Friday 27 October 2023

Maritime union women pulling together: visible

Women in maritime trades unions and guilds. They're not very visible. That's what I keep finding out as I research seafaring women's history. 

What's the reality? What's just inadequate recording?

The lack of available information about gender in maritime history means it's good to be able to pick out a few highlights from Pulling Together, Nautilus International's history, which has just been published this week. See 

Pulling Together's author Andrew Linington (pictured) mentions the following items about women in this history. Since 1857 predecessor unions have included MNAOA and NUMAST :

1933. Supporting the new  Watch Ashore (organising supportive women relatives of members)
1979. NUMAST establishes the Victoria Drummond Award for an outstanding contribution by a woman, boosting women's achivements at sea. (The first recipient is Sheila Edmundson, the first woman captain. Others are Rachel Dunn [2012], Barbara Campbell [2015], Helene Peter-Davies [2019].
2010. The Women's Forum begins, see pic.

2014. Union campaigns about cadet Akhona Geveza, who disappared overboard following her rape allegation
2016.  After working since 2002 at eliminating bullying and harassment at sea (which disproportionately affects women) Nautilus, ITF and the International Chamber of Shipping publish global guidance.
Many matters, of course, affect seafarers whatever their gender. The book is replete with evidence about how much the union has done.  

Other maritime unions

My knowledge of other unions, such as the National Union of Seamen (which was for ratings, and is now RMT), suggests that key milestones are when: 

  •  the first woman joins a union executive (usually early 1980s. I think Sheila was on NUMAST's council. She was certainly active in union matters.
  •  union has its first women's conference  (usually mid to-late 1980s. Women are so few in the maritime industry that a full 3-day conference would hardly have seemed appropriate)
  • union campaigns on behalf of a woman member who's experienced major, and symptomatic, difficulty in the industry
  • union appoints it first female general secretary (Brenda Dean of SOGAT was the first in UK in 1985).

The Captain's crucial partner

Spouses have played  a crucial part in the maritime unions community. They've been supportive 'members' while husbands were away at sea. Among their campaigns have been safety at sea and longer leaves, as the cartoon shows.

So it's important to mention the 1933 founding of The Watch Ashore by Dorothy Nelson-Ward, who was married to Philip, president of the Officers'  (Merchant Navy) Federation.  (page 59). 

# my blog about Dorothy:
# my article on seagoing wives in the union: 'Wives welcome ... with sewing kits,'

Key fragments known about UK women's maritime organised labour history generally are:

1775. In the Liverpool Seamen's Revolt a woman is among those imprisoned for  'aiding and abetting' the protestors. Crowds released her and others from jail.

1913. A Cunard lady passenger tries to set up a Guild of Stewardesses. (Women are already allowed in the seamen's union NUS so the Guild may have been a ploy to set up a conservative body, pitting ladies against militant men) 

1917. Suffragist Adela Pankhurst Walsh, Emmeline Pankhurt's estranged daughter, is active in the  Seamen's Union of Australia. She was criticised, then embraced, by the British NUS for her activism.

1913. Southampton politician Emily Palmer (pictured) becomes treasurer of the British Seafarers' Union. 

1953. The Queen honours Irene Combs, the Watch Ashore’s vice-president and treasurer,  for services to the Merchant Navy

1980. With the backing of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), Lucy Wallace, cinema projectionist, wins the very first maritime test case. Tribunal finds P&O had wrongfully discriminated against her.

1980s. Women join NUS executive

1988. UN agency International Maritime Organisation's gender programme begins. It's supported by unions, and continues today.

2013. International Labour Organisation brings out Working  Paper 298 on employing women in transport, which includes maritime

2022. International Day for Women in Maritime is instituted (May 18)

Pulling together matters

Not all human beings recognise how helpful a trades union can be. So there are also negative stories maritime labour I have glimpsed over the years. 

When  Aquitania seafarers struck in 1921 some stenographers were prepared to be strikebreakers. See pic of Cunard ladies standing by in the London EC headquarters. They signed up as 'volunteer helpers.' 

By contrast, the 'perspiring gang' of women supposed to be cleaning the ship emitted  'a running fire of comment' at the gents who'd laid down their pens to  scupper the solidarity. 

Reading more

  • A brief history of UK maritime women breaking through into non- traditional jobs, including the first coastguard Sue Nelson, in
  • UK women at sea. Pioneers are briefly discussed at
  • See the global and European story of formal challenges, in the ITF's Gender and Transport discussion paper, 2011, at
  • Canadian waterfront women: Linda Cullum, 'In Whose interest? Women Organizing on the Waterfront - St John's, Newfoundland, 1948' in Journal of Historical Sociology22.1, March 2009, pp108-44

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