1. Maritime History & Gender
My point here is not just about women but about gender. I know I'm the token gender person; I'm the woman who comes in and talks about gender. But I want to begin by pointing out something that I don't think can be emphasized enough. Really we can't overstate this. Seafaring has traditionally for centuries, maybe for millenia been one of the most rigidly and completely gender segregated of all forms of labor. In really diverse cultures all around the world and the sea and the ships that have crossed it have been almost uniformly in global history, as far as we can tell, strictly male spaces. In a few places that hasn't held strictly true, but almost universally the sea has been considered a male space, ships have been male spaces and tools. There has developed, particularly in western culture, a nearly perfect dichotomy: Land, sea, female, male, stasis, mobility, entrapment, freedom, stagnation, transcendence. This sort of basic division and cluster of associations that seems so clear and so simple and so pervasive. The problem is that this ostensibly clear-cut division that has taken on so many different facets has been incorporated into popular culture, literary expression, and into historical hindsight; into historical analysis which I want to suggest to you, is actually stereotype rather than actual experience. That the stereotypes that pervade maritime culture: shanties, imagery, literature also have pervaded most historical scholarship on maritime history. I think that is a problem. This gender divide is so elemental and it's so reinforced by all these other associations and expressions that it's largely been viewed as outside of history. It's been naturalized; it's been essentialized. So much so that Canadian labor historian Eric Sager, who published a quite well-regarded study: “Seafaring Labor through the Merchant Marine of Atlantic Canada-1820-1914,” which is really a fine book except that he suggests that since maritime workers are all male, ships and the sea were a genderless environment. I think that he has retracted that kind of myopic and reductionist view, I'm glad to say, but I think that that sort of perspective continues very persistent and very pernicious; saying that if it's all men there's no gender and if it's all men there are no women, and it doesn't matter. I think that this perniciousness reflects a really powerful undertow of resistance within maritime history to acknowledge the potential significance of gender, much less examine it critically. But I want to suggest that gender dynamics have fundamentally shaped the multiple histories of men, women, and the sea in ways that I think need to be acknowledged and built into our broader narrative of maritime history in order to really fully understand how it has all worked.
Seafaring, and more generally work at sea and on shipboard but more generally the human-sea interaction has offered really different opportunities and held different meanings for different groups and individuals at sea and on shore. Merchant shippers, investors, ship owners have one kind of investment, engagement and see meaning in seafaring that is quite different from the sailors they employ. Fishermen see it yet another way still; and women on the waterfront, women on the beaches, women on the littoral zone between land and sea see it from yet a different perspective. And then passengers of all types; those on deck, those in chains below, whether they're shipped by choice or as human cargo. All of these represent very different meanings, different opportunities, and different risks taken by different kinds of people. So one of the categories of differentiation has been gender. Nineteenth century author and journalist and early proto-feminist, Margaret Fuller very famously made reference to the very rigid gender division of seafaring labor and the very different opportunities it offered to men and to women, when in her 1845 book and appeal to expand opportunities for women, she said the most outrageous thing she could think of; made the most grandiose claim that she could think of for women. She said “ for women, let them be sea captains if they will,” and that was so beyond the pale of imagination. That represented something really dramatic.
So I think that we need to fundamentally take this into account; that seafaring has been one of the most strongly male dominated occupations in western civilization and gender, like race and class and age, ability, have been deeply implicated in how seafaring labor, including naval service, has been organized and experienced and the dynamics within these different forms of maritime enterprise. Perhaps you've picked up to varying degrees that there is nothing inherent in the maritime working environment itself that requires a certain kind of discipline, a certain kind of organization of labor. The way in which maritime labor has been organized and deployed reflect human choices, strategic decisions, power dynamics based on land and projected onto ships and sent to sea with the ships. So these very contingent and variable human choices and power dynamics are historically specific to a given situation and vary over time and place. Social relations aboard ship were not determined primarily by technology, tradition, or the challenges of the marine environment. They were made by men with vested interest in a certain social order. I think that the gender division of labor is part of that. It has not been as variable, and this is one of the things that I think is fascinating and really something to not just be assumed but something to be investigated, something to be interrogated. That's my main take-away point. If you get nothing else out of my time here at the Seaport, it's that gender matters; gender has fundamentally shaped maritime enterprise and human beings' relationship with the sea.
2. Roles of Women in Maritime History
Now I want to get a little bit more specific. My main point that I want to cover is that even with very few women at sea, and the vast majority of those at sea on ships go as passengers, whether coerced or not, none the less gender remained a critical feature of shipboard organization and was incorporated into the social relations of work at sea often intertwined with and mutually reinforcing organization based on differences of race and differences of class, and differences of age, importantly. My second main point is that maritime industries that sent sailors to sea on ships actually depended to a quite substantial amount on women at home and on shore performing unpaid and paid labor to support families and contribute essential support services to maritime enterprise. The industries were able to do what they did, whether they were in fisheries or the merchant marine or naval service, because they could depend on women's presence there in a stained way during the seafaring men's intermittent and repeated absences. Therefore, women's labor, in part underwrote the long term risks that delayed payoff of maritime investment. This relationship, I think, has not sufficiently been acknowledged and not pulled together. There have been bits and pieces in different studies but not pulled together in a sustained way and studied.
