Making the Marginal the Pivotal: The importance of writing maritime history from a ‘gender perspective’

By Marianna Massa

“… women, that group that was supposed to be on the land, sailed the sea in a variety of ways”.

–          Jo Stanley

 In the making – and writing – of history, women’s contributions have been overlooked. It is the same case in maritime history. Women have been the ones left behind on the shore looking wistfully at the ocean wondering when their husband will reappear on the horizon; always the supporter of a son’s or a husband’s ambition rather than the pursuer of her own life. There are accounts of exceptional women who have ‘set sail’ that aim to challenge this assumption, however, that is exactly what they are: exceptions. A lack of data on women at sea in their various capacities highlights the need for grounded, contextualised analysis in order to deduce patterns in women’s behaviours and their relationship with the sea[1]. A ‘gender perspective’ aims to do just this. It not only discerns woman’s contribution to the history of the sea but reveals patterns of power and patriarchy along with attitudes surrounding other cultures, and the impact of ‘othering’ understood by Michel Foucault and Edward Said as a factor affecting the acquisition and formation of knowledge and as a tool used to acquire dominance[2].

Gender as a category of historical analysis has the ability to, according to Shephard and Walker, ‘complicate and revise received narratives of change’[3]. It concerns ‘the consequences of being male or female, the meanings ascribed to femininity, the manner in which those categories are constructed, the practical repercussions of gendered language and concepts, and the relation of gender to power’[4]. Before the term was introduced as a distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955, by John Money, the idea of biological determinism flourished and the relationship between gender and power gained little consideration. Applying ‘gender’ questions, rigid structures, and paradigms and aims to reveal the fluidity of gender in its practice and construction reflects the character of the sea.

The concept of ‘recentring’, according to a gender perspective, highlights the importance of coastal industries to the maritime success of Britain, for example, ‘the herring girls’[5] who had a pivotal role in maintaining Britain’s fishing industry, and recognises the relationship between the land and the sea rather than making one the Other in much the same way woman has been considered other than man. Existing binaries, and their connotations of, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘land’ and ‘not land’ are questioned and patterns of domination and subordination present in maritime history are exemplified and demonstrated in the division of labour aboard steamships[6]. Jobs considered ‘unskilled’ became ‘feminised’ and were assigned to certain men on account of their race or physicality, conflating race and gender in order to legitimate the degradation that was imposed on both wages and working conditions[7]. These imperial attitudes towards both race and femininity have been constructed through the interaction between colonial developments by ship and the accepted attitudes of the home country then applied to shipboard workers in the action of maintaining white, male, ruling class subordination, undermining the idea of the ship as a democratised space existing outside land based social hierarchies[8]. Here we can consider Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopias’[9].

Women also had a presence aboard ship apart from in the ‘passive category’ of women and children[10]. Anne Bonny and Mary Read employed ‘transvestism’ in order to sail the seas as pirates in the 18th century therefore transcending their assigned gender attributes of domesticity and passivity[11]. However, would they have been able to do this as ‘women’? External ‘markers’ and behaviours have consistently been internalised and have become ‘natural’ to the respective sex[12]. This process was linked to the consolidation of 19th century middle class priorities of property ownership and consumption insofar as a man would work, keeping his wife at home, emphasising the interaction between maritime experience and land-based cultural production.

There cannot be one hegemonic literature regarding maritime history. As Simone de Beauvoir points out, the ‘othering’ of women ‘tends to cast suspicion upon all the justifications that men have been able to provide for it’[13], because it has not accounted for differences in experience. Applying a gender perspective engages women’s histories with the histories written by men and about men. It moves women away from the periphery in order to make a more whole and complete history. Applying the category of gender not only reveals women’s relationships with the sea, but also their relationship with men, as a constructed feminine being. It unites the land with the sea, and confronts the hierarchical relations amongst men, women, and different races.

[1] Stanley, J., ‘And after the cross-dressed cabin boys and whaling wives? Possible futures for women’s maritime historiography’, The Journal of Transport History, 23 (1), pp. 9 – 22, [accessed on Googledocs on: 06/03/11], p. 10.

[2] Said, E. W., Orientalism, (New York, 1978), p. xviii and Foucault, M., Of Other Spaces, (1967),, [accessed on: 19/04/11].

[3] Shephard, A., Walker, G., ‘Gender, Change and Periodisation,’ Gender and History, 20 (3), (Nov., 2008), pp. 453 – 462, p. 453.

[4] Ibid, p. 455.

[5] Stanley, ‘And after the cross-dressed cabin boys and whaling wives?’, p. 12.

[6] Stanley, J., ‘The Company of Women’, The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, IX (2), (April, 1999), pp. 69 – 86, p. 72, uses Sari Maenpaa, “A Woman at Sea,” Nautica Fennica (1995), 23-33, uses David J. Morgan’sgender-specific constructs of labour from Discovering Men: Critical Studies on Men and Masculinities (London, 1992).

[7] Tabili, L., “A Maritime Race,” Masculinity and the Racial Division of Labour in British Merchant Ships, 1900 – 1939’, in Creighton, M. S., Norling, L.(eds.) , Iron Men, Wooden Women; Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700 – 1920, (London, 1996), pp. 169 – 189, p. 169 and Stanley, ‘The Company of Women’, p. 76.

[8] Pagh, N., At Home Afloat; Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest, (Alberta, 2001), p. 115.

[9] Foucault, M., Of Other Spaces.

[10] Stanley, ‘And after the cross-dressed cabin boys and whaling wives?’, p. 12.

[11] Reddiker, M., “Liberty beneath the Jolly Rodger” The lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Pirates’, in Iron Men, Wooden Women, pp. 1 – 33, p. 3.

[12] Dugaw, D., ‘Female Sailors Bold: Transvestite Heroines and the Markers of Gender and Class’, in Iron Men, Wooden Women, pp. 34 – 55, p. 34.

[13] De Beauvoir, S., The Second Sex, (London, 1993), p. li.

3 thoughts on “Making the Marginal the Pivotal: The importance of writing maritime history from a ‘gender perspective’”

  1. Extracts from this article have been re-posted to my blog (, entry for June 17 2013). There I illustrate Marianna’s point by showing how it ties in with ways of seeing the stories that seafaring women pioneers from the 1970s are currently sharing with me. (They will be published in my next book, “From Cabin ‘Boys’ to Captains: A history of women at sea”, History Press, 2015. Jo Stanley.)

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