Monday, 17 June 2013
Gender perspective crucial in writing about maritime history
Marianna Massa has written a useful on-line article about why it is crucial that not just women but gender should be central in writing about maritime history.
'Making the Marginal the Pivotal: The importance of writing maritime history from a "gender perspective"’
is in the online journal (anyone can access it)Blue Stocking. http://blue-stocking.org.uk/2013/03/03/making-the-marginal-the-pivotal-the-importance-of-writing-maritime-history-from-a-gender-perspective
'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.
'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, 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.'
Marianne is right. At the moment I'm interviewing seafaring women pioneers who sailed from the early 1970s.
These women engineers, deck officers, 'floatographers' and pursers weren't waiting politely and prettily on shore for any male relative to return - and then go off again leaving the ladies to pine.
They decided they wanted to sail. Despite all the odds - including careers teachers who said it was impossible and employers who suggested would-be captains should instead become ship's nurses - sail they did.
Women seafarers were enabled partly because of the equal opportunities climate and legislation that were a product of the Women's Liberation Movement. They sailed despite an 'othering' reception along the lines of 'What's a nice girl like you doing on a ship like this (and in boiler suit too)?'
It's clear that their struggle and progression in a maritime career were crucially affected by gendered attitudes and a hierarchy in which women were lesser, other and seen as 'matter out of place.' Many women didn't necessarily recognise these deep gendered currents were going on, and were unfair and inappropriate.
The 'constructed feminine beings' to whom I've been listening with such fascination these last few weeks negotiated a path determined by many factors.
Some were helped by generous male mentors in shipping offices who, as fathers of competent daughters, believed women should have a fair chance at a maritime career.
At times on ships some faced hostile officers who flung missiles at them, groped them, mistrusted their abilities (until proven very wrong), undermined their authority, and with mistaken kindness put up Playgirl posters of studs like Burt Lancaster so that women too could have pin-ups on the workplace bulkheads.
Seagoing women's stories reveal ships as places where 'Woman' was considered to be irrelevant, intruding, and unsuitable. And then real women who pulled their weight and could do their job came to be valued.
Some male shipmates were able to generously say that their ships were far better places when women shared in the daily running. And some women felt a sense of victory when at last their gender was disregarded; the point was that they were seafaring workers who were just very good indeed at doing their job.
I'll be trying to show this in my next book, From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: A history of women at sea, History Press, 2015.