Sunday 30 May 2010

Woman rowing champ, Venice, 1700s

My friend Linda has just returned from Venice with this Museo Correr picture for me ....which leads to a quest, a discovery.

This woman, Maria Boscola da Marina, was a regatta rowing champion for 40 years. She was also the mother of five boys and a smallholder too. She rowed her produce from Marina de Chiogga to the Rialto markets in a caorlina, a six-oared vessel, about ten metres long, with a crescent-shaped bow and stern.

The question is, was she unique or typical? More the latter it seems: Venetian women participated in regate from at least 1493. And how could it be that women were accepted as rowers?

Partly because the church and nobility were big supporters of regate - she was not going against the grain. (However, after 1784 women did not race in regate for almost two hundred years.)

Partly because any market trader uses the most appropriate and cheap form of transport to get her wares to market. In a canal-based city it would be as normal for women to row as in other countries it is normal to walk barefoot ten miles with a bundle of produce on your head. A woman on the water was not something anomalous then.

And what's Maria Boscola da Marina holding in this image? Banners from five regate. She won the first in 1740 and the last in 1784.

There's a 2007 novel about her (because there are no facts)- Maria della laguna by Alda Monico, published by Corbaccio (see cover pic, right). Unfortunately it's only in Italian yet. Roll on the translation, for all the English-speaking women who love their small boats.And for all of us interested in the parts gendered transport and mobility play in working lives.

First women on US submarines

On Friday (May 28 2010) the first eleven women who will serve on nuclear submarines had their commisioning ceremony at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis. Hooray! Imagine what the future's submarine movies are going to be like. Nothing like the above poster: 'He volunteered for the submarine service.' No more all-male enclaves

I'd rather not have war at all. But people who want to do a job and are suited to it should be able to do it, regardless of gender, orientation, race or whatever. Equal rights are simply and unarguably crucial.

When is every country, including Britain, going to follow suit?

At the moment UK naval women aren't allowed on subs for fear that nuclear radiation will damage any foetus who might be stowing away on board. It's a tired and implausible argument - other countries dodn't use it.

But I've heard a whisper that the newest UK subs have just been built with extra accommodation, to allow separate quarters for women. And one UK solution allegedly being discussed is that women may have IUD contraceptive devices inserted, to make really sure no one gets pregnant while aboard.

Associated Press's Brian Witte reports that the very supportive US Vice President Joe Biden said on Friday it was a milestone year for US Naval women in training. It's only a month since Congress agreed to end the ban on women in subs. They have been working on surface ships since 1994 (whereas in Britian they began in 1993), although they still aren't at sea in equal numbers. Of this year's 1,028 Annapolis graduates, women were just 21 per cent.

In October about twenty trainees will be going to the US Navy's Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina. It's a 15 month-programme, minimum.

After qualifying in 2011, this first batch - all officers - will work on two sorts of subs: guided-missile attack and ballistic-missile. These have more living space than the other subs. Later women will work on the smaller subs as they are refitted.

The plan for stage one is that three women will be in each submarine's rotating crew. They will share a cabin with other women, and a bathroom with 12 other officers. A sign on the door will show whether a women or a man is using it.I can't see the point, myself. I mean, what house do you know with a sign saying who is occupying the loo? The signs may soon 'get lost,' I imagine.

But at least we're getting there.


Wednesday 26 May 2010

The Pirate Woman, a trashy delight

I've just found that Project Gutenberg has made an EBook out of the gorgeously trashy novel that led me to write my - perhaps less gorgeous - book about women pirates: Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates across the ages.

The Pirate Woman, by Aylward Edward Dingle, was originally serialised in four installments in All-Story Weekly magazine from November 2 -23, 1918.

It was this wonderful cover image that triggered my first explorings into women's piracy. At the time I was studying more prosaic women seafarers: matrons and stewardesses.

I was excited by this cover and Dingle's book. It made me think there had to be a REAL story too, of women who actually worked with pirates. At that stage, 1992, I didn't even know that there had been female buccaneers, although as a kid I'd enjoyed the movie Anne of the Indies.

Dingle's heroine is Dolores. She's a total fantasy - but an interesting one: bold, sexy, tough and of course beautiful. You can read about her for free at

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Lesbians aboard in US navy. Secrecy is undermining, so repeal DADT

Former Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenny Kopfstein, a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, has just written a public letter to President Obama as part of the current campaign to repeal the controversial law affecting LGBT people in the services. She was on the combatant cruiser USS SHILOH - and a lesbian.

She writes '“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) made it difficult to have normal conversations with my shipmates. If I said I had a dog, someone might ask, “Who takes care of him when you’re at sea?” Answering the simplest questions can get you kicked out.

The crew of my ship was my extended family. Keeping parts of my life secret and separate from them is an unnecessary burden, and no American sailor or soldier should be forced to bear it.

