Rewriting Women into Maritime History

August 2023

In this, the first of three dedicated episodes, we explore a new project designed to change our perceptions of the historical role of women in the maritime industry over the centuries. ‘Rewriting Women into Maritime History’ is run by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and brings together leading maritime organisations. One of the key aims of this project is to empower women by reframing the narrative of a predominantly masculine industry, and by promoting opportunities to encourage more women into the sector. To find out more, Cecilia Rose spoke with Helen Doe, a maritime historian and author who has published extensively on maritime subjects, including the role of women in the industry.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Cecilia Rose
    Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast, you might be expecting Sam. But for the next few episodes, I’m going to be taking the reins. My name is Cecilia Rose. And I’m going to be interviewing women who are working in a number of ways to raise awareness of the work of women in maritime history. This is all part of a really exciting project called Rewriting Women into Maritime History run by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. And this aims to bring leading maritime organisations together to change our perceptions of the historical role of women in the industry over the centuries. One of the key aims of this project is to empower women by reframing the narrative of a predominantly masculine industry, and by promoting opportunities to encourage more women into the sector. So to find out more about all of this, I spoke with Helen Doe, a maritime historian and author who has published extensively on maritime subjects, including the role of women in the industry. I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her. So without further ado, here’s Helen. Helen, thank you for joining me today. I was wondering if you could firstly tell us about this really exciting rewriting women into maritime history project and why we need it?

    Helen Doe
    Well, it’s the it was originated, and really driven and led by Lloyd’s Register Foundation. And they have come up with this, this idea of finding out more about women in maritime history, but connecting it with today and looking at today’s roles for women. And so showing women and encouraging women to join the maritime industry, which traditionally has been seen as a very male dominated one. So we’re really trying to show that, Hey, everybody, it’s not that male dominated and actually hasn’t been in the past. There are some surprising numbers of women involved, both on land and at sea in all sorts of different roles. And today, there’s a credible range of opportunities. So it’s a really exciting project. And I was delighted to be asked to, to help out with it.

    Cecilia Rose
    Brilliant, and your work in particular, definitely champions women in maritime history. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about that, and how yourself and your work fits into it?

    Helen Doe
    Well, it began, I suppose with my PhD, which was about business women in the 19th century. And when I began that, really there was when I started looking around at the literature and couldn’t find anything very much about women. entrepreneurial women, you could find a lot about women in sort of small roles or women as victims sometimes. And, and women dressing up as, occasionally find the the Women Cross dressing, but they were very few and far between. And there didn’t seem to be any women who were kind of leading the way in taking decisions and running things. And that’s what I was interested in. So, literally, when I began there was there was what I think my supervisor at the time was rather sceptical. I might find anything. I mean, his views that you’ll find lots of you might find diaries and things. You know, I never found one diary in my whole time. I think these women were far too busy running things to write diaries as well,

    Cecilia Rose
    definitely. And that PhD, then became one of your most successful books, Enterprising Women and shipping in the 19th century. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about that book and given an example of an enterprising woman in shipping in the 19th century.

    Helen Doe
    The book covers, I suppose, I suppose two aspects. One is it looks at shipowners. And you might kind of think well, ship owners are just people that have shares in ships well a ship owner under maritime law is rather more involved with the business of the ship than that. If you’re a share owner in a limited company, you qpart from the kind of AGM you don’t have very much power. Whereas in shipping, each ship had a maximum of 32 owners. And those owners have real power. They were the board of directors. And so I found a large number of women 12% of all shipping in the 19th century was owned by women. Wow, not insignificant number. And that’s and that I, the ones I could find because the challenge with researching women is because they get married they then disappear. So things become, you know end up in their husband’s name. So it may be their money. So that’s 12 percent of the ones I could find. So that’s and then the other thing I would find each ship then had to have someone who was managing the affairs of the ship, appointing the master, you know, deciding on the business and paying out things and answering to the other owners. And there were quite a few women who did that. So although they might not have been to sea they were actually running the business of the ship.

    Cecelia Rose
    Yes. And as you said, because they’re just the ones that you could find it was probably actually more than 12%.

