Building on the Narrative


Writing women into Maritime History: the growing waves

By Jo Stanley

How have women been written into maritime history? ‘Sparsely. Sensationally. Slightingly,’ was the answer. Until the late twentieth century maritime life was misrepresented as a masculine world. Partly that marginalisation was a true reflection of the unequal situation. But partly the problem was the authors’ blinkered narratives:  some didn’t notice that women’s contributions were worthy of attention. Social custom, ship technology, authors’ limitations, publishing technology, the nature of reader interest, and the rise of second-wave feminism all affected what was written about, who it was written about and if/how/where/when it was published.

This slimmed-down account omits passengers, fishers, Royal Navy personnel, families of seafarers, figureheads, fiction, and metaphysical reflections on how femininity and ocean connect. I detect four periods. They overlap, not least because some later works are written through the lenses of older ways of thinking, which saw a woman but not the gendered social context that shaped her life. For example, in constructing tales of marketable heroines some works omit the key question: ‘How come a woman was allowed to do this at this time in this gendered sector?’

Before 1950: anomalies sensationalised 

For centuries women unremarkably doing traditional ‘female’ domestic tasks were the main workers at sea. Yet two anomalous pirates are the first workers to be recorded at length. Captain Charles Johnson’s unreliable 1742 account of ‘the two Female Pyrates Ann Bonny and Mary Read’ led to the "glorifying of bad-ass liberated sea queens" that continues on digital media today. Rare female seafarers’ realties got gas-lit.

Populist historians fashioned competent maritime women, above all lighthouse keeper Grace Darling, into heroic rarities: a female rescuer not a rescuee, therefore an ‘Amazon’. The majority of women working at sea were stewardesses. In travellers’ tales they appear marginally, as picaresque servants.  Newspaper stories and sentimental fiction about shipwrecks extolled stewardesses’ ‘surprising’ bravery – a little.

Women were largely excluded from seagoing work in WW1 and WW2. Those ashore in shipyards, docks, shipping offices, or in semi-naval work such as mending mine-nets, tended to feature in propagandistic photo-captions, or in company magazines. They were sometimes acclaimed as wonders. This was an advance on women’s work being overlooked altogether.

1950-60s: Suitable careers glimpsed

A few women began speaking for themselves and revealing less-varnished realities. Stewardess Maida M Nixson’s memoir was the first to be published, in 1954. Titanic survivor stewardess Violet Jessop, alongside conductress (later stewardess) Edith Sowerbutts also wrote memoirs but were not immediately published. 

From at least 1957 girls’ career books such as those by ‘Valerie Baxter’ and Beatrice Lloyd helped women seek seagoing roles that were still ‘feminine’ yet offered officer status. Then a sea change happened in the 1970s, influenced by US changes. As a consequence of the Women’s Liberation Movement a new maritime historiography emerged. Feminist interpretations of old ways – such as Ann Chambers’ first sensible history of a female pirate (1979) – complemented brief newspaper items about  pioneers entering ‘men’s’ maritime jobs, with headlines such as ‘Aye, Aye, Ma’am.  In 1982 women’s presence in sea work worldwide over the centuries was affirmed by Linda Grant de Pauw’s path-breaking summary. In the late 1970s and 1980s historians began turning to ‘people’s history’ and labour history. Seafarers – not only vessels, routes and battles – were included in maritime historiography as never before. This tendency was helped by the ‘roots’ movement: amateur genealogists re-discovered seagoing ancestors. Also, oral historiography became a popular method for retrieving the undocumented lives of ‘ordinary’ people. You could ask the horses’ mouth, which might even be female.  

Such ‘history from below’ moves interfaced with local labour history groups, community education, community publishing and government-organised Youth Opportunities Programmes from 1977, especially in Southampton and Liverpool.  Early personal computers, then self-publishing, enabled veterans such as Dorothy Scobie (1990), Anne Haynes (1999), Muriel Arnold (2007), and Linda Carol Woodward (2022).

Alongside, women scholars completing the first PhDs on women’s maritime life were progressively contributing to prestigious academic presses, journals, and events such as the world’s first conference on women and the sea, at New Zealand’s National Maritime Museum (1993). Global cross-fertilisation resulted and related maritime masculinity began being analysed by Valerie Burton. In 1994 the Institute of Marine Engineers published a biography of their member Victoria Drummond. As part of the new feminist publishing world Jo Stanley’s collection on women pirates and Suzanne J Stark’s Female Tars emerged in a climate newly aware of gendered mobility and motility on buses and trains.

From 1996: Gender order, not ‘heroines’.

Increasingly maritime women were recognised as members of a gendered industry, not just exceptional individuals to wonder at. Creighton & Norling’s (1996) pivotal anthology marked maritime historiography’s commitment to diversity.

In the decade 1996-2006 more women’s maritime books, articles and papers emerged than ever before. Whaling wives expert Joan Druett (1999) and David Cordingly (2021) wrote populist general histories. The first theses about stewardesses were completed: by Sari Mäenpää (2002) and Jo Stanley (2003). Many articles arising from their theses used a cultural studies lens. More empirical works included Brian Crabb’s (2006) history of WW2 women. Helen Does’ path-breaking focus on women entrepreneurs in ports in her thesis and book (2009) led to articles that continue to investigate gendered ship/shore interfaces.

In parallel to historians’ focus on historic women, academic sociologists and anthropologists looked at women currently in maritime life. These were notably Phillip Belcher et al (2003) and Minghua Zhao, who applied the (airline-related) concept of emotional labour to seafarers (2004).

From 2010: global connections

In roughly this period social media enabled contemporary maritime women to form global groups that share proud micro-autobiographies. EDI-aware findings mean that historians can better understand earlier women’s struggles to cope with common issues such as sexual harassment and work-life balance.

In 2016 Jo Stanley’ encyclopaedic book on women throughout 250 years of merchant seafaring pulled these historic and contemporary strands together. This trend continues in her  articles. Parallel to this, heritage websites encourage armchair and in-person tourism of women such as Captain Betsy Miller and online community projects about shipyard women’s history.

Areas still in need of addressing are lesbian, bisexual and trans women at sea; ethnic minority group women; and those coping with disabilities, or even pregnancy. Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Rewriting Women into Maritime History project is important in connecting decades of history writing and the new social media micro-histories that retrieve women’s experience. 

Download the bibliography below.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Lloyd’s Register Group or Lloyd’s Register Foundation.