History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

A photograph of Finnish sailor Herman and his wife Amanda

A Finnish sailor and his wife in Antwerp, 1890s.

Photo courtesy of Åland Maritime Museum, Finland www.maritime-museum.aland.fi

articles > Is there a place for women...

Is there a place for women in maritime history?

Hanna Hagmark-Cooper, Åland Maritime Museum, Finland (1)

The title 'Lives shaped by the sea: how has the sea determined, influenced or changed peoples and communities on land?' has given us the opportunity to broaden our ideas of what maritime history is, and there is little doubt that this is the right kind of question to ask if we want the subject to develop. It is important to acknowledge that maritime pursuits not only affect those closest to them. Particularly in small communities with a high dependency on the sea, the influence can be far-reaching. We need further to explore maritime communities, not only from a structural and socio-economic viewpoint but also from a cultural stance. We need to ask questions about how the sea has influenced the men and women in these communities and how it has shaped their individual and collective identity. One such question is whether there is a place for women in maritime history.

Up until quite recently, women were by and large non-existent in maritime historiography. If women entered into the picture, it was either because they were exceptional women in a man's world or they were mentioned incidentally in studies concerning the domestic lives of fishermen or seafarers. Things are slowly changing and attempts have been made to pull women out of the periphery and into the mainstream. During the last couple of decades, books and articles on maritime women have appeared more frequently, focussing on gender issues, such as the division of labour and maritime family life, as well as on the methodological problems involved in researching maritime women. (2) One of the best studies to date is Lisa Norling's Captain Ahab had a Wife, in which she examines gender dynamics in the American whaling industry during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By placing the actual interdependence of men's and women's work within the ideological concept of masculine and feminine gender roles, Norling reveals how the reality of maritime life conflicted with contemporary gender ideals. (3) Another significant contribution to the debate is Ingrid Kaijser's recent work Kvinnliga sjömän – finns dom? ('Female seamen – do they exist?'). The aim of the study was to document and analyse the experiences of seafaring women in Sweden, both the pioneers and those active today. Kaiser moves gender issues to centre stage and brings to light the complexity involved in being a female seaman, both with regards to life at sea and ashore. (4)

Seafarers' wives

The term 'maritime women' refers to a very diverse group of women. Female seamen is one large category, another is the wives of seamen. Since we are looking at how the sea has influenced people on land, the latter will be considered here. The attitudes presented are based on a study of seafarers' wives in the Åland Isles of Finland. (5)

The seafaring marriage is characterised by continuous departures and arrivals and by a life oscillating between the seafarer's absence and his often very intense 'visits' at home. Despite the massive changes that took place in seafaring life during the course of the twentieth century, particularly in terms of working conditions and communications, seafaring marriages at the turn of the millennium had many features in common with previous generations. One of these features was the constant worry that the seafarer's wife felt for her husband's life and health. The physical separation was another. As a result of the husband's comings and goings, seafarers' wives often felt they led two different lives: one life with their husband at home and another when he was away at sea. Each time her husband returned, the seafarer's wife had to go through a process of adjustment. From being solely responsible for keeping everything up and running while she was on her own, there was suddenly another person to take into consideration. So, although it was a relief for the wife to have another adult to share the workload with, it was also difficult for her to let go of the feeling that the ultimate responsibility was hers.


Much has been said about maritime women and independence, and the most common notion among the general public is that they were and are more independent than other women. Views in academia are more nuanced, and in a discussion on nineteenth-century maritime women, Merja-Liisa Hinkkanen states that, despite considerable disagreement among scholars, the broadly held viewpoint is that although maritime women were perhaps more independent than other women, they were forced to be so by the circumstances in which they lived, since, in the nineteenth century, coastal as well as other communities were still fundamentally patriarchal, 'where women were backers-up to the male work'. (6) Lisa Norling's study revealed the degree to which New England whalers' wives, despite their independent position, were influenced by the Victorian ideals of separate spheres. (7) As for twentieth-century maritime women, Paul Thompson wrote in 1983 that among fishing families in East Anglia and the Shetland Islands women had 'the possibility of achieving, within the fishing family, a degree of independence and power which is unusual'. He further stated, however, that women did not automatically gain increased independence or respect just because their husbands were absent or because they had a large economic responsibility, but that it was the product of complex interaction between socio-economic, legal and cultural factors. (8)

In the case of seafarers' wives in the Åland Isles, three discursive positions were identified among the informants' perception of their own independence. The first position was based on the well-established image of seafarers' wives as 'no-nonsense' women, who had gained both self-confidence and resilience from their experiences of seafaring life. This was the most common position among older informants, while younger women were more inclined to take an approach which downplayed the effects of maritime life per se, and focused more on inborn personality traits and the impact of non-maritime events on the informant's ability to cope with her life situation. Individualism was a strong influence in the majority of these reconstructions. There was also a third way in which the informants presented their experiences, and that was to juxtapose their stories against the central discourse. This was done directly or indirectly, but common to all informants who placed their narratives in this category was a more pronounced awareness of what the stereotypical seafarer's wife should be like.