Third, women on shore have also played mediating roles in maritime culture. Mediating between the men at sea, the work at sea, and the economy, and community and culture on land as well. As sailors' kinfolk, as providers of all kinds of services to sailors, licit and illicit, and they have maintained and renewed family, they have sustained community, and they have contributed to the local economy during and in between men's repeated absences at sea. The only way this mediation has really been recognized has been symbolic. The substance of women's contributions, of women's mediating roles, has generally been obscured or neglected. It's been more expressed in a kind of symbolic association. As a maritime historian, a women's historian, Nancy Paige has pointed out in her study of the twentieth century Northwest Coast and women on ships, “if there is a master narrative of women and the sea, it has been the story of waiting for the husband, the father, the son to come home.” That's the symbolic narrative of how women relate to the sea; they wait on shore. Winslow Homer did a series of paintings that depict women on shore gazing out to sea; many of them holding babies or with children by their skirts. I think this is the kind of symbol of women's relationship to the sea.
I think that that symbolism has actually obscured a lot of women's more substantive contributions to maritime enterprises and maritime communities, but it does express one basic idea that I think is really important; which is that whether they went to sea or not, the vast majority of whom did not, maritime women's lives were defined by the rhythms, the terms, and the risks of men's maritime enterprise. Whether or not they went to sea, these women are embedded and enmeshed in the rhythms and risks of maritime enterprises.
Fourth and finally, despite the rigid and quite obvious pervasive gender division in maritime labor, this does not mean that there were no women at sea. There were millions of women either as cargo or passengers and there were much smaller but still surprising numbers of women on board vessels even to work in ways that are kind of surprising to us; that disrupt our picture of this elemental divide between men and sea and women and shore.
So let me give you a little more detail about some of my four points here. The way in which the west generally, western European and North American economy and society developed from the colonial period into the nineteenth and indeed persisting into the twentieth century, rests on the basis of a heterosexual nuclear family form. With a husband and a wife and children and marriage and men's taking on the role as the head of the household which depends on men's freedom to move between home and workplace and their ability to earn enough in that workplace to support that home and the people in that home. That basic relationship between the heterosexual nuclear family form and the way in which it fits into community, government, economy it's beginning to break down. The twentieth century has seen significant challenges to that. But it still is quite fundamentally imbedded in the way we live our lives.
3. Roles of the Sailor in Maritime History
How did sailors fit into that? I think this is a really fascinating question. Sailors who left home to go to work but for much, much, much longer periods of time. I think this is really an instance of single sex migrant labor; much like for instance in South Africa, the men leaving their home communities to go into mining communities for several months a year, or soldiers and sailors certainly. There are many other kinds of work, especially extractive industries and transportation industries that involve men leaving not on a daily rhythm of going out and coming home, but for much longer periods of time. Sailors certainly had that rhythm of leaving and coming home and a separation between the home where your family is and the workplace. They are very distinctly separate. Yet their ability to support their family has been considerably more fraught. So concepts of competency, concepts of male provider-ship, the breadwinner role; that has been a lot more complicated when it comes to sailors. That's where, in part, women's role in supporting families while men are gone has been so important.
Eva Barron is a feminist labor historian. She has studied the way in which the male workplace, whether it's a mill, shop, factory floor, or indeed a ship, has been mascinalized in particular important ways. In particular, people that we would consider manual laborers or working class employment, in these workplaces a particular form of rugged, muscular manhood have developed. People have a lot of authority the stronger they are, the more tough they are, the more rugged they are, the more they can withstand really strenuous conditions and perform very muscular labors successfully. This kind of masculinity is in differentiation from middle class and elite forms of masculinity which emphasized much more deportment, gentility, focus on brain work, head work vs. handwork; that didn't involve muscularity but involved exercise of certain kinds of intellectual tasks from accounting on up to being scholars. Eva Barron and some other feminist historians have studied the way in which this particular form of rugged or muscular manhood both empowered but also dis-empowered working class men. In a sense compensating them for a certain loss of control over the decision making in the process. Barron points out in her studies, and I quote that “doing dangerous work was a way of doing gender.” I think that this is so appropriate for maritime labor history, although she doesn't go to sea in her studies. She emphasizes that men at work and the masculinity that they then perform for other men to try to place themselves, sort themselves out, figure out who has what kind of authority, organize themselves at the workplace means that men are embodied and bodies have gender as well as race and class and other kinds of attributes that people display or enact and form with their body.
