Maritime Wives in the Age of Sail

As I have been studying the age of sail, there is not much to be said about women. Sure, there are mentions to some of the more popular and well known sailing women, such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and even some women who sailed with their husbands. These mentions are few and far between, however. When most historians study maritime history they focus on men. What were the characteristics of the men who went to sea? What was life like on board a ship? Historians, such as W. Jeffery Bolster have looked specifically at race and ethnicity as it pertained to sailing in the 18th and 19th centuries. Others, such as Nathan Perl-Rosenthal have written about citizenship, nationalism, and politics in relation to maritime studies. The one aspect very few historians have tackled is that of gender. That is the focus that Lisa Norling addresses in her book, Captain Ahab had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870.

In this book Norling does not focus on the life at sea, as many maritime studies do. The main focus of her book is on the ones who got left behind – the wives. This book is ground breaking in its field because not only does she question the characteristics of mariners that other historians have portrayed, she introduces us to another side of their story that has been mostly ignored by other historians. In addition, she also challenges the notion that women were satisfied with the change in gender roles from deputy husbands and help meets to those of emotional nurturer in the age of domesticity.

Most books tend to portray seamen as rugged manly men who sail the seas seeking independence, wealth, and freedom. In regards to racial and class distinctions, going to see was a way for many men to change their opportunities in life. On the sea, men were more equal than they were on land. They had to rely on one another and trust one another. There was no room for racial or class disputes. I’m not saying they didn’t happen; they did. However, it happened far less than it did on land. What these studies in the lives of seafaring men do not show is their relationships with their wives. How did they feel about leaving their wives at home? How did they feel about not being there to support their family? How did they feel when voyages lengthened from a few months to three to five years? Other historians have discussed this in terms of economic and social history. Men were able to make more money and they improved their relations with their shipmates, developed a world at sea, and explored and learned about different cultures from the various ports they landed in. Norling, on the other hand, discusses how the changing focus on more intimate marriage relations in the nineteenth century influenced husbands to take their wives with them to sea, and/or to attempt to write home more often. She does not go into great detail about their feelings, but through her use of primary source letters written by these men, it is clear to the reader that these men were not just “living it up at sea,” but rather they experienced some of the same depression and longing that their wives did.

During the eighteenth century, women tended to be seen more as deputy wives in their husbands absence. Gender roles of the time did not demote women to that frail, uneducated, property. They were helpmeets to their husbands. They were seen as weaker, and not able to accomplish as much as a man could in a day, but fully capable of attending to all the same duties that he could. As such, the lives of women living in these fishing villages, was fairly secure regardless of whether their husbands were home or away at sea. When their husbands were home, he was the head of the house and the wife was subordinate to him. When he was gone, she became the head of the house with the power to make all decisions and perform all financial, household, and community based decisions for her family. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, religious reform, revolution, and Romanticism changed the role of women within the family. Instead of being seen as a helpmeet, women’s roles became that of emotional supporter within the home. Domesticity focused more on the relationships wives had with the people in her family and community, especially between the husband and wife. Though Norling points out that the change was well suited to that of these whaling communities, she also points out that the change in gender roles made these “Cape Horn widows” less secure. As the focus of the female role shifted from helper to friend/lover/confidant, these wives became less in the eyes of society because they were not given the opportunity to form those relationships with their husbands. In the instances that wives went to sea with their husbands, they were forced to leave behind their children, kin, and friends and isolate themselves within a man’s world.

My associates are going to focus their posts on the argument and critique of this book, so I will simply end by saying that this is an amazingly well written book. Norling uses the letters and journals from 66 different people to highlight how these changing gender roles affected both the men and women in shipping communities. Her narrative has opened a discussion into a new category of maritime studies.

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2 thoughts on “Maritime Wives in the Age of Sail

  1. Great review! Norling disputes portrayals of Quaker women on Nantucket as independent and strong by necessity (absent husbands). Instead, she shows how women in whaling families subordinated themselves to husband, family, and community. In the19th c., the enforced separation of women from men easily transition to new ideas of marriage (love, domesticity). Norling’s book raises two questions for me:

    1. Lucretia Mott grew up on Nantucket, and attributed some of her feminism to her mother and other whaling women. What to make of Mott’s memory? Do we dismiss it?

    2. Is Norling’s argument hampered by her commitment to the model of domesticity/separate spheres? Though it certainly existed for white, middle-class women as a cultural ideal, historians now believe that it rarely reflected women’s actual lives and experiences. What might we learn about whaling women if we were not tracing the rise of domesticity?

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    1. I don’t think it is necessary to dismiss Lucretia Mott’s memory at all. I think the two questions are rooted in the same answer. While domesticity and the idea of a marriage based home may have been the cultural ideal, I agree with other historians, that it very rarely reflected reality. I think Norling’s argument supports this conclusion. I also think that Lucretia Mott’s memories of her mother and other whaling wives showcase the same conclusion. While this idea of a close knit, loving, marriage centered home may have been the ideal, it was simply not possible for these communities. Norling emphasizes that these women thrived when women were seen more as helpmeets, but their family could not meet the demands of the vision of domestic bliss with the nineteenth century change in gender roles. Their lives needed to remain the same. There was no other way for them to live. She points out that some wives attempted to fulfill the ideal by going to sea with their husbands, however in most cases, it was a disaster for them. They had to leave behind everything and everyone else in their lives to attempt to make a home on board a male dominant ship. She could no more fulfill the role of an emotional nurturer there than she could fulfill the role of a close intimate marriage with her husband on land. At least back on shore she had support and a purpose. I believe that Mott saw this. Just because society decided to shift the gender role did not mean that women could shift with them. Things still needed to be handled. Decisions needed to be made. The home needed to be cared for. The family and community needed to be supported. The shifted gender role simply made it harder for these wives to accomplish. I think this is evidenced in Mott’s Discourse on Women when she writes, “These duties are not to be limited by man. Nor will woman fulfill less her domestic relations, as the faithful companion of her chosen husband, and the fitting mother of her children, because she has a right estimate of her position and her responsibilities. Her self-respect will be increased; preserving the dignity of her being, she will not suffer herself to be degraded into a mere dependent. Nor will her feminine character be impaired.”

      As for what we can learn from Norling’s argument if we were to remove the idea of domesticity, is that women were simply growing weary of the separation. The voyages shifted from several months to several years. Their husbands were gone for much longer periods of time, leaving them in the role of both husband and wife, mother and father. I love Sarah Howland’s letter wherein she tells her husband, “I have always had a good home but I have ever felt homeless” (216). She appreciated his dedication to his work and that he was providing for his family, however, she missed his not being there. She missed not having someone to discuss the day with, to discuss her worries and troubles with, to discuss the problems with the children or the homestead with. Sure, she had friends, but she wanted something more. Love makes a house a home. She had the house. She wanted the home.

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