Feeling deeply conflicted between the requirements of DADT and the Navy’s Core Values, I wrote my Captain and told him I was a lesbian. I was being forced to lie on a daily basis by DADT. I did not want to get out of the Navy, and I said so in my letter. I wanted to stay and serve honorably, and to maintain my integrity by not lying about who I was.'

Jenny continued not only to work, but to work very effectively. And she continued not only to be accepted, but popular, and even represent the ship. Her commanding officers did not want her to go to.

'I qualified as Officer of the Deck, and was chosen to be the Officer of the Deck during General Quarters — a great honor.
I also earned my Surface Warfare Officer pin. During my pinning ceremony, the Captain removed his own pin — off the chest of his uniform — and pinned it on mine. That was one of my proudest moments.

Mr. President, help Congress repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now. We cannot afford any delay.'

With respect, Former Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenny Kopfstein, US Navy.

Her point is so important. On a ship you're in a team. Witholding a key thing about yourself undermines your happiness, and it undermines the trust that's so crucial aboard. Of course LGBT people should be able to tell - and continue to do their job.

Monday 24 May 2010

War Brides: Leap of Faith...tears and brine

I get particularly excited when artists interpret history, going beyong literal documents to conveying the deeper meanings of the past. So it's very exciting that Bev Tosh has created an exhibition on war brides.

It's currently on at Otago Settler's museum, New Zealand, until August 31 2010. See an image from the exhibition (left). Right: Bev Tosh with the late war bride and writer Eswyn Lyster.

Never before 1945 had such huge numbers of women sailed on ships: bare, war-damaged troop transport ships at that; young women accompanied by babies and toddlers at that.

War brides, especially the 1945-46 tranche involves in 'Operation Diaper', are a key unacknowledged category in Britain's maritime history. Their stories are on warbride websites, alright. But they are not embedded in the wider histories of the sea, and of merchant shipping's many diverse passengers, as they should be.

This exhibition helps augment that history. Alas! I can't fly there immediately to enjoy it, especially the 'tear bottles.' But here's what James Dignan in the
Otago Daily Times says about it (20.5.2010):

'In a multimedia display, photographs of war brides have been treated in numerous ways. The exhibition is bookended by two series of photographs projected on to white parachutes. These symbolise the leap into the unknown taken by the women and simultaneously reflect in their form the shapes of wedding dresses.

Between these stands a row of wooden panels, each painted with an image from a bridal photograph. These panels, which carefully use the grain of the rough timber to enhance the images, stand shoulder to shoulder, a rank of women to match the military ranks of the men.

The often fragmentary paintings speak of intrepid hope, and the images form a fine centrepiece to the exhibition.Other works displayed include a series of "tear bottles" containing individual portraits encased in vials of sea water, representing both the long journey of the women to their new homes and their shed tears. '


  • can see the artist and more pictures of the exhibition when it was in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2009. Go to

In the chapter on warbrides I am just writing, for my forthcoming book (Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, Yale University Press) I write that:
'At least 180,000 British war brides sailed to start new lives.Very many were going to the US... The ships they sailed on were not only troop carriers but also some of Britain's iconic liners such as Cunard's Queen Mary, albiet still stripped of their peacetime glamour. The Queen Mary made 13 trips carrying over 12,000 war brides and their children.

Other ships were not fit for purpose - and the migrating women were often too upset and seasick to be presentable as heroines . One Welsh war bride said that by March 1946 photographers were officially banned from bride ships because earlier paparazzi had photographed the women in pretty awful conditions.'

So the lack of evidence about the truth of women's voyages makes exhibitions like this one at Otago all the valuable.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

P&O's first woman captain

Finally, more women are becoming captains of cruise ships. After 173 years P&O cruises has appointed its first woman 'Master.' Having served 21 years with the company Captain Breton now commands the 1,200-passenger Artemis.

This is a download from P&O's website, 20.4.2010:

'Captain Sarah Breton said: “Growing up near the water I always loved boats and the ocean, so it really does fulfil a lifelong ambition of mine to be a Captain with P&O Cruises. It is made even more special to be Captain of the first cruise ship I ever served on, after joining P&O Cruises as third officer back in 1989.”

Sarah, now 45, has served on board Royal Princess (now Artemis), Sky Princess, Canberra, Pacific Princess (the original Love Boat), Grand Princess and Star Princess as third officer, second officer, navigator, first officer and safety officer. She was first promoted to staff captain in 2001 on the original Pacific Princess and then went on to serve onboard Coral Princess, Tahitian Princess, the new Pacific Princess, Artemis and most recently Ocean Village.

Captain Breton lives on the Essex Coast and when on leave spends her time in the garden, sailing - whenever the weather permits, and watching Six Nations rugby and Formula One motor racing.'