The different ways in which men defined manhood and masculinity and then enacted it or tried to perform it, can be usefully thought of I think in what another historian, Mark Khan has suggested. He proposes this idea that there were grammars of manhood that sorted men into virtuous citizens (his is a political study) and rabble; leaders and people who are led and if we extend his idea of grammars of manhood into the maritime world, sorting men into the folksl, the steerage, and the after cabin. Those commanding the voyage, those performing the labor of sailing the ship, and those providing the support services for the other men on the ship. These are all different forms that are distinguished in part by different kinds of masculinity, different kinds of performance of manhood.
You've already been introduced to the racialization of seafaring labor. By virtue of the race that is attributed to these folks, they are sorted in these grammars of manhood into service tasks which have generally been coded female. So they then kind of feminized. What about Native American men? How do you see them being sorted in terms of what kind of manhood? You can think of the harpooners on whalers, something that some Native American men were considered particularly good at, but it did not mean upward mobility in the same way that it was on the way to the captain's cabin for white men. Still, there's association with the spear.
I think all of this suggests for me, the way in which locating bodies on shipboard or on shore or between shore and ship, locating bodies within hierarchies of power and resistance is not only racialized but often conflated with and overlapping ideas mutually enforced by gender as well. I think that men had to do tasks that were considered women's work at sea. In part because they needed to do that just simply to survive. That the shipboard world is famously but I think sort of erroneously labeled by sociologists as something called a total institution where everything had to happen within that space, and certainly that was true, when the ship was at sea. That required that women's work of reproduction, the cooking, the cleaning, the personal service, not having babies but all the other ways in which human beings are sustained and able to do their work had to proceed on shipboard. In earlier times, sixteenth, seventeenth century and earlier than that in European contexts, this work was often performed by boys; so it was a distinction of age or ability. It was sometimes performed by disabled or men with limited ability, older sailors who had suffered injuries and so forth. By the mid-nineteenth and end of the early twentieth century, this kind of reproductive work on shipboard was assigned to men of color. Often from different areas of the colonized empire.
I'm thinking here of the work of Laura Tebili on the British Merchant Marine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the employment of men who were called lascars from South Asia and the Indian Ocean who were almost uniformly assigned to service work. Other men of color assigned, with the shift to steam power, to the fire room, to the engine, to the stoking of the steam engine; to the really hot, heavy, the worst work really on shipboard. Work that is in many ways gendered, in particular the service work, have been assigned by virtue of a racial division of labor and racial hierarchies that kind of replicate the intersection of multiple inequalities. Race and gender, along with class and age and skill and colonial status. We need to pick apart and to see how these different categories intersect and mutually reinforce and sometimes intertwine with some tension.
The men who did women's work at sea may have been relegated it by virtue of certain categories like race and class and age, and it may have been scorned by other shipmates but that doesn't necessarily mean that they internalized what others considered degradation or the degrading status of performing service work. I think this is important because it gets to the point about how seafaring labor offered different kinds of opportunities and offered different kinds of meanings for different kinds of people.
I'm thinking here of an African American steward on a very large merchant vessel, “The Glide.” He was a steward and he took great pride in doing his job very well, he considered himself a sailor, and he called himself a man. Due to his experience of the sea, his cosmopolitan experience of seafaring, seeing the world, and his ability to earn good wages that enabled him to provide for his family, to be the breadwinner. What it meant for him, he was able to shape a very positive masculine identity even from his service work.
Other sailors who were not able to relegate this kind of work to other people re-labeled the female tasks they performed with male nomenclature. Sewing for instance, but sewing a sail with a sailors palm, this kind of thing was considered quite different from the kind of needlework that you did to mend your clothing and so forth.
This has been described to a certain extent, tracked by Margaret Clayton in her book on women called “Rites of Passage.” She sees them renaming certain labels, certain kinds of work and tasks to try and diminish the way it's feminized. Sailors who had the credentials if they were a particular race, if they were a particular class, in particular if they had money; they were able to hand over that service work that's feminized to sailors who are less advantaged. They could have somebody else do their laundry if they could pay them enough, for instance. I think that this goes back to Eva Barron's point about this kind of masculinity and how it affected the organization of work on board ship. It helped white sailors diminish their fears of emasculation, their sense of loss of control through the process of industrial and technological change, through this racialization of shipboard women's work.
So socially constructed visions of race along with gender and the way in which they intertwined were actually lifted from land based experience to a certain extent, and applied to the division of shipboard labor in ways that ultimately undercut working class solidarity and maintained ruling class domination over the floating proletariat.
One article I found by a scholar named Lawrence or maybe Glasgo who did a study of the famous mutinies at Noor and Spithead which were in 1797; he studied the rhetoric used by the mutineers. He argues somewhat convincingly that their efforts to resist and revolt and to succeed at their mutiny were undercut by different approaches to manhood and questioning other men's manhood and refusing to associate with different kinds of men. So this grammar of manhood disrupted their ability to organize and work together. He attributes certain ideas about different kinds of manhood to ultimately shaping the outcome of those mutinies.
