Women and the Sea logo
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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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Women & The Sea

1493 Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he saw mermaids.

1608 During his voyage of exploration, Henry Hudson saw a mermaid.

1610 Captain Whitbourne spotted a mermaid off the coast of Newfoundland

Captain Hailborne at St. Johns Newfoundland, 1655
From Newe Welt und Americanische Historian
by Ludwig Gottfried
The Mariners' Museum

1614 John Smith spotted a mermaid off the coast of Massachusetts.

1670s Alice Thomas ran a tavern in Boston, Massachusetts.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 1829
From The History of the Pirates: Containing the Lives of Those Noted Pirate Captains, Misson, Bowen, Kidd, Tew, Halsey, White, Condent, Bellamy, Fly, Howard, Lewis, 1829
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives

1720 Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read were captured.

1745 Most documented female sailors were English, not American. Englishwoman Hannah Snell, who could neither read nor write, joined the army in 1745 under the name of James Gray. Later she joined the navy as a cook's assistant and then became a common seaman, spending a total of nine years at sea. She fought in naval battles and was considered a courageous sailor. Snell eventually tired of a sailor's life, and in 1750 she revealed her true identity. Not surprisingly, she was shunned by other women and had trouble finding work. Because Snell's story was so unusual, a pamphlet was written about her experiences and she embarked on a lecture tour to make money. She received an army pension and at her death was buried at Chelsea Hospital, a national retirement home for soldiers in England.

1759 Mary Lacy wrote that in 1759 " . . . a thought came into my head to dress myself in men's apparel and set off by myself."Taking the name William Chandler and signing on to HMS Sandwich, Lacy became the servant to the ship's carpenter and learned a good deal about ship construction. In 1763 she took a position as shipwright's apprentice at the Portsmouth Dockyard. When a local woman suspected Lacy's secret, Lacy revealed herself to two trusted male friends who insisted, "He is a man-and-a-half to a great many." After spending seventeen years posing as a man, Lacy applied for a pension in 1772 under her true name and was granted £20 a year.

1792 While in port, the British ship Royal George was full of sailors, marines, and visiting wives, children, and "sweethearts."The overloaded ship suddenly began to take on water, then sank. This tragedy killed hundreds of people.

1804 Mary Anne Talbot published a pamphlet on her life in the British navy.

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

1808 British Naval Regulations forbade women aboard ships.

1811 Dr. William Paul Crillon Barton, a young navy surgeon, recommended that female nurses be included among navy personnel. His proposal was ignored.

1815 American marine Louisa Baker supposedly wrote her narrative about life aboard the USS Constitution as a warning to other young women. After falling in love with a young man who ruined her good name, she was forced to flee her family. With little money and no friends, Baker began working in a house of prostitution. She finally joined thse marines out of sheer desperation and was sent to sea. After three years she returned home and began to write a book on her experiences as a warning to other girls to be wary of young men and their intentions. The book was widely read and accepted as fact, but historians now believe that Louisa Baker never existed, and that the story of the female marine was created by publisher Nathaniel Coverly, Jr., and written by Nathan Hill Wright. Fact or fiction, the story was so popular that a sequel, The Adventures of Lucy Brown, was published.

1816 The success of The Adventures of Louisa Baker inspired Nathaniel Coverly, Jr., to publish another tale of a female sailor, The Surprising Adventures of Almira Paul, in 1816. Historians doubt that the book—full of fantastic adventure, danger, and romance—is a true autobiography of Almira Paul of Halifax, Nova Scotia. What is more likely is that the story was based on the lives of real women such as Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot—women who defied convention to live life on their own terms.

1830s First women became lighthouse keepers.

1833 Mary Ann Hathaway Tripp (1810-1906) was born into a seafaring family from New York and in 1828 married sea captain Lemuel Carver Tripp. During their first four years of marriage, Lemuel made two lengthy voyages, leaving Mary Ann at home. But in 1833, she sailed to China with her husband on the Oneida—an unusual undertaking at a time when fear of disease and other dangers generally kept women from sailing to distant lands. The ship returned to the United States in 1837, and in 1843 the Tripps set out again for a two-year voyage to China. In a 1902 newspaper story, Mary Ann Tripp described the first voyage as the most important event of her life.

