Exploring the History of “Women and the Sea”
A Visit to the The Mariner’s Museum and Park (Newport News, VA) online exhibition
The Mariner’s Museum offers a permanent virtual exhibition on the history of “Women and the Sea” which aims at a broad audience and visitors of all ages. Short but insightful articles present the circumstances of female work at sea or on the shore and exemplify this with short biographical sketches with all of these being further illustrated with old photos and pictures of paintings as well as everyday artifacts from the museum’s exhibits. For younger visitors, multiple activities are suggested to engage them into being creative or learning certain skills. In a nutshell – the museum’s online exhibition is worth a visit.
Like chapters of a book – a closer look at the virtual exhibition:
The organization of the webpage is comparable to that of a book with certain chapters in chronological and thematical order that start with an introduction. As a whole, it attempts to show a story of progress that presents how women have – from humble beginnings – played an important part in the maritime world over the centuries and have successfully aquired more and more positions and influence.
This narrative is presented clearly in the introduction. It shows that the makers of the exhibition follow the method of a classic contributive female history and accordingly want to prove that women have been a vital part of humanity’s maritime endeavors for hundreds of years. To this end, the exhibition presents examples from different centuries, albeit with a clear focus on the American history of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
The chapters following the introduction all include several articles each, these being short and right to the point, including pictures and quotes from source material. The pictures show not only photographs and paintings, but also display a lot of items of everyday life from the museum’s collections. Furthermore, every chapter suggests activities for discussion, research and even to learn crafts like netting. Here the vast didactic experience of the museum’s staff is put to good use, to engage especially younger visitors in every chapter of the exhibition. However, this comes with a little drop of bitterness, since some of the activities call to imagine aspects of women’s life on board without any chance to see if your ideas are correct or way off. In regards to the style – all articles are rather short and easy to read which makes this a great page for a broad audience.
The exhibition starts with a chapter on mermaids and subchapters on female figureheads and ship names, which in case of the mermaids, serve more as an eye-catcher for younger audiences and are as a whole not connected to the main narrative of the exhibition.
The second chapter follows with several subpages concerning port life. This is told with a focus on the life of the male sailor who left his wife and family – sometimes under force – and on the consequences this had for the women who stayed at home. The first woman actually presented is Alice Thomas, the first female owner of a tavern in the English colonies. She opened her business in Boston in the 1670ies and her life functions as an entry point into presenting life in ports in general. This is accompanied by explanations of other crafts and lines of work that are related to the maritime world. https://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/lifeinport/keepers.htm
After this, the exhibition turns to women at sea in the narrower sense and dedicates the whole third chapter to them. This includes women who went to sea in disguise – a phenomenon often discussed on this BLOG – exemplified with the famous story of Mary Ann Talbot who sailed under the name of John Taylor. With this well-known example, the exhibition has already reached the 18th century. In more subpages, the focus shifts to the turn of the 19th century, where the exhibition makers present an overview of the history of women who followed their husbands onto warships. To this you may compare my own article about the research of Dave Cordingly and Suzanne Stark LINK. From here on, the 19th and 20th century are considered with an ever-growing amount of detail, starting with a subchapter on merchant and whaling wives, introducing the amazing story of Mary Patten that is presented here: https://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/women/goingtosea/whither.htm
The fourth chapter presents a very distinct way of living for women in the late 19th and early 20th century – lighthouse keeping. Several biographies in subchapters are used to provide a sketch of this work and the living conditions for the families involved.
In the fifth chapter “Changing Roles for Women” – the creators of the exhibition argue that the industrialization brought forth new lines of work and professions for women in general. Allegedly, these were connected with the development of new opportunities for women in the maritime industries, both on the shores and aboard ship – especially in coastal waters or river shipping.