Similarly, Valerie Bertin, she has studied the negotiations between sailors and their employers in the British Merchant Marine in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. She finds that the technological shift from sail to steam meant a different allocation of skills that meant more regular employment for some men, which meant that they went on more regular routes, they knew how long they were going to be gone, they knew when they would be at home. It enabled them to build families and sustain community relationships to a greater extent than sailors had been able to do before and allowed them with the skills that they gained in this technological change although the ability to renegotiate their relationships between employer and employee. This is when some sailors' unions developed on the basis of the skills that some men had the monopoly of. Yet she also finds that this new availability of bread-winning, the regular routes, the shorter absences for these men, meant that they emphasized even more their role as breadwinners, their ability to earn enough wages to support a family, and in their negotiations with their employers, they made a point of saying that they had women and children dependent on them which is why they needed higher wages. This kind of patriarchy is reinforced through their unionizing and through the language that they and the unions and the concepts used to negotiate higher wages, more authority, more regular deployment and so forth.
4. Society on Shipboard & Land: Gender Divide
If we look more narrowly at North America and Western Europe, in the Colonial Period in North America; the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the way in which the wooden world at sea, especially in merchant shipping and naval service, somewhat less so in the fisheries, tended to be organized along these absolutely authoritarian power hierarchy from the captain on down. Carefully calibrated and well-defined ranks and positions and ordering from the captain all the way down to the cabin boy maintained not only by law, by regulation, by contract but often through strict and often very harsh corporal discipline. This way of organizing a society on shipboard and enforcing it through hierarchy and discipline was not that different from the way society was organized, than the world was conceptualized on shore. Hierarchy, deference, rank, and interdependence that was not egalitarian; discipline that was often corporal. These qualities and characteristics were very familiar on land as well as at sea. Gradually from the mid to late eighteenth century through the nineteenth, the world on land began to change in a way that the world at sea did not; where the world at sea kind of lagged. Men, especially adult white men, began to see themselves as fundamentally equals. In the Revolutionary Era, these enlightenment ideals. Freely operating individuals entitled to the same opportunities and the same rights as any other men. Some really radical people extended this to men of all colors and shapes and sizes and ages and abilities. Other really radical people extended it to women, too. This idea that people are individually born equal with equal rights to the same opportunities and the same kind of treatment; and that they operate kind of freely. As these ideas become developed and articulated and embedded into new forms of governance and new forms of culture and society, in the Revolution and Post-Revolutionary world, the organization of work at sea became increasingly anachronistic and alien from this perspective. Sailors began to complain, and they increasingly complained over the nineteenth century that they were being treated like slaves. They objected to corporal punishment, to flogging. It's really interesting to read the congressional debates on the floor of Congress about flogging in the 1840s , culminating in the abolition of flogging in 1850. Southern congressmen are arguing quite vehemently that flogging is perfectly fine, it's a very legitimate way to discipline workers; and you would think that they were arguing that because they were slave owners, and that would make total sense. But no, the argument that they gave that's recorded in the Congressional testimony is that they were flogged as children and they think this is totally fine; this is a way you bring up kids, you break their spirit, you whip them, you beat them. So they said they'd been whipped and they thought this was fine. It is a kind of cultural thing, none the less they lost out; the reformers arguing for bodily integrity and people's right to that eventually won out, although it took a lot longer to feel its affects on shipboard. This anti-flogging campaign and legislation, I think reflected the changes that were happening on land. Sailors felt this acutely, that their world was lagging behind in this changing attitude toward bodies, toward men relating to each other and the expression of authority and power at sea.
Matt Rafferty, whose book will be coming out in 2013, has done a wonderful study of sailor's lawsuits that they brought to civil court and to some extent criminal court in New York in the early and mid nineteenth century, where they are arguing that they shouldn't be treated this way because of their rights as men and as citizens of the United States. So the citizens thought, particularly male citizens in an era when suffrage was being extended men were getting more and more political rights and representation, that they should not be treated the way that the maritime regulations allowed them to be treated. I think that there is a real change. By the nineteenth century you have Melville, you have Dana, you have all of these people exposing how horrible things are at sea; in part because there has been a divergence between land, the way in which authority is deployed in society and bodies are treated, have changed on land and not yet at sea. I think that at the same time the association of masculinity and seafaring strengthened in the last two-hundred years or so. Not only were there new ideas emerging out of the enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not only redefined men as human beings who are all born equal; it also was a time in which gender was redefined. Gender was defined more strictly as derived from fundamental biological distinctions, and so what was increasingly important was whether you were male or female, as opposed to whether you were very high-ranking like all the different categories you had in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries where you could have very powerful women by virtue of their family, their lineage, their connections, their wealth. This is diminished and gender becomes more important in the eighteenth and certainly into the nineteenth century at the same time as race was also being redefined. New notions of sexual difference emerging out of these transformations in the eighteenth century; redefining gender as basic biology, stressing binary oppositions, promoting ideas of male activity and female passivity, male strength and female frailty, male rationality and female emotionality were understood as universal, as rooted in biology and unalterable. The view of the ocean as a single sex masculine space in contrast to the feminized and domestic society on land reflected these enlightenment ideals that were elaborated in the nineteenth century and then projected onto seafaring labor. I'm trying to look at these things as seeing change over time, which I think is demonstrated in lots of records.
