I came across the topic of female figureheads while reading a wonderful essay by the architect Denise Scott-Brown. In “Room at the Top? Sexism and the Star System in Architecture" (1975) she mentions that before the invention of modern navigation devices, women would be entrusted to guide a vessel at sea in form of a wooden figurehead.
Although women were believed to bring bad luck upon ships (because they would distract the sailors from doing their work), depictions of women were often mounted at the bow of the vessel to protect it from harsh seas.
Such female figureheads were popular between the 16th and 20th century and often depicted either the ships’ owner or the women the ships were named after. This could range from Queen Victoria, a captain’s daughter or a famous actress. Additionally, a naked woman was believed to calm the seas by intimidating the waves and hence also became a popular motif. Representations of queens and goddesses, on the other hand were believed to unleash religious or magical powers.
Image © Maritime Museum Hull Collections, 2016