Women at sea

In a city with as rich a maritime history as Reykjavík, it is no surprise that the Maritime Museum is a fascinating, multifaceted institution. Tucked between the ships and shops of the old harbour, the museum tells the stories of Icelanders and the sea, past and present. Currently, the museum is hosting the exhibit Sea Women, celebrating Icelandic women who worked at sea from the settlement period to the present day. 

The presence of women at sea has been regarded variously as unlucky, unnatural, and anomalous, which naturally makes it a fascinating subject for study. The exhibition, located in the museum’s main downstairs hall, reveals the many positions sea-women held throughout centuries, and the way in which their social roles were strengthened and altered by their work at sea. It is an excellent introduction to the women, famous and obscure, who rowed, sailed, fished, from the smallest wooden boats to the most modern large vessels, from 870–1870, 1870–1970, and 1970 to the present day. There is enough material to fill a book, which is fortunately set to be released in June. 

The author, Margaret E. Willson, is an experienced seawoman herself, whose work in the fisheries has given her an inside view of seafaring life. Without that experience, she notes, many stories would not have been accessible to her – not only for the nautical vocabulary and understanding of boats required, but also due to the cultural barrier that would have prevented such openness between herself and the Icelandic sea-women. Knowledge of the sea and seafaring culture has allowed her to infuse history with subtlety and thoughtfulness, and to work with the surprises the research brought. One pleasant surprise was the richness and vitality of the material on sea-women, giving them astonishing individuality and a level of detail unusual in accounts of historical women. According to Willson, women at sea, now and in the recent past, shared a number of traits: they were physically fit, personally confident, and combined a sense of humour and tolerance with a self-respect that allowed them to set firm boundaries. They also earned the respect of their coworkers simply by knowing and loving the sea.

The tightly knit interdependence between the crews and communities in the fishing world is demonstrated throughout the exhibition, as well as the bonds between crew members. Fishing crews tended to process their catch on shore, making the crews of fishing vessels a part of a larger system. There have been drastic changes in this relationship over the years, including fishing vessels spending far longer periods away from land. Women’s roles ashore were tied to their careers at sea, and changes in the fishery and its interaction with shore communities affected the status of women both at sea and ashore. Beginning in the late 19th century, the long held image of the fisherwoman – courageous and strong – was replaced with that of the unfeminine hag whose skills were secondary to her social transgression in daring to enter the sphere of men’s work. Changes in Iceland in the early 20th century, with the rise of a middle class, ideas of domestic luxury, and growing nationalist feeling, made the ability to stay at home seem like a woman’s ideal role. Strikingly, this change overshadowed the social role that many sea-women had previously played, in advocating for the rights of widows and orphans, and helping others whose fortunes were poor. Not only did this image damage their ability to work at sea, it also reduced their power to help those in need on land. 

In the modern day, Willson remarked that the bulk of the prejudice mentioned by the sea-women she interviewed came not from fellow sailors, but from those ashore, both male and female. However, as the 20th century progressed, the status of sea-women returned, and the formal training of women for command positions became an indicator of equality. As an illustration of this, Sea Women features an interview with the first woman to graduate from the College of Navigation. With the stories of women today, the exhibition ends on a positive note, celebrating the bravery of generations of female seafarers. 

Sea Women was designed with an artist’s input — apt, as many sea-women were themselves artists. Some were painters, or singers, such as Rósamunda Sigmundsdóttir, others wrote, as evidenced by the two excerpts of poetry on the wall, which greet the visitor as they enter. Artifacts are few, however — the focus is on the text, and the atmosphere. 

The accounts given are vibrant and individual, and for many Icelanders, there may be an added dimension of interest as they identify ancestors of their own. Although the exhibition’s design is simple, there is enough material that some of the more fascinating figures, such as Captain Halldóra Ólafsdóttir, renowned for crewing her boats entirely with women, are only briefly mentioned. Fortunately, the theme of women at sea is set to expand when the museum takes on the task of renovating all of its exhibit space. 

This exhibition is part of the museum’s greater vision, one that is changing this year to incorporate more diverse histories. Íris Guđbjargadóttir, the exhibition’s curator, notes that Sea Women is one of the rare alternative perspectives that the museum has presented, but that the new design will give these greater focus: countering the familiar image of the bearded, pipe-chewing fisherman. With the new design, the hope is for visitors to take on an active role in learning, rather than perceiving the museum as ‘always right.’ Planning for this ambitious endeavour has included input from families, teens, adults, and students, and the museum intends to draw in diverse groups to encounter the country’s maritime world. The generally positive response to this exhibition may is an encouraging start. 

The exhibition Sea Women will be open until summer 2016, and is included in the museum’s general admission. The book Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge will be released in the same month. It is also possible to pre-order the book online or from a range of bookstores. 

Article: Karin Murray-Bergquist