Methodological concerns

If we are to develop the field of maritime history we need to move on from economic matters, technological advancements and naval warfare. We need to widen the scope so that it encompasses all people, whose lives are affected by the sea and in doing so, incorporate women's experiences of maritime life. Researching maritime communities and the people within them can be difficult, it is almost by default interdisciplinary in character and historians can learn a lot from sociologists, anthropologists and human geographers. (9)

Official documents and reports are often inadequate for this type of historical investigation, so the researcher has to rely on alternative sources, such as personal testimonies in the form of oral or written life stories, private correspondence and diaries. When analysing sources that focus on personal experiences and memories, there is no empirical or quantifiable data available to verify the objective truth of what is being said, since that truth does not exist. But each story, although subjective, is a product of the discourses available to the narrator, both at the point of experiencing and of recollecting. One could argue, therefore, that even if each story is unique, the way in which they are remembered and reconstructed is collective. (10) Furthermore, the relationship between the subjective and the objective works both ways, which means that in telling their individual stories, the informants use cultural stereotypes and available discourses as reference points for expressing and making sense of their own experiences. Some historians might feel uncomfortable dealing with this type of sources, since they cannot claim to be telling the objective truth of 'how it really was'.

A place for women?

The question posed earlier was whether there is there a place for women in maritime history, and the answer is evidently 'yes'. It is possible, however, that we will need a new breed of maritime historian, with closer ties to sociology and cultural anthropology than to traditional historical empiricism, to deal with it.


1. The Åland Maritime Museum's new website is under construction and will go live in mid-October 2005 at www.sjofartsmuseum.aland.fi. The current website www.maritime-museum.aland.fi will be taken off-line some time after the new one is up and running.

2. C. Sundqvist 'Kvinnor ombord' in ed. M. Engman, Historisk Tidskrift för Finland, 73.3 (Helsinki, 1988); R. Rønning Balsvik 'Kvinner i nordnorske kystsamfunn' in Historisk Tidsskrift, 70.4 (Stockholm, 1991); R. Skotheim, 'Female labour in Stavanger 1875–1910' in P. Holm and J. Edwards, North Sea Ports and Harbours: Adaptations to Change (Fiskeri- og Sjøfartsmuseets Studieserie, i, Esbjerg, 1991); B. Berggreen, 'Dealing with anomalies? Approaching maritime women' and A. van der Veen, 'Independent Willy-Nilly: fisherwomen on the Dutch North Sea coast, 1890–1940' in ed. L. R. Fischer, H. Hamre, P. Holm and J. R. Bruijn, The North Sea: Twelve Essays on Social History of Maritime Labour (Stavanger, 1992); M. Creighton and L. Norling, Iron Men and Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World 1700–1920 (Baltimore, 1996); I. Kaijser, 'Sjömannens yrke –ur hustruns perspektiv' in ed. N. Storå and K. Montin, Sjömannen: från livsform till yrke (Meddelanden från sjöhistoriska museet vid Åbo Akademi, xx, Turku, 1997); D. Kirby and M.-L. Hinkkanen, The Baltic and the North Sea (2000), pp. 231–253; D. Cordingly, Heroines and Harlots: Women at Sea in the Great Age of Sail (2002).

3. L. Norling, Captain Ahab had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720–1870 (Chapel Hill, 2000).

4. I. Kaijser, Kvinnliga sjömän – finns dom? (Stockholm, 2005).

5. H. Hagmark, 'Women in Maritime Communities – A Socio-Historical Study of Continuity and Change in the Domestic Lives of Seafarers' Wives in the Åland Islands, from 1930 into the New Millennium' (unpublished University of Hull PhD thesis, 2003). The full text of Dr Hagmark's thesis is available on the website of the Åland Maritime Museum, see note 1.

6. D. Kirby and M.-L. Hinkkanen, The Baltic, p. 240.

7. L. Norling, Captain Ahab had a Wife.

8. Living the Fishing, ed. Paul Thompson with T. Wailey and T. Lummis (1983), pp.177–178.

9. J. Tunstall, The Fishermen (1962); C. Ellis, Fisher Folk (Kentucky, 1986); A. P Cohen, Whalsay: Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland Island Community (Manchester, 1987); S. Cole, Women of the Praia: Work and Lives in a Portuguese Coastal Community (Princeton, 1991); J. Brøgger, Nazaré: Women and Men in a Prebureaucratic Portuguese Fishing Village (Orlando, 1992); M. Thomas, H. Sampson and M. Zhao, 'Behind the scenes: Seafaring and family life' in Proceedings of SIRC's Second Symposium (Cardiff, 2001); T. Heikell, Nog har jag alltid varit välkommen, tror jag – Sjömännens anpassning till familjelivet (unpublished Åbo Akademi, Turku MA thesis, 2002).

10. M. Chamberlain, 'Gender and Memory' in ed. V. Sheperd, B. Breton and B. Bailey, Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective (1995) pp. 95–96.

Back to articles index

Back to top