    Helen Doe
    Absolutely. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. These are the ones I could identify. So there was the ship owners and the managers of the ship business. But then there’s also in the shipping world, you’ve got the people who build ships, who run sailmaking, businesses, foundries, all sorts of the any kind of thing you can think of women were involved and running those businesses. And I’ve got some very significant shipbuilding businesses, large ones run by women. Oh, which ones? Well, a couple of my absolute favourites are from the Napoleonic wars, and we have Mrs. Frances Barnard who her husband died, and her two sons were under 21. And the business went into her name, and she ran it for 25 years, in her own name, or even when her sons joined her, she still was in charge. And at one time, she was employing nearly 500 workmen on the Thames.

    Cecilia Rose
    Wow. So how important do you think these roles were? Could the maritime industry have functioned without women?

    Helen Doe
    Oh, how can industries function without women? Full stop?

    Cecilia Rose
    Very true.

    Helen Doe
    I think they were very important. They were the thing that’s interesting is they were accepted by everybody they were working with. They not only were they had male customers, they had male employees. And the thing I found on several occasions was that very often, a husband or someone else was supporting them and what they were doing, you know, the husbands left their businesses to their wives, because they knew they could run them. Yeah. So you find this support, carry on all the time. The thing that I find interesting is, was the maritime industry any different because you don’t find quite so many women running businesses in other industries. And my answer to that is I think there’s two aspects to that. One is that maritime communities, when the men were away, away, sailing, they might be away for six months, a year, and in some cases two yours if they were whaling. So you’ve got communities of women who are having to get on and be more independent and take decisions, they don’t have a choice, they’ve got to get on and do that. So I think we’ve got more independent communities, the women on the one hand, but on the other hand, I do have to say that within the maritime industry, because of the way that shipowning is displayed, we can get to the sources more easily. So I think there’s some luck there in the sense that in the maritime industry, some of the source material is more readily available, because I can’t believe that women who are simply just sitting back and or lying on their reclining on their sofas during the Victorian period.

    that’s interesting if they were so involved and there are actually sources that support that. Why do you think it is that women have been largely excluded from the maritime history narrative?

    Helen Doe
    I don’t think they’ve been excluded. In that sense. I just don’t think anybody has been interested enough to find them until relatively recently. And I find it very interesting. When my book first came out. I had an interesting couple of reviews and one reviewer said, and this was a male reviewer, I do have to say, said, well, it didn’t have enough about the men and putting the women’s contribution in context. What, which I found slightly odd, because I thought there’s all these been all these other books, maritime books about men, which did not you could say, the opposite. Where were the women are curious, curious. Is it was referring particularly to the share owning and saying, You know what, I haven’t compared it sufficiently with male shareholding?

    Yeah, it’s definitely work that that needed to be done. And it’s quite concerning that other people hadn’t looked into it before as well

    Work had been done on women fishing, and the women in the fishing. And there’s also been some work done in the US about women at home, when their husbands were away whaling so whaling wives, but that largely assumed that the women were still very dependent. And I found that curious, because when I looked at the sources for that book, the sources were a series of dead letters, you know, they lost letters that have been found, where the women were writing to their husbands at sea. Now, and my scepticism on that was say, Well, if you’re writing to your husband at sea, he’s been away for six months or more, are you really going to tell him? Don’t worry, darling, I’m doing absolutely fine without you. I don’t know. I’m running the business far more successfully, anyway.

    But possibly, they were! just possibly, um, so how would these women initially get into these industries? Are you finding that they’re all from a similar background? A similar class? Or is it a complete range of different women who are able to access these industries and these lives

    from the work that I’ve done in the 19th century, it’s been quite a range. And it’s largely because they are, as was typical of the time if you’re part of a community, and you’ve got family interests, you tend to follow that. That same interest, so if your father was involved, or your brother or husband. And then the thing about, again, about researching women, particularly married women, you only find out about them when their husband dies. So if they take over a business, I think I was looking at if they take over a business, if the transition is smooth, her husband dies, they take over the business, that’s how I discovered them. Because I’ve suddenly got a woman’s name running a business. If that transition is smooth, and the business and carries on for a while, that would suggest to me that she’s been involved in it beforehand. Because very often women were working hand in hand with their husbands, women are often doing the finances. That’s quite common in several industries. So to me if that transition is very smooth, there have been there were examples of women who instantly found some, you know, found a man to run the business for them, because they didn’t want to cope with it. And that I see, that’s fine. But that just highlights all the others who didn’t?

    Yes. So if they hand it over to another man, you can assume that they perhaps did less alongside their husband.

    doesn’t want to be involved in that business. Yeah, yeah, I had one case of a woman who inherited from her husband. But she quickly handed over part of the business to her son, because she made it quite clear. She didn’t want to be customer facing. So she felt he should, he should do that. But she wanted the more sort of background. But the other women who are very happy to be very definitely customer facing and some pretty important customers.