1838 In 1838, the British coastal steamer Forfarshire was overtaken by a storm as it steamed by the Farne Islands and struck the rocks of Big Harcar Island. Forty-three passengers and crew were lost. William Darling, keeper of Longstone Island Light, and his twenty-three-year-old daughter Grace made two trips to the wreck and rescued nine survivors stranded on the rocks. After reports of the Darlings' heroic act hit the newspapers, Grace became an international celebrity. She was awarded the gold medal of the Humane Society and received several awards of money from Queen Victoria. People flocked to the lighthouse keepers' home at Longstone Island; writers published books about her; artists made portraits of the heroine that were then mass-produced; and commemorative mugs with her image on them were sold as souvenirs. Grace had little time to enjoy her fame, however: four years after the rescue, she became ill and died at the age of twenty-seven.

1847 Martha Brewer Brown sailed with her husband, Edwin, in 1847 aboard the Lucy Ann, leaving her two-year-old daughter behind with relatives. Just before the Arctic whaling season, Edwin left the pregnant Martha in Honolulu, where she rented a room. With no acquaintances and little money, Martha missed life at sea. In her journal on April 30, 1848, she wrote, "It is one week yesterday since I again took up my abode on land. . . . One would think I might feel very well contented here after the 7 1/2 months residence at sea, but it is not so. I am less happy here than there."Martha's son William Henry was soon born, but his father returned late from the whaling season and did not see him until November 1848. The family returned to New York in July 1849.

1848 Sarah Tabor wrote poetry aboard the Copia.

Mary Louisa Burtch married William Brewster in 1841. Disliking long partings from her husband, Mary decided to accompany him to sea, and sailed in April 1848 aboard the Tiger. She was almost constantly seasick, but she managed to write regularly in her journal. When the Tiger stopped off in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, Mary disembarked and took a room at the Hilo mission. While there, she visited the island's natural wonders and became friends with other whaling wives. After giving birth to her first child, Mary returned home to Connecticut.

1854 In September 1854, Joseph Hathorn of Richmond, Maine, married a young schoolteacher named Susan. The two boarded the cargo ship J. J. Hawthorn, bound for Savannah, Georgia. The Hathorns' first year of marriage was spent sailing to a variety of ports, including London and Santiago, Cuba. Like most Victorian women, Susan passed her time writing in her journal and sewing a vast array of items. In September 1855, Captain Hathorn headed back to sea, missing the birth of his only child, Josephine, two months later. In May 1856, Susan received the news that her husband had died of a tropical disease in the Caribbean. She was a widow at the age of twenty-six.

1856 Abby Burgess tended the lights while her father was away in a storm.

Abby Saves the Chickens, 1897
Albert Blosse, engraver
From The Century Magazine, Vol. 54
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives

Mary Patten left for California aboard the clipper Neptune's Car.

1857 Eliza Wheeler married Captain Eli Edwards, master of the Black Eagle,and joined him in Honolulu in 1857. She spent two years on the Hawaiian Islands, where she was befriended by many "sister sailors."After losing his own ship, Edwards obtained a position as first mate on the ship Splendid. The ship's captain, Samuel Pierson, reportedly modified his cabins for Mrs. Edwards's comfort on the return voyage.

Miss Ida Lewis, The Heroine of Newport, 1869
From Harper's Weekly, July 31, 1869
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives

George Geer
The Mariners' Museum

That same year, Ida Lewis and family moved into Lime Rock Lighthouse, Rhode Island.

1862 Sarah Luce traveled with her husband aboard the Morning Starin 1862. Captain Luce was cautious while hunting whales in the Pacific because Confederate raiders were known to be boarding and burning Yankee whalers. During their second voyage—this time aboard the Cleone—the Luces headed for New Zealand and the South Pacific.

The Sister, 1863
From Harper's Weekly, May 9, 1863
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives

Sisters of the Holy Cross nurses served on board the Union navy's first hospital ship, the USS Red Rover.

George Geer wrote home to his wife.

1865 Helen Clark was a spinster schoolteacher when she married Jared Jernegan, a widower with one son. Jernegan initially went to sea without his new wife, but in 1865 he sent for her. After a difficult journey from New York, through the isthmus of Panama, and by steamer to San Francisco, Helen finally reached Honolulu and joined her husband aboard the whale ship Oriole. Two children soon came along, and the entire family headed for sea aboard the Roman. During the voyage, Helen made a quilt containing 2,310 pieces. By the time the Roman arrived at Honolulu in 1869, the Jernegans' toddler had been so long at sea that he could barely walk on shore.