5. Maritime Women: Women on Shore
I want to talk briefly about how the maritime industries that sent sailors to sea depended in part on women's labor on shore, both paid and unpaid labor. And the ways in which to a certain extent some women underwrote the long term risks and delayed payoffs of maritime investment. Then third and fourth, women on shore, women at sea; a little bit more specifically about maritime women.
As you know what I do in part in a couple chapters of the book anyway is try to examine how emerging gender ideologies and the shifts from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century were incorporated into and affected the development of the American whaling industry. Shaping both the relations of work on board ship and the relations between land and sea, whether between sailor and ship owner or sailor and family. It simultaneously and relatedly shaped and reshaped the connections between home and work, between the fisheries and the communities that sustained and sent the ships out.
Building on the insights of feminist labor historians and social historians like Jeannie Boydston, Nancy Caught, and Jean Stanzill (sp), I investigate specifically how the organization of whaling work relied on both women's unpaid and paid labor on shore but how at the same time and as related to the shifts in gender ideals and practices, how that work done by women was in some ways rhetorically disappeared, rhetorically effaced and obscured from our vision now but also from some people's vision back then as well.
Right now I want to give you a quick overview of women's work and maritime enterprise based largely in New England, which is what I know better than most parts of North America. Even before the arrival of the very first European settlers in the Northeast, we know that both women and men of indigenous coastal peoples exploited the very abundant in shore marine resources. We know that Algonquian women themselves fished with line or net. They dove for lobsters, they harvested clams and oysters and scallops. They processed their catch for food and also for fertilizer that was used in the fields of corn and squash that they also were primarily responsible for cultivating. They were much more centrally involved in exploiting the marine resources to a greater degree than European women were used to doing. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries we know that Native Americans were dispossessed on their lands to a great degree and displaced by European and in this area primarily English colonizers up and down the Eastern seaboard. So indigenous life ways were gradually but clearly supplanted by European life ways that had very different gendered patterns; that is assign the seed to men and the land to women in maritime communities which, in New England range from very primitive fishing outposts to very cosmopolitan port cities.
The earliest settlers in Massachusetts, the settlers of the Bay Colony, established fishing outposts on the coast north of Boston to exploit the really amazing wealth of cod and other fish on the banks. These settlements differed from the unusually stable Puritan villages that we're more familiar with; they were known and observed to be with great consternation by the Puritan authorities. These fishing outposts were notably irreverent, violent and very hostile to authority. There's an interesting study done by Christine Hierman of Marblehead and Gloucester and even Danny Vickers in his examination of Essex County and Salem noted that there were some of these “fishwives,” termagants; in popular lore, meant that you were hostile to authority and pretty argumentative and often kind of violent. There were women accused of being witches because they were displaying these kinds of characteristics.
The New England industry apparently (fisheries) did not employ women directly in processing the catch to the extent to which some women were occasionally involved up in New Foundland. New England women seem to have only occasionally participated in the drying and curing of catch, which usually occurred in the Colonial period in seasonal camps near the fishing grounds. We do know that in the fishing outposts; in the villages that developed like Gloucester, Salem, and Marblehead, wives and other women did provide room and board and laundry and other domestic services for both single and married fishermen. They also made and mended the nets and the seines and the lines. Wives also represented their husbands interests on shore; sometimes even marketing their husband's shares of the catch and most often as maritime women do in many places; performing the very wide range of tasks that sustain family and household during men's absences.
We know that this was a quite risky business and the risks of the industry were reflected in a disproportionate number of widows that show up in the census records. We also know that the very exploitative credit relations of the industry were reflected in the poverty of the women left behind. These fishing villages remained on the margins of Colonial and Early National society, but of course the seaports were very much at the center of not only New England but Anglo-American society as it developed. As with other urban centers throughout the Atlantic world women were integrated through the local economies that supported and thrived on seaborne commerce. Sailors' wives sustained their families in part on advances from their husbands' employers but also in large part on barter and also cash producing activities on their own right. They ran boarding houses, they sold dry goods, groceries and other sundries and were petty shop keepers; not the large scale but sort of local and small scale. They operated taverns, they leased out land and even wharf space, they taught school, they participated in small scale trading ventures even on some voyages and even, as sort of a mark of this, the business district in Nantucket, particularly Center Street, came to be known as Petticoat Row for all of the female shopkeepers that set up retail businesses all in a line on that street.
