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Women at sea

Opportunities seized by female pioneers

Dr Jo Stanley FRHistS, author and social historian, charts the changing fortunes of women who have chosen a career at sea

Beautiful, charming or just cast-iron competent and dynamic with it? Women in maritime work have made huge but patchy progress since the 1970s, as have women who write about the industry (as evidenced, for example, by the nominations for the Maritime Media Awards).

Once upon a time ships’ crews had no women, or just one woman. Now they are on the bridge and in board rooms too. At least five women are captains of the world’s cruise ships. The latest of them is Belinda Barrett of Windstar Cruises, the industry’s first black female captain.

How did women get here? Well, by sticking at it and being good at what they did. As time passed, social changes, along with changes in industrial practices, meant that ‘Nature’s agreeable blunders’, the ‘fair sex’, became routinely employable, especially to solve labour shortages. Indeed women became avidly sought after, particularly if they didn’t want to prioritise having children.

The nineteenth century: opportunity knocks

Migration and imperial conquest gave hundreds of women the first mass opportunity. From the 1820s onwards women were needed on passenger vessels, because it was thought seemly that lady passengers should be looked after by females in those days of separate spheres.

Competing shipping lines enticed passengers with symbols of the civilised nature of voyages: a surgeon to deal with any medical eventualities, a cow for fresh milk, a stewardess for the ladies. Sometimes stewards’ wives or company widows, stewardesses weathered shipwrecks, picky passengers, belligerent bosuns and amorous seadogs as bravely as any of their rare sisters who went to sea disguised as cabin-boys.

But there’s proof that women could have done more than dusted, mothered and acted like chambermaids afloat, had they been permitted to do so. When crises hit, women navigated and took command.

US-born Mary Ann Brown Patten (1837–1861) famously rose to the occasion. In 1856, when her captain husband fell ill, for fifty days this pregnant nineteen-year-old managed the mutinous crew and safely brought the clipper Neptune’s Car, with its cargo intact, to San Francisco on time in spite of a storm rounding Cape Horn.

How come? Because she had had the opportunity to learn navigation and meteorology, as well as other skills such as stowage and rope work, from her husband when they were becalmed. And his illness forced her to learn medicine to keep him alive.

In other cases, too, tragic vicissitudes gave women the space to come forward. And because all women tended to be judged by one woman’s actions, Grace Darling (1815–1842) was one of those who proved that women could be brave and useful at sea. She showed that women and seafaring were not contradictions in terms. The binary relationship of sea = male versus land = female was not, after all, immutable.

This lighthouse keeper’s daughter was only rowing a small cobble when she went to the rescue of those on board the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838, but her subsequent lauding meant a foot had been put in the door.

Beacons and inspirations

Grace became a beacon for girls and women: ‘If she can do it, we can do it. And more!’ was the feeling. Others went unsung. ‘What kind of woman runs a London navigation school, has eight children (and three step-children), patents a nautical instrument and swings ships?’ ask John S Croucher and Rosalind F Croucher. Their new biography of Janet Ionn Taylor (1804–1870) shows that talent, determination, entrepreneurial flair and accident of birth helped her.

Such factors enabled this exceptional female astronomer to invent, produce and repair navigational instruments, as well as to run a respected academy, publish key works on astronomy and navigation, and sell nautical charts. Mistress of Science (published by Amberley in 2016) reveals that being the daughter of a schoolmaster who let her attend his navigation classes helped. And she made her own opportunities, with difficulty, and with a little support from wind-scale inventor Francis Beaufort. Such mentors matter, as many women maritime pioneers have appreciated.

20th-century pioneering women

It was moral anxiety, fuelling post-WW1 Canadian concern, which gave British seafaring women the first possibilities of becoming officers. The Canadian government told shipping companies that immigrating women should be conducted en voyage by a woman with sufficient authority to ensure her orders were respected.

Edith Sowerbutts (1896–1992) was one of this small group of conductresses, floating chaperones who had officer status (but not quite gold braid). White slavery fears died down and the role disappeared. But the door had been opened for women in the purser’s department, then other departments too.

Victoria Drummond MBE (1894–1978), the worlds’ very first marine engineer, got her training opportunities because her influential parents backed her. And some key men could put gender stereotypes aside and recognise talent.

But from October 1929 this engineer was failed, thirty-one times, at her Board of Trade exams for Chief Engineer. War often means women slip into ‘men’s jobs’ – but even amid the acute needs of WW2 she found that although ‘I was a better and more experienced engineer than many serving under chief’s tickets … I was a woman and they would not let me pass that exam.’ So she sidestepped the British system and qualified under the Panamanian flag, as their examinations were written and candidates’ gender and status were unknown to the examiners. Stickability and her proven competence helped her carry on sailing until the 1950s. Role models usually help women pioneers. But somehow the Drummond woman was forgotten or just discounted as Queen Victoria’s godchild, an anomaly.

Many of the new female marine engineers who started coming forward in the 1970s had never heard of her. What worked for them was that the industry had a shortage of personnel. Plus the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act meant women could no longer be excluded. The new women coming forward were also propelled by that other key aid, their own powerful sense of having a vocation.

Navigating towards the top

On the navigating side, opportunities arose for the same reasons. Indeed, some women began deck cadetships even before the law was passed. Sheila Edmondson (born 1949), Nina Baker (born 1954) and Linda Forbes (born 1957) are seen as the main pioneers here.

BP, Shell and Denholm Ship Management were the first companies who dared. Others simply sent female applicants a Roneo’d sheet explaining that the jobs open to women were as nurses, assistant pursers or stewardesses. My favourite among these pro-forma letters begins ‘Dear Sir, we don’t employ ladies.’

Increased access to higher education, plus the changed climate in the hospitality industry, which began to value emotional intelligence in ‘people work’, were among the additional factors enabling women to rise in the hotel side of ships. From the 1970s women (slowly) moved to the senior management positions they hold today.

Perhaps the biggest signal for girls dreaming of becoming captains was sent out when pioneering Captains Barbara Sampeys (later Campbell) and Wendy Maughan were warmly made brethren of Trinity House (along with the Princess Royal) in 2004.

Today: surging forward …

And today’s successful women captains? Their opportunities have come partly because their predecessors did so well that no longer could women, as a category, be doubted. Judged on their own merits, they were clearly assets to the maritime industry.

Partly too, organisations such as the International Maritime Organization, the Merchant Navy Training Board, trade unions, the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have campaigned so hard for equal rights that the culture is being transformed.

Few interviewing panels today, if any, would face a woman candidate and imagine they were seeing someone who was, by definition, a potential mother: someone with a short shelf-life and therefore too expensive to train.

… But still a long voyage ahead

Nonetheless, women are still a long way short of a representative 51 per cent of the maritime workforce. And most seawomen doubt they ever will be, or should be.

BIMCO/ICS’s Manpower Report 2015 found that of the 164,550 seafarers surveyed worldwide only 1 per cent (1,587) were women. This suggests there might be 16,500 women seafarers in the global force of 1.6 million. Happily, 6.9 per cent of those in training were women. That’s progress, but there is still clearly a long way to go.

Dr Jo Stanley FRHistS is an author and social historian.