Edward Coxere wrote about his hardships at sea and his wife's at home.

1871 In 1871 thirty-two whaling ships—most of them from New Bedford, Massachusetts—became trapped in the ice in the Arctic Ocean. Realizing the ships and their cargoes could not be saved, the captains decided to leave the ships and attempt to reach the end of the ice in the small whaleboats. They loaded the whaleboats with crew, provisions, clothing, and bedding, and, after traveling for a day, spent the night in tents on the ice. The next day the party made it to open water and boarded the Progress, which had escaped the other ships' fate. Nearly 200 officers and men, three women, four children, and a baby sailed to safety in Honolulu. Young William Williams, who experienced this adventure with his father (captain of one of the doomed whalers), his mother, and his sister, wrote, "I doubt if I can adequately describe the leave-taking of our ship. It was depressing enough to me . . . but to my father and mother it must have been a sad parting, and I think what made it still more was the fact that only a short distance from our bark lay the ship Florida, of which my father had been master eight years and on which three of his children had been born."

1880 In the late 1920s, The Saturday Evening Post would run a series of short stories about "Tugboat Annie" Brennan, a practical-minded widow who ran a tugboat and successfully competed for a share of the towboat business in Puget Sound. Annie and her crew also did some crime fighting and helped people caught in storms and floods. The series was extremely popular and even spawned two motion pictures and a television comedy show. But long before the magazine series began its run, many real "Tugboat Annies" had made their mark on the maritime world. In the 1880s, a Norwegian immigrant named Thea Christansen Foss supplemented her family's income by renting rowboats to fishermen and duck hunters. Before long Foss Maritime Company owned nearly 200 boats and began transporting timber as well. The company is still in business today.

1882 Callie French worked with her husband aboard a floating theater.

Callie Leach French, circa 1890s
Courtesy of G. Harry Wright Showboat Collection,
Department of Special Collections and Archives, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

1886 At four feet, ten inches tall and barely one hundred pounds, Kate Walker seemed an unlikely candidate for lighthouse keeper. But when Kate, a German immigrant, married the keeper of Sandy Hook Light, her husband taught her to tend the light as well. When Walker was later appointed keeper of Robbins Reef Light, Kate was named his assistant and paid $350 per year. Robbins Reef Light is on a rock in the center of the inner harbor of New York City. Kate stated, "When I first came to Robbins Reef, the sight of water, which ever way I looked, made me lonesome. I refused to unpack my trunks at first, but gradually, a little at a time, I unpacked." Kate continued to tend the light even after the death of her husband in 1886, receiving the appointment of keeper only after the post was turned down by several men. Her husband's last words to her supposedly were, "Mind the light, Kate."She heeded his words well, hiring a substitute only once—to attend his funeral. She was back at the job later that day. During her time as keeper, she raised two children and rescued nearly fifty people.

1890 In 1890, at the age of forty-two, Philomene Daniels earned her pilot's license so that she could run a steamboat with her husband on Lake Champlain. When her husband died thirteen years later, she took over management of Daniels Steamboat Line, which specialized in carrying iron ore and passengers. Her family recalled that she wore beautiful dresses with bustles, bows, and beads, but that she never allowed visitors to disturb her in the pilot house, so serious was she about her job as pilot. One fellow apparently learned this the hard way, getting an unwelcome swim in the lake when he retreated too slowly from the pilothouse.

1906 Another shipboard bride was Georgia Gilkey of Searsport, Maine. Georgia married Captain Phineas Banning Blanchard, who had proposed to her one week before they were married on October 3, 1906. They honeymooned at sea aboard the Bangalore, a square-rigged ship bound for San Francisco, loaded with coal. Georgia was no stranger to the trade, for her father was a merchant captain and she had spent part of her childhood aboard ship. Captain Blanchard bought his wife a sextant for the voyage and taught her how to navigate. Georgia later wrote, "Banning would be on deck looking at the sun through his sextant while I was in the cabin looking at the chronometer . . . we would work out the position of the ship and place it on the chart. When the sun was not out during the day we would take the sights by the stars at night."

1908 Irma Bentley's image was used as model for a figurehead.

The U.S. Navy Nurse Corps was established on May 13. The first twenty nurses reported to Washington, D.C., in October. By the end of World War I there were over 1,380 women enlisted as nurses.