Women also, and I found quite a bit of documentary evidence of this, settled their husbands' accounts and paid their taxes when men were at sea. Christopher McKee, a naval historian has pointed out that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, an able seaman in the navy drew two-hundred and four dollars per year before the purser's deduction. He was entitled to leave a half pay ticket for his wife so that she could draw one-hundred and two dollars against her husband's earnings. But the letters that he found in the archives that these women wrote directly to the Accountant of the Navy reveal that one-hundred and two dollars, even back then, did not support a family. Most of these women had to work in other ways to raise additional cash. They couldn't survive on half of their husband's salary. They worked as laundresses, took in boarders, or worked as domestic servants to make ends meet.
Other women, and some of these women, on shore contributed directly to maritime enterprise as well. Again, by boarding sailors, feeding, sewing and mending for them, washing and ironing for the sailors and other travelers. They baked ships bread, they preserved meat and fruit for voyages; and there is some evidence that a few women anyway even worked as shipwrights, usually following their fathers or husbands into the trade to help build the vessels on which men sailed. There were a handful of women, again, wives and daughters who assisted in keeping lighthouses; one very famous one was Ida Lewis, the heroine of Lime Rock in Newport Harbor who single-handed rescued some guys who were shipwrecked around the 1870s. She was kind of a brawny person and she was able row out onto the tremendous surf and haul these guys up on the boat and she was justly celebrated in the mass media.
Many more women, not that many women certainly built ships or served as lighthouse keepers, serviced sailors sexually. Drifting in and out of prostitution as poverty demanded, opportunity dictated, in virtually every coastal town but perhaps more so in the larger ports that welcomed periodic waves of transient seamen. In districts like in Boston there was Ann Street and West Boston Hill, in New Bedford, Hard Dig and Dog Corners, two neighborhoods that were known as servicing sailors in particular, including one brothel in New Bedford that was called “The Ark,” and it was a beached hull, a whaleship that had been beached and the mast removed and it was renamed “The Ark” for fairly obvious reasons. In Newport, the Harscrabble neighborhood and in Providence the Chickenfoot Alley Neighborhood. All of these neighborhoods were known as being particular areas of the waterfront where the sex trade happened and catering directly to sailors. A really interesting survey of prostitution in New York City was done by a doctor, William Sanger in 1858 and he wrote up his report and he classified brothels into four grades and the lowest grade was the type that catered to sailors. He observed that the landlord, and I'm quoting actually “the landlord of the sailor's house was usually a seafarer for no one else would be deemed fit to keep a house for sailors' resort.” This was the bottom of the bottom. This was the lowest rung of the sex trade were the women who catered to sailors. He interviewed several hundred prostitutes which is kind of interesting to imagine. These are women who had been arrested and brought in and were being detained. Then this doctor comes in and interviews them and it's not entirely clear that what they told him was exactly what he wanted to hear. He reported that a significant number of prostitutes were in the life because at a previous time they had been sailors' dependents in the more conventional sense. He found thirty-one women who said their fathers had been naval officers, thirty-five were daughters of sailors, thirty-nine were wives of sailors, several widows of sailors, and a number of women who had been seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by sailors. He found that of the women who were in that lowest rung of brothels that many of them had been sailors' dependents in one way or another.
Another historian, Linda Maloney, suggested that maritime prostitutes experienced the stigma, the risk, the general exploitation, and the depressed wages of sailors themselves. This again gets to my point of how maritime women's lives are shaped by the conditions and the risks and the pay of the seafaring men. Maloney wrote that the chronic depressed state of seamen's wages kept the price of her (the prostitute's) services low. It is important to remember that the woman who served their sexual needs was also kept in chronic poverty by the penny-pinching wage scales of the navy and merchant ship owners.
There's another really interesting study of prostitution in New York by Timothy Gilfoil called City of Heroes, and he also maps as well as looks at the gradation in New York City of places that catered to different races and different classes of consumers.
The range and extent of maritime women's activities I think ebbed and flowed along with the industries and the commerce on which the seaport and seaside communities' economies and societies were based. New technologies, most importantly, the shift from sail to steam and global economic forces in merchant shipping similarly affected the women on shore. The change that happened within the industries also affected the shore side communities and the women within them. Over the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century fewer New England women found themselves connected to sailors and their lives dictated by the rhythms of seafaring as American shipowners favored foreign as cheaper and more tractable. For those American women who did remain connected to the sea these technological changes and economic restructuring introduced new roles, new forms of work for them. The New England fisheries declined over the post-Civil War period, along with shifts in demand and supply at the same time as New England industrialized which drew both men and women away from the sea. Women in the reduced fishing communities continued to fill traditional support functions and they took on new kinds of work created by the new methods of processing, preserving and marketing fish. For example, by 1886, a third of the cannery workers in Maine were female and so as they opened up these new canneries they tended to employ a lot of women.
New regulation, economic competition and new federal regulations of the fisheries also contributed to reshaping gender roles as women on shore, wives in particular, expanded their supporting roles. In the twentieth century to even more actively participate in developing marketing strategies and also negotiating government bureaucracy.