The sixth and seventh chapter fully enter the 20th century, discussing the positions of women in the military and their importance for wartime production. Detailed pages are dedicated to women working in the Coast Guard or for the Navy Intelligence during the Second World War. Here as well as in previous chapters, individual biographies illustrated with photographs are used to make the more abstract descriptions easily accessible.
The path to the present is set with a chapter on Yachting and Racing that also enriches the perspective beyond work and military endeavors to sports. This chapter includes pages that span from the mid 20th century until the nineties.
The final chapter consists of a single page on women & the sea in the 20th century. Here visitors could previously watch several movies in Quick-Time format that introduced individual women who work at sea – however those videos can no longer be opened.
Keeping in line with the book metaphor, the virtual exhibition includes an appendix with a timeline; although the timeline is a bit irritating. The first women at sea mentioned here are the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read in 1720, a perspective that neglects at least several centuries. For previous years, since 1494, the timeline only includes mermaid sightings and the opening of a tavern by Alice Thomas in 1670. What remains unclear is why the sighting of mermaids plays such an important part for the first centuries after Columbus as there is no explanation of how they connect to the history of women and the sea. Maybe they were included to invite children by offering them a certain element of popular fantasy.
The exhibition closes with a selection of books and links for further research to explore the history of American maritime women as well as the history of emancipation in general. This is a great addition, since the articles themselves contain no annotations or references.
Second Thoughts – or what should be kept in mind for a BLOG on maritime women ?
Speaking as a trained historian who works on the history of maritime women, two aspects regarding the exhibition have sprung to mind after scrolling through the pages.
First, the basic narrative of constant progress towards female participation in a maritime world they were formerly excluded from contradicts the actual history of the age of sail. This becomes especially obvious in the chapter on the industrial revolution that allegedly paved the way for women into new jobs and professions that strengthened their role in the maritime world. Although there surely were new positions open to women, for instance being a River Pilot or entering the cruise industry, the narrative needs to be discussed critically for two reasons. The first reason is that the exhibition neglects a rich and vast history of women at sea that stretches back to the middle ages. Especially when the history of other parts of the world than the US are considered, the narrative of a constant progress doesn’t add up. One completely different path of history can be seen when looking at the disappearance of the Icelandic female Foreman. Also, obligatory medical check-ups closed the possibility for women and girls to sail undercover like they had been doing since at least the sixteenth century. Regarding unmentioned but important context, the nineteenth century brought forth much stricter gender roles and a much sharper separation between a private female and a public male sphere in society than the Early Modern Era before. Therefore, the former participation of women who sailed as wives of non-commissioned officers in the Royal or US-Navy – even into battle at Abukir or Tripoli – vanished during the 19th century and became unthinkable around 1900. This doesn’t align with a tale of progress.
These thoughts on the exhibition’s main narrative are not meant to argue against the fact that there are much more opportunities for women in the maritime world today in comparison to centuries ago – that would simply be wrong and also diminish the achievements of so many women – but it is to say, that this was not a linear march of constant progress. It is a story that spans over four centuries, including great achievements but also backlashes and long-term setbacks that this BLOG will explore.
Second, it’s obvious that the exhibition chooses a plain and simple biological approach to the history of women. Femininity as a category and its changing meaning through the centuries are not discussed, thus allowing to keep the narrative straight. Furthermore, the idea that women and men simply and naturally “are”, corresponds well to the ideas of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and therefore with the time period most prominently presented in the exhibition. The team therefore didn’t have to carefully put the categories mentioned into a complex context that could risk losing the audience. From a historian’s point of view, I consider this rather an invitation to think further – as many colleagues have already done – and to question what “man” or “women” and even more “male” and “female” as categories meant in the maritime worlds of different centuries. We know that the idea of what makes a person male or female as well as what social consequences this ought to have, have changed over time. In this regard, the makers of the exhibition have chosen an approach that is easier to understand and to put understandability over complexity. As stated, they achieve their goals very well, hence this should not be considered a critique of their work, but merely an inspiration for further research.