing process. (There’s your answer, young people. Before electronic editing, hard copy was gone over by editors who used blue pencils to indicate changes.)
There were other traditions at Spectator that, once gone, eventually weren’t missed. As I concluded my speech:
“On a personal note, there’s another change I’m proud of. I’m the first woman to chair the board of trustees. Because of that, I was inspired to look up the story Spectator ran when Eleanor Prescott became the first woman to join the student managing board. The story ran in the March 17, 1967, edition of Spec – now available online thanks to the recent digitization of our archives. The headline was: Appointment of Girl to Spectator Board Shatters Tradition.
I’d say some traditions are better off broken.”
All of this comes to mind because the Times obituary for Roxcy Bolton points out that government forecasters didn’t start using female names for storms until 1953. According to Geology.com, the National Hurricane Center adopted the practice from World War II military meteorologists, who started using human names when the previous tradition of naming storms after the latitude/longitude of the location of origin made identifications “difficult to remember, difficult to communicate and subject to errors.” The “tradition” that seemed so unchangeable to the Houston Post and Washington Post lasted a mere 26 years.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the use of blue pencils in journalism, you might be familiar with the expression, “Burying the lede.” Winning a new naming system for storms was not Roxcy Bolton’s biggest accomplishment at all. Here are her other achievements, from the Times obit.
- Founded the nation’s first rape treatment center.
- Helped elevate the prevention and treatment of rape into priorities for law enforcement and health professionals.
- Persuaded National Airlines to grant maternity leave to pregnant flight attendants rather than firing them.
- Pressured Miami department stores to eliminate the men-only dining sections in their restaurants.
- Helped form the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1966. (Unfortunately, she split with the national leadership “when it embraced a lesbian caucus” — a reminder that even groundbreaking people are still capable of great prejudice.)
- Helped persuade Richard Nixon to proclaim Women’s Equality Day in 1972.
- Helped recruit Senator Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment — which we still need to pass.
To give the Times credit, I want to clarify that the paper didn’t bury the lede on Bolton’s accomplishments in the story itself. They’re duly listed in the first four paragraphs. It is only the headline that I took issue with after I read the story. I would like to take my metaphorical blue pencil to that Times headline. The Boston Globe and Jezebel are two outlets that did better.
I’m sure that any Times editor reading this post is itching blue-pencil me in return, because I have deeply buried my lede here if you were counting on the title of this post being elaborated upon in a timely fashion! (To save you the effort of scrolling up, it was “Throwback Thursday: When Havoc Struck.”) Bolton’s hurricane crusade vividly reminded me of When Havoc Struck, a disaster show that made an outsize impression on me as a child. One of the episodes was about the 1969 Category 5 hurricane Camille, which killed more than 250 people and caused over a billion dollars in damage. By some measurements, it was more powerful than Katrina in 2005, though Katrina was far deadlier. “Camille was no lady,” was how the media described the killer storm after, most likely to Roxcy Bolton’s immense annoyance. In addition to hurricanes, Havoc covered bridge collapses, such as 1940 collapse of a Washington State suspension bridge that was so visibly unstable that it had been nicknamed “Galloping Gertie.”
Fires, floods, coal-mine disasters, plane crashes, and earthquakes were other horrifying Havoc topics. Tornadoes were the subject that scared me the most. Despite not living anywhere close to Tornado Alley, I still watch the skies suspiciously for funnel clouds during bad storms. Weirdly, I never bothered to Poodle the show until today. I vaguely wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing. But no, it really existed — sponsored by Mobil Oil — for just one season in 1978. I’ve had a nearly 40-year tornado phobia thanks to this tiny blip on the television landscape. Impressive, in a peculiar way. You can watch the Hurricane Camille episode here. The complete bridge-collapse episode is also online.
You know what? I’m glad I saved Havoc for last. It’s interesting, but Bolton was important.