Finally maritime leisure activities. Especially in the late nineteenth century as seaside resorts and tourism really dynamically grew women continued to act as entrepreneurs and take in boarders and run boarding houses but now not so much for sailors but for seaside tourists. Much more recently in the last third of the twentieth century small numbers of women entering the previously male dominated occupations like merchant mariner and marine scientist. This breaching of gender barriers, women actually getting license to serve as mariners and sailors in the merchant marine and the navy reflects broad societal trends in broadening of women's occupational opportunities but also it represents the diminished importance of maritime occupations for American men. As men get interested in doing other kinds of things is when some of the gender barriers go down and women can kind of move into it.
Continuing with women on shore-it gets to some definitional issues in what do we consider maritime? What are the boundaries of the maritime world? A lot of maritime history, I think, and certainly studies of maritime labor tend to prioritize what happens at sea. Follows the ship as Melville does, follows the ship out to sea and focuses on what's going on there. Somehow it's very fuzzy. How do we consider a maritime community on shore? Where is a boundary? I know Danny Vickers has proposed at least in the pre-Civil War, Colonial and Early National Period a day's walk from the sea, because that was what the limit was if you were going to find work. Where is the boundary in these cities and ports? Who is considered maritime and who isn't? Anybody living in New York City? Should they be considered maritime? Anybody living Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore? Or is it only people who are somehow connected, one way or another, more directly to maritime industry? It gets very blurry, and most maritime women are in that blurry area, so it's harder to recognize who is a maritime woman. Very few women have actually gone to sea, most of them do not walk with that distinctive rolling gait, their faces are not unusually weather-beaten, they're not missing fingers, they don't dress in tarpaulin and wear that hat, they don't flaunt tattoos. How do you recognize in the historical record whose a maritime woman? Some outside observers remark with a great deal of amusement how some of these women talked, use maritime language and very familiarly talk about the parts of a ship, use maritime metaphors, salt their speech with nautical terms and that that is something distinctive about maritime women. But does that encompass all maritime women? It's tough to say. So generally it's hard to tell who is a maritime woman, and what seems to be more salient of course, is the particular characteristics of their location, their socioeconomic status, their ethnicity, race and so forth. What does characterize these women, however, is the distinctively gendered perspective on maritime life, on maritime culture and maritime work that these women who are connected to it bring to maritime culture.
There are ways in which women have operated as a kind of mediating role; like the fishermen's wives who lobby government, the sailors' wives who pay men's taxes and keep families going, even Ida Lewis of Lime Rock rescuing sailors and bringing them onto land to survive. There are ways in which women have played a variety of roles mediating between land and sea on behalf of sailors. We know that in their perspective on maritime life there are efforts to improve and ameliorate some of the exploitation of seafaring work. I think you'll hear more tomorrow about women as a part of distinctive reform effort that was very gendered in the early and mid nineteenth century, women very active in trying to uplift sailors, clean up and from their vision improve maritime culture, and not coincidentally assist people they called deserving, seamen's wives and children, through a whole range of seaman's aid organization and port societies. Following the example of the Boston Society for the Religious and Moral Improvement of Seamen, founded in 1812, by the mid 1820s there were over seventy of these evangelical port societies. There was a coalition of ministers and middle class women reformers to missionize and Christianize and clean up and improve American society and this had an aspect in these reform efforts expanded to sailors and to sailors' families. One of the most famous efforts and person driving it was a very influential editor and writer in the mid nineteenth century, Sarah Josepha Hale, who was the editor and wrote some of the content of a very nationally widespread magazine called Godey's Lady's Book . She helped found the Boston Seaman's Aid Society in 1833 and she served as its president until 1841 and she was involved in helping that group make such innovations as actually employing sailors' wives to sew sailors' clothing that they would then sell in a non-profit store to sailors at much more competitive rates than the very extortionist slop shops. Unfortunately I think they encountered some resistance and the store did not last very long, but those kinds of efforts were widespread but perhaps made a minimal impact.
More visibly I think, women played a mediating role in maritime culture in their symbols and stereotypes. There were the cross-dressing sea-going women sailors and even female pirates and in general this phenomenon of the eighteenth century, the female sailors were bold and these ballads and broadsides were written about these working class heroines who dress as men and get jobs as sailors and got to sea and in a couple of cases even fall in with pirates and become pirates in the Caribbean in the seventeen teens and twenties. As far as we can tell there were a very small number of these, the female marine being another one a little bit later, but they ultimately reinforced the gender division; the dichotomy between men and women, land and sea by stressing how exceptional these women were. These plebeian heroines were really exceptional and celebrated.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Romantic Movement and Aesthetic Movement artists and writers exaggerated the division even further between men and women, land and sea by juxtaposing their vision of the ocean as a very sublime, transcendent, masculine space; immeasurable, you can't even begin to imagine how uncontrollable it was in comparison to a feminized world of land that was gentle, nurturing, familiar, enclosed and ultimately really boring and stifling. Over the nineteenth century these images and themes were embellished and sentimentalized in literary productions, by people like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Sigourney. Also in vernacular forms ranging from quilt designs to Currier and Ives lithographs, from temperance tracts to sea chanties and writers more commonly associated with the sea than Sigourney; people like Cooper, Melville, Dana, Conrad and London drew on and perpetuated these gender conventions by counter-posing this muscular fraternity and redemption that you could get if you went to sea in opposition to the very claustrophobic femininity on land.
