Women and the Sea logo
Introduction
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Myths and Mermaids
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Life in Port
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Going to Sea
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Lighthouse Keepers
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Changing Roles for Women
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Women in the Military
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Women in Wartime Production
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Early Yachting and Racing
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Women and the Sea in the 20th Century
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Timeline
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Resources
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In This Chapter

Introduction

Women Posing
as Sailors
Women and
the British Navy
Merchant and
Whaling Wives

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Women Posing as Sailors

Many women went to sea to find adventure, to support themselves financially, or to be near a sweetheart or husband. How were they able to disguise themselves for extended periods of time? Most women posed as young boys, for during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many sailors began their careers at sea by the age of eleven. Of course the women had to perform the same daily routines as the men to avoid detection. Many became known for their ability to climb the rigging on the ship or to fight in battle. A few women were discovered when wounded or killed in action, and a few gave up the disguise to be sent home. The return to ordinary life was difficult, for they faced ridicule for their unladylike conduct.

Mary Anne Talbot as John Taylor

Mary Anne Talbot, Dressed as a Sailor
1914, John Robert Hutchinson
From The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore, 1914
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives
It is difficult to separate fact from fiction in the story of female sailor Mary Anne Talbot.
Mary Anne Talbot,
1914, John Robert Hutchinson
From The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore, 1914
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives


Allegedly the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, Talbot joined the army as a footboy named John Taylor, but changed over to the navy when her commanding officer was killed. Naval records show that Taylor joined HMS Brunswick in Portsmouth, England, and was reportedly wounded in the leg during the battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794. She went ashore at St. Katharine's Dock and, upon being approached by a press gang, revealed herself to be a woman. At the age of eighteen she was homeless and unemployed, so in 1804 Talbot published a book about her life in the navy. It is almost certain that the publisher, Robert Kirby, embellished her story in order to sell copies. The book brought Talbot fleeting fame, but she ended up in debtors' prison and died at the age of thirty.


Activity:
How could a young woman disguise herself among a ship of men?

With a team, hypothesize how a woman might disguise herself throughout the day.


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