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:

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