1969: First trained woman on the crew

Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Hostvedt became the first woman qualified to command an inshore lifeboat.  
Eighteen year old Elizabeth Hostvedt is the first woman on the crew
Elizabeth Hostvedt, the first woman qualified to command an inshore lifeboat

Elizabeth Hostvedt, an 18-year-old Norwegian student, became the first woman qualified to command an RNLI inshore lifeboat. 

Elizabeth was a student at Atlantic College, an international boarding school in Llantwit Major. The college’s staff and students manned the RNLI Atlantic College Lifeboat Station within its grounds.

Her request to join the crew was met with some resistance, as there were doubts over whether a woman would have the strength to pull heavy bodies from the water, and the stamina required to man the lifeboat in strong gales.

A special case was made for Elizabeth; on the condition that she pass the full medical test required for membership and satisfy she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’. Elizabeth met these requirements and, in 1969, became the first trained female crew member at the RNLI.

The first emergency response

Yet the first recorded emergency response involving a female crew member didn’t take place until 2 years later.

On 20 May 1971, Penelope Sutton, another student at Atlantic College, was part of the inshore lifeboat crew which launched to a Swedish motor cruiser reported to be at anchor and flying a distress signal. The crew later found this was a false alarm caused by a misreading of the cruiser’s Red Ensign flag.

It was the introduction of inflatable inshore lifeboats in 1963 that helped women to be accepted into active lifeboat work. These inshore lifeboats were lighter and smaller than the all-weather boats. However, it wasn’t long before women jumped ship and joined the larger vessels.

In 1981, Frances Glody became the first female all-weather lifeboat crew member at Dunmore East Lifeboat Station in Ireland, taking over from her retiring father.

These cases inspired a growing number of women to join lifeboat crews around the UK and Ireland.

Award-winning women

As at 2015, twenty-two women have been awarded medals for their bravery by the RNLI. Nineteen of these medals were presented in the 19th century and awarded to women who carried out and assisted rescues.

The rescue of the SS Forfarshire by Grace Darling.  Oil painting on canvas by artist F. S. Lowther in 1886

Photo: Thomas Brooks

The Rescue of the SS Forfarshire by Grace Darling. Oil on canvas painting by artist F. S. Lowther in 1886.

Grace Darling was the first woman to receive an RNLI medal. In 1838, she was awarded the Silver Medal for Gallantry for risking her life to save the stranded survivors of the wrecked steamship Forfarshire by rowing out to them in an awful storm. 

Helmsman Aileen Jones in 2005 was the first female crew member to receive an RNLI award.

Photo: Alex Macnaughton

Porthcawl Helm Aileen Jones and her crew

In 2005, Helmsman Aileen Jones became the first female crew member to receive an RNLI award. Aileen was awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry for her part in the rescue of two fishermen amidst gale force winds and gigantic waves. 

In 2006, Lifeguard Sophie Grant Crookston was awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry for saving the life of a surfer off Perranporth Beach. Sophie was the second lifeguard, and first female lifeguard, to receive this award. 

Things have changed rapidly since Elizabeth Hostvedt became a crew member. Today, the RNLI’s lifeboat crews include over 300 women, the majority of lifeboat stations have a female crew member and around 20% of lifeguards are women.