    Cecilia Rose
    So after all of this amazing research, why do you think that these women are still relevant to us today? And what can we learn from them? Now?

    Helen Doe
    I think it really encourages all of us to keep going and doing the jobs that we want to do. These women were pioneers, they didn’t see themselves as pioneers, they just got on did the job that they had to do in many cases. We’ve got choice these days, and we’ve got an incredible choice. So yeah, let’s go out there and do all sorts of things. And, you know, we may not necessarily be absolutely the first, but there’s many ways of doing these.

    Cecilia Rose
    Yeah. And it was quite inspiring as well that they often did all of this without any recognition, possibly during their own lifetime. And knowing that really, it will be the men that whose legacy continued. But obviously, we’re hoping to change that.

    Helen Doe
    I think the thing that I always remember is that when great dancers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire was always the one that was celebrated for his wonderful dancing. But it’s Ginger Rogers, who said, I did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels. So when I look at women from the 19th century, and other other periods, they’re doing the same thing as the men. But very often, they’re also having to run a household and look after the children at the same time.

    I know it’s incredible. Have you found that there’s a network between the women did they kind of know each other and communicate?

    In the smaller communities, if you consider the 19th century round Britain and Ireland, the large number of what we would now think is small holiday resorts, were thriving port communities, all with their own ships and their own. These networks are quite small. And so yes, the women did know each other within these networks,

    are there letters between them that you found

    Helen Doe
    Very, very little correspondence. It’s really frustrating when you do you pounce on it as absolutely wonderful information. But that that is quite rare. Yes.

    Well, I suppose if they were in small communities, they would have lived very close to one another wouldn’t have had the need to write to each other.

    Helen Doe
    You’re right. Yeah, I think I think the thing that you know, these, they are interesting women. But I think we’ve also got to be and that’s one of the things I’m finding with this particular project, because we’ve been inviting people to write in and contact the project, with their stories. And one of the things we’re finding is there are some myths have grown up about one or two women. And I’ve recently been involved on a Welsh documentary about a famous Bard. Sarah Jane Reese, her Bardic name was Llanogwyn. And she has been really put forward as the first she captain. So a certificated master mariner. Well, when you start digging into it, you find she wasn’t. And that doesn’t do women’s history, any good. It was a myth that grew up not that she promoted, but grew up after she died. What she was, was a really, really good navigation teacher, teaching future captains, I see. So this myth is rather overshadowed her real achievement, which is a pity. And she then went off becomes a very famous bard in Wales and a great champion of women’s rights. And this is in the 19th century. So she’s an amazing woman. But sadly, no, she wasn’t, she wasn’t a certificated captain.

    Cecilia Rose
    Oh, interesting. So returning to the rewriting women into maritime history project, how can our listeners get involved with this and be a part of it?

    I think we’d be delighted you go to the go to the website. And just, if you just type in rewriting women into maritime history, you will find the Lloyd’s Register Foundation website, we’ve been inviting everybody and anybody to send in their stories of women in history. We’ve also got some wonderful interviews now with women, current women in the maritime industry, and a whole series of fantastic photographs of women in the maritime industry. So it’s, it’s connecting the past and the present. But go to that website, and anybody can contribute, and we’d be most welcome. I would be fascinated? There must be many, many more stories we’ve not heard.

    Cecilia Rose
    Yes, I can imagine. That’s really exciting. And have you heard any already so far, that have kind of stuck in your mind.

    There’s, well, there’s quite a bit under the Llanogwyn one was fascinating. I just found an amazing woman. And there’s another woman in Scotland called Betsy Miller, who was also something of a legend in her lifetime. She was in the early 19th century. And I’ve not really come across her before. And she’s another one who was running the, you know, the business of the ship and everything else, and really tough and very much admired woman.

    Cecilia Rose
    Brilliant. Thank you so much. This has been a really fascinating chat. And we want to encourage everyone to Google rewriting women into maritime history. If you have anything to contribute, or if you just want to engage with the material, spread the word. It’s a really exciting project. And thank you to Helen, for speaking to us today.

    Helen Doe
    Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.

    Cecilia Rose
    Thanks for listening, everyone. Please be sure to check out our YouTube channel and follow us on social media. And I’ll be back soon with some more guests highlighting the roles of women in maritime history. See you later.

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