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Women Have Always Made Waves Here: Unearthing The History of Iceland’s Female Sea Workers

Women Have Always Made Waves Here: Unearthing The History of Iceland’s Female Sea Workers

Words by
Photos by
Provided by ‘Survival On The Edge: The Sea

Published June 5, 2015

Born in 1777 and out to sea by 1788, Captain Þuríður was a legend among Iceland’s seafarers. Þuríður brought in the largest catches, read the weather as keen as a bird and fished for 60 years without losing a single crewmem- ber. People wanted to be on Þuríður’s crew; they wanted to work for the woman who wore pants and noticed life- saving details and women, especially, wanted to work for Þuríður because she made it a point to hire them.

It was at a reconstruction of Þuríður’s old fishing cabin in the South Iceland town of Stokkseyri, on a visit in 2000, that American anthropologist Margaret Willson became endeared to Þuríður’s story. During the next several years, questions surrounding the famous female captain, and other Icelandic sea women like her, began stewing in Margaret’s mind. When she asked Icelanders about the history of Icelandic women at sea, fishing and crewing on boats, she came up empty-handed.

“It’s like they were invisible,” Margaret says. “I just didn’t believe it. I grew up on the Oregon coast. I fished. I just thought, of course women have fished here, too.”

She knew Þuríður’s era wasn’t the only one that included sea women, and began researching and compiling a history of female seafarers. From 2009-12, she spent seven months finding modern Icelandic women working in fishing and maritime industries, and conducting interviews. In 2013, she received a grant from the National Geographic Society to continue her research, and she teamed up with Íris Gudbjargardóttir, a specialist at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum, who had been investigating the topic on her own as well.

Iceland’s invisible seafarers

“People in Iceland say, ‘There haven’t been any fisherwomen really. There aren’t any now,’” Íris says. “But that’s just not true.”

One of those fisherwomen, Jónína Hansen, has been working at sea for almost 20 years as a ship’s engineer. She got started in her twenties and came from a family where everyone, women included, worked at sea.

“We are all raised by the sea. I am sometimes surprised that there are so few Icelandic women on the sea, because we are so fascinated by the sea,” Jónína says.

Women Have Always Made Waves HEre

In addition to Jónína, Margaret compiled a list of more than 250 Icelandic sea women and interviewed 150 of them. She discovered records of Icelandic sea women going back to medieval times, laws from the 1700s guaranteeing their equal pay to men for the same sea work, and numbers that suggest that in the late 1800s, thirty percent of seafarers in West Iceland were women.

This research is the subject of Margaret’s forthcoming book, ‘Survival On The Edge: The Sea Women Of Iceland’ and an exhibit opening on June 5 at the Maritime Museum. With Margaret’s research, Íris has been the charge of the exhibit, which will feature old photographs, documents and stories of Icelandic women at sea.

The exhibit and Margaret’s research show a dynamic history of Iceland’s sea women, who were bolstered at points by public perception of them as heroes, strained during others, when they were perceived as ugly and unfeminine.

“Up until the late 1800s, the sea women were written about with great respect,” Margaret says. “In the late 1800s, Iceland began to see itself as a more modern country, and the model Icelandic woman became the mother and housewife.”

Going against the current

The exhibit’s opening coincides with the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote in Iceland, which occurred several decades before women on larger modern vessels started getting back out to sea again in greater number.

The sea had become a male- dominated space, and women knew they were considered out-of-place on the ships. “By the mid-1900s, the women that were going out to sea knew they were going, as they put it, ‘against the current,’” Margaret says.

“There are hilarious stories of the women one-upping the guys. There’s this humour, feistiness and self-respect the sea women possess.”

And though Iceland’s 124-year-old School of Navigation (formerly known as the Navigation College of Reykjavík) has graduated women for the last 39 years, including Jónína, she says that even with a degree there is still some adversity to overcome in order to get on a boat.

“I think there are some men that are just nervous about having a woman on their boat, especially if she’s educated,” Jónína adds.

This is one of several challenges Iceland’s modern sea woman is up against. The evolution of selling, marketing and processing practices in the industry has meant longer stints out at sea—four to six weeks—in recent years, which is difficult for many mothers.

The consolidation of fishing rights into the hands of few across fewer communities means
more women must
leave their towns to
find fishing work.
This means financing
the move, asking
around for work from
captains and crew
that are unfamiliar to
them, and doing so
without the familial
support that sea
women, who might start as young as 16 or 17 years old, could benefit from.

They have little to no representation or involvement in policymaking that occurs in Reykjavík, where decisions that affect them about the nation’s fishing policies and rights are made.

Bringing to light their story

But on the sea, most women become equal members of the crew. They do any number of jobs with varying degrees of power and responsibility. They are part of oceanic families, building endearing friendships with fellow crewmates and doling out daring banter like any salty seafarer.

“There are hilarious stories of the women one-upping the guys. There’s this humour, feistiness and self-respect the sea women possess,” Margaret says.

Jónína recalls that one of her best times at sea was the rush of catching 150 tons of cod on longlines in just three to four days, despite losing four fingernails in the process. Her stories and life at sea have inspired all four of her kids, including her daughter, to work on ships as engineers themselves.

When asked about her first impressions of being at sea, Jónína immediately responded, “Freedom.”

“When you are at sea, you have the greatest peace in your mind,” she said.

According to Margaret, all of the women she talked with expressed a similar passion for their work. “The women all talk about a love of being out there,” Margaret says. “What a privilege it is to be out there. Life becomes very simple, the stresses from land fall away; they have a job to do.”

‘Seawomen’ will open at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum on June 5.


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