Women at Sea

An exhibition on the surprisingly numerous and colorful Icelandic women who through history have worked at sea alongside the men is currently running at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum.

By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photo of foreman Þuríður’s reconstructed winter fishing hut in Stokkseyri by Páll Stefánsson.

When Seattle-based anthropologist Margaret Willson first traveled to Iceland in 1999, she came across the reconstructed winter fishing hut of Þuríður Einarsdóttir (1777-1863) on a visit to Stokkseyri in South Iceland. A sign by the hut read that Þuríður was one of the greatest fishing captains in Iceland’s history. A woman. This struck a chord with Willson, as she herself had worked at sea, and she wondered whether there had been others. Extensive research led to the publication of Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge this year by Washington Press and Museum Tusculanum Press in Europe. An exhibition based on her research is currently running at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum.

A Common Occurrence

While most Icelanders know about Þuríður formaður (or ‘foreman’ Þuríður), as she was called, they’re oblivious to the fact that in recent decades, 9-13 percent of Iceland’s professional fishers were women. This is a similar or higher proportion than in the US and Canada, and much higher than the average among other European fishing nations; which was 3.1 percent in the 1990s.

In earlier centuries, particularly 1700-1900, the ratio for Icelandic seawomen was substantially higher, says Willson. “Breiðafjörður and Stokkseyri/Eyrarbakki have the best records of fishing crews. Breiðafjörður was the largest fishing area and it’s where travelers commented that it was just as common to see women working on boats as men. We even have accounts of boats being crewed solely by women.” Foreman Halldóra Ólafsdóttir, a successful fisherwoman in the Breiðafjörður area in West Iceland in the mid-1700s, preferred to work only with other women.

Women working at sea, even in command roles, was a common enough occurrence that it was rarely mentioned—unless the seawomen were known for something else as well. “Everyone was expected to do it. There was a woman who was formaður for thirty years. And the only reason we know about her is because she was found drunk by the beach!” Foreman Þórunn Þorsteinsdóttir (1795-1872) was one of many women who were in command of boats. 

Harsh Realities

To the farmers, a farmhand who could also go to sea was a valuable asset, whether the farmhand was a woman or not. A smallpox epidemic killed approximately one quarter of Iceland’s population in the early 1700s, so there was a lack of workers. At the same time, commercial fishing became a viable option for farms with access to the sea. Quite a few went fishing because they were not given much option. “I write about one woman who was crippled and still had to go out to sea,” says Willson. “She felt seasick and had her head dunked in the water for cure.” Women went out rowing heavily pregnant and some even gave birth onboard the open rowboats. “There are also reports of women who really wanted to go because they loved the sea. And they did it because at sea they earned more than from farm work.” Women were mostly involved in fishing near the farm. However, some experienced fisherwomen negotiated to be sent to so-called útver, or outstations, where they stayed at fishing huts, similar to the one of captain Þuríður, for extended periods of time.

The number of women working at sea dropped dramatically at the turn of the 20th century with better technology, larger vessels and a rapid process of urbanization. Women were expected to process the fish on land, rather than catch the fish. The number of women at sea increased with the women’s rights campaign in the 1970s and 80s. Since 2000, the development has reversed, although more women are seeking higher education in seafaring and taking command positions. Willson is currently working with a film production company making a documentary based on her research. Her hope is that her work will encourage more women to work at sea. “A lot of women never think of it as something they can do. Maybe now they will.”

This is the excerpt of the article ‘Heroines of the Sea’ originally published in Iceland Review 05.16, the September-October 2016 issue.


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