This is perpetuated in the distinctiveness of maritime women in regionalist literature, especially in New England such as Sarah Orne Jewett's fiction and Winslow Homer's paintings and some of the more popular culture aspects of that; that you have these strong, stoic women who are capable of acting independently but most of the time they're standing on the shore gazing out to sea, which I think if you have three or four children under the age of eight you are unlikely to spend a lot of time gazing out to sea, but that's how Winslow Homer painted them.
6. Women at Sea
I'm going to spend just a few minutes talking about the actual women who went to sea. Eva Barron, who I mentioned earlier, the feminist labor historian who taught about how generally in most labor history and working class history women are embodied, we have a sense of women's bodies but men are not seen as creatures with bodies. They are something else; they are workers, they are political actors, they are pirates, they are proletariat, they are fishermen, but we don't really pay attention to their bodies so much. She suggests that this kind of dynamic that historians have perpetuated actually naturalizes the presence of men's bodies at the workplace and reinforces the notion that women's bodies are out of place there. A corroboration of her insight is a comment I came across in a letter written by Abigail Adams in 1784 to her husband John. She had just gotten to London, she had traveled across the Atlantic to join him and she wrote right after her ship had landed to let him know that she was there and she described how very unpleasant the voyage had been, how seasick she was and then she mentioned, and I quote “How often did I reflect during my voyage upon what I once heard you say that no object in nature was more disagreeable than a lady at sea.” I thought, alright, here it is! Women out of place at sea. Of course we know that there were women at sea. As I mentioned there were millions of passengers, although very little attention has been paid to them as passengers. We have some literature about individual groups; female convicts being transported to Australia, Puritan women coming over with the Great Migration in the 1630s, German Redemptioners, Irish domestic servants in the 1840s, one of the few groups where a lot of them traveled as individuals. So we know of certain groups, but no one has put together a big picture to discern what the gender dynamics were broadly in terms of women on ship at sea. More scholarship as well as popular attention has been spent to identify and recover the experiences of the very few women seafarers. Certainly there has been some written and there continues to be some work done on the really horrific and distinctively gendered experience of women who were kidnapped and transported as slaves; enslaved African women and their experience on slave transports. There has been a lot of attention trying to recover those few women seafarers, those women who challenged the gender norms, transgressed boundaries, defied stereotype and went to actually work at sea. There were the female tars, female sailor's bull. There were the nautical equivalent to military camp followers; women who provided some support services, often by virtue of their family relationship to sailors or most commonly to warrant officers. Women who went to sea in the early navy sharing their husbands' rations, sharing their husbands' accommodations, (it's hard to imagine two people in one of those hammocks) and provided useful support services on board ship. It wasn't until later in the nineteenth century, really 1830s-1840s, that you began to get numbers of captains' wives in the merchant marine and the whaling industry who went with their husbands. From the late eighteenth century, through the nineteenth and early twentieth, the adventurous lady travelers; wealthy women who had to resources to be able to indulge in travel for pleasure. Finally, it's not really until the post-Civil War era and late nineteenth century, you get women who are actually employed in their own right, members of the crew on board ships. Female stewardesses on luxury liners to cater to the female passengers, cooks and deckhands on mostly at the beginning family boats for coastal trading and fishing, and a handful in the twentieth century of merchant mariners, most of whom end up working on ferries, tugboats and riverboats and inland waterways as opposed to very long distance transport. Then a handful of female fishermen as Linda Greenlaw insists that she be called. So there seems to be endless public appetite for the stories of these kind of women but there is very little scholarly attempt to contextualize them.
So we haven't really progressed, despite the fact that it's been some decades, beyond that “hey, there were women too” phase, the first phase of modern women's history. Women's history has gotten much farther than that, but we haven't actually gotten much farther than that really in any meaningful way in maritime history more broadly. I think that Nancy Peg, the women's historian of the Northwest Coast that I mentioned before, her observation seems really to be very apt; which is that all inhabited space bears the essence or some piece of the notion of home, and so she suggests in her own work and then more broadly that the ideology of the home, the notion that the woman's place is in the home, which develops and becomes very pervasive in the nineteenth century, that this has shaped the expectation and assumptions of both men and women of the interests and abilities of women on the water. These assumptions influence the roles women play at sea, the spaces they occupy on board ship, and the language they use to describe their experiences and surroundings. So even when they do go to sea, and even when they work at sea it is shaped by these ideas about women's roles and their association with home and family.