Monday 30 March 2009

Women build ships

Fictional Rosie the Riveter and her real metal-working mates built iron ships in WW2 (see pic right). At least a quarter of 90,000 workers at the Kaiser shipyard in California were women, many African-American. Women also welded in British and German shipyards in the 1940s.
And today young female mechanical engineers say they are experiencing no barriers at Clydeside shipyards. That includes two apprentices building aircraft carriers at the Scotstoun Shipyard in Glasgow for BVT Surface Fleet. Elaine Hislop is shortlisted for Young Woman Apprentice of the Year and Laura Campbell is shortlisted for the Young Female Engineer of the Year award.
Elaine told the Daily Record ' If I'm out on a Friday night and I meet someone and tell them what I do, I always get a gasp. They can't understand I can be an apprentice and a girl, but there are more women coming into the industry now, and I can see things changing....Females are not as unusual a sight these days, and as a result, I don't get as many people staring at me.'
You can see videos of women shipbuilders talking about their careers now, for example:
But in 250 years ago, in 1759, it was unthinkable that a woman should be a ship builder, doing highly skilled labour on wooden vessels. Yet at least one woman did - even though she had to dress as a man to do so. Her autobiography has just been reprinted, with an introduction by Margarette Lincoln (see pic above, left).
Mary Lacy, aka William Chandler (1740-1798) went to sea as a carpenter’s apprentice from 1759-62. Then she became a shipwright apprentice in 1763-70, which often entailed her working and lodging on ships.
In a review I write that this introduction points out 'that Lacy was unusual in three ways: a member of the armed forces; a time-served shipwright; and a speculative house builder.'
The book may not have much to say about how a woman viewed the construction of keels and cabins, and the wielding of drawing pens and hammers. But on the social side it's fascinating. It 'shows how a helpful young, seemingly-male, catering servant on a warship relates to all the petty officers’ wives, "sailors’ companions" and bumboat women who come aboard. "He" is laundered for, gossiped about/with, shopped with, petted and, of course, propositioned.'
In her personal life, Mary Lacy certainly dated women 'as a smokescreen'. She may have 'married' Elizabeth Slade, with whom she lived for 18 years and whose surname she appropriated
See Mary Lacy: The Female Shipwright, Caird Library Reprints, National Maritime Museum, London, 2008.
My review of it will appear in the International Journal of Maritime History, in late 2009.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Who's the privileged one? Working seawomen's pity for their passengers

You'd think that under-privileged women working on ships might envy the paying passengers their freedom to travel. When I started unearthing stewardesses in the 1980s this is what I expected. After all, these women had sailed 1919-1939, a time when women's mobility was extremely restricted.
But see my counter-intuitive findings in a book that's just out: Gendered Journeys, Mobile Emotions, eds Gayle Letherby & Gillian Reynolds, Ashgate, March 2009.

My chapter, 'Caring for the Poor Souls: interwar seafaring women and their pity for passengers', begins 'Women voyaging across the world's oceans in a floating palace heading towards new lives in the New World during the Roaring Twenties sound rather admirable.... [but seawomen's accounts] show, surprisingly, that pity was one of the central emotions [they] felt ....I discuss the main reasons for the pity and how the pity was expressed, particularly through the word 'poor' (as in 'poor things', 'poor souls', and 'my poor passengers'.) I also look at how pity was acted upon.'

A story from Edith Sowerbutts (see pic) illustrates how pity could bring benefits, and lead a woman to act with agency. Edith was sailing as a conductress (a sort of travelling almoner for women without men) in the 1920s on Red Star's Zeeland, from Belgium to North America. 'I always made a point of being present of bath nights and at general delousing sessions. There was a tendency to hustle women along and Matron… was not one to stand up to any bullying.
'I was horrified once when I found the Third Class Steward, a Belgian who had been in the emigrant ships prior to 1914, propelling two girls a time into the bathroom. "Two to a bath" he shouted to Matron. "No," said I, "One at a time."
'That man was livid – never before or since have I seen a man go pea-green with anger. But my women had their individual privacy in the bathroom. The thought of two to a bath, one lot of salt seawater, was just too much for me, especially as seawater was in plentiful supply! '
I like the chapter being in this book about the emotional relationships peopel have with travel, along with chapters on airline crew, truckers, tarmac cowboys, cycling, Victorian women's fears on trains and mapping. Such a context demonstrates that seafarers should be seen as travellers - somethimg that often gets missed out.

You can get the book discounted if you buy via the website: