Women at Sea
When I set out to write my historical fiction novel Running Before the Wind, I had a singular opening scene in my head; my heroine, Cathryn Quinlan, up in the shrouds of the main mast, one hundred and eighty feet high.
Photo courtesy of: BMacZero
Why is she up there?
But more importantly, in the year 1808, could she be there in the first place? I write historical fiction, not fantasy.
Self-doubt reared its ugly head and whispered dangerous, coercing words in my ear.
It was a man’s world, Carrie; women didn’t sail in any significant capacity. Your idea is far-fetched. You should just…forget it.
Yet, there Cathryn stayed, in the shrouds, mocking me, daring me to begin.
I remember seeing Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a few years back, and coming across a scene where Admiral Croft’s wife mentions her exploits aboard her husband’s warship. I was surprised, and inspired, to imagine women in such an unexpected role. Mrs. Croft is a blip, however, an anecdote, to no doubt shock the women around her. Those who didn’t venture far from the comforts of home, their predictable sphere. And surely, Austen invented Mrs. Croft’s adventures…
That scene left me pondering one question:
What if women were present aboard ships at a greater capacity then what I was led to believe?
So I did what any self-respecting newbie writer does. I searched Google and perused Amazon. What I found made the tips of my fingers tingle with tantalizing tenacity. Or, I just got super excited.
I found Joan Druett (She Captains, Hen Frigates, etc.), Suzanne Stark (Female Tars), and David Cordingly (Seafaring Women), to name a few – authors who opened my eyes WIDE to the idea women weren’t blips, but actual contributing cogs in the historical gears.
Fiction is riddled with tales of Blackbeard, ‘Long’ John Silver, Captains Flint, Morgan, Jack Sparrow, Jack Aubrey, Hornblower, and many others, perpetuating the notion women weren’t part of this essential and exciting bite of history, except as passengers who get in the way or vessels to satiate lust.
And when one tries to name a famous fictional woman at sea?
I looked at films and books in this genre with a new eye. All written by men, for men, and starring men. By no means am I ridiculing these works. Au contraire, Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower, and Two Years Before the Mast, to name a few, are brilliant works. And when the movie Pirates of the Caribbean came out, I clapped my hands like a giddy little school girl and asked,
Photo courtesy of: Alf van Beem
I laughed at Geena Davis’ character in the 90’s flick ‘Cutthroat Island’, mainly because something niggled in the back of my brain; no way would a woman be a captain!
That’s a bunch of malarkey ye whippersnappers! <bangs cane against ground>
Then Elizabeth Swan swanned onto the Black Pearl and I said, “Yeah! She kicks butt.” But I left the theatre with ‘naught but my name’ (movies are expensive!) and the deeply-seated belief that it still couldn’t have happened. Surely, Miss Swan would’ve stayed in her gown and married the commodore. Because that’s what women do. Right?
When it comes down to it, human behavior doesn’t change. The majority of women would’ve done what society expected, yes. As they do today. But some would’ve thrown that all away because they had to, or merely because they wanted to.
I should’ve known better. The U.S. Navy was my home for six years. And I had joined all because I wanted an adventure. Why should my historical sisters be any different?
Women Making HERstory
Anne Bonny and Mary Read, although sea-going criminals, destroyed the idea that women couldn’t handle life at sea. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum for those pirate gals!
Or Mary Patten, the 19-year old wife of a captain who successfully sailed her ill husband’s ship safely around Cape Horn to San Francisco?
Or the countless women who disguised themselves as men (Rebecca Young, Margaret Thompson, etc.), spending months to years at sea before being discovered. Some never were caught, successful in their ruse, but to the detriment of women’s history.
From laundresses, whores, rescuers, stowaways, wives of captains, and daughters of captains – these women weren’t afterthoughts, but a bonafide part of history.
Why aren’t there more stories then?
But soft! What light through yonder tunnel breaks!
I mention films and TV shows quite a bit, for one reason only. It’s visual. And it reaches a greater and wider audience and can, to some degree, spark an interest in someone picking up a book of the same flavor. …All right, I concede. That’s three reasons. Eh hem.
But I’m seeing an exciting shift. Shows like Turn, Mercy Street, John Adams, and Black Sails, although not all about women at sea, serve to show a fair retelling of history. I would love to have caught the episodes of Black Sails which so recently portrayed Anne Bonny!
Unfortunately, we at The Quit-Cow-Ski Files don’t have Starz. <sad face>
“But Carrie,” you say, “those shows aren’t just about women.”
No, they aren’t and I wouldn’t want them to be. They’re perfectly balanced. Because, in the end, when we cozy up to read a book or watch a show, we don’t want to experience half of the story.
We want the whole darn thing.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject! Is the tide turning? What fascinating real-life historical tales have you heard starring women?
In my next post, I’ll be delving into some of the myths, folklore, and the absurdly ironic practices regarding women at sea. I’ll even talk about boobs (it’s historical stuff, calm down).