1910 Mabel Bacon and her husband, members of the Kennebec Yacht Club in Maine, raced their 46 1/2-foot cabin cruiser Yo Ho in the Bermuda Race. Setting out on June 25 from David's Head, New York, they sailed nonstop to Hamilton, Bermuda, finishing the race on June 29, only ninety hours later. The Yo Hoearned second place. As a member of the three-person crew, Mabel regularly took her turn at the wheel.

Violet Jessop
Courtesy of Sheridan House, Inc.

1912 Stewardess Violet Jessop survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Yeomen (F) in Winter Uniforms at the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
U.S. Navy
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives

1916 Violet Jessop survives the sinking of the hospital ship Britannic.

1917 On March 19, 1917, the U.S. Navy authorized the enlistment of women under the rating of yeoman (F).

Rose Weld
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives, Gift of Miss C. W. Evans

Rose Weld worked at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock company as an engineer during World War I.

Joy Bright joined the navy as a first-class yeoman (F) in 1918 and excelled in a variety of assignments, including one with the newly organized U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. After losing two husbands to air accidents, in 1942 Joy Hancock (her married name) joined the WAVES as a lieutenant and became the highest-ranking woman in the Bureau of Aeronautics. There she helped introduce new civilian WAVES to the navy life and advocated that women perform many of the same technical jobs as men. When the navy began to consider disbanding the WAVES after the war, Hancock transferred to the Bureau of Personnel and worked to keep a permanent trained corps of women in the peacetime navy. Hancock was promoted to captain and became director of the WAVES in July 1946. After viewing many plans and much testimony about the navy's need for women, President Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act into law in 1948. In October 1948, Hancock became one of the first women officers sworn into the regular navy.

M. B. "Joe" Carstairs
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives, Chris-Craft Collection

1920s M. B. "Joe" Carstairs attempted to break the speedboat record.

Navy nurses served aboard the first floating hospital, the USS Relief.

1923 Kate A. Sutton became manager of the Providence Steamboat Company in 1923 after the death of her husband, Captain Hard Sutton, and three of her sons who were involved in the business. She was recognized as a maritime authority, but hardly set foot on a tug. She mainly worked from the office of the business, managing a fleet of five tugs. At one point, she was asked if she was the prototype for the fictional character Tugboat Annie; she responded, "I hope not."Reporters were normally not allowed to interview her, and she shied from having her photograph taken.

Fannie Salter, Keeper of Turkey Point Light
Ralph Smith, photographer
The Mariners' Museum, Ralph Smith Collection

Enlist in the WAVES, 1943
John Falter, USNR
The Mariners' Museum

1925 Fannie Salter became keeper of the Turkey Point Lighthouse in Maryland.

1934 Lady Phyllis Brodie Sopworth raced against Gertie Vanderbilt in the America's Cup.

1938 Mary Parker Converse (1872-1961) attended the American Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, New York, and was the first woman to be commissioned in the Merchant Marine. She received a pilot's license, and, after logging more than 30,000 miles at sea in four voyages between 1938 and 1940, at the age of sixty-eight she was granted a license to captain any vessel of any tonnage in the ocean. Some of the vessels on which she served include the Henry S. Grove, the Lewis Luckenback, and the F. J. Luckenback.

SPAR Recruiting Poster
The Mariners' Museum

1942 On July 30, 1942, the Naval Reserve Act of 1938 was amended to include U.S. Navy WAVES and U.S. Coast Guard SPARS.

1944 In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the navy's plan to admit African- American women. Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills entered the naval officer training program at Northampton, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1944. In 1945, seventy-two African- Americans enlisted as WAVES graduated from the program at Hunter College.

1945 Women begin working at the Newport News Shipyard and Dry Dock Company as welders and machinists.

First Class of Women Welders Trained at the Yard, 1945
From the Shipyard Bulletin, March/April 1945
Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company

1948 On June 12, 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, abolishing the Women's Auxiliary Reserve. Women could then enter the navy on active or reserve status.

1973 Britain's Claire Francis was the first woman to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race. She had trained to be a ballerina, but it was sailing that sparked her passion and made her famous. In 1973 she sailed single-handed across the Atlantic from Falmouth to Newport, Rhode Island, in thirty-seven days. In 1976 she claimed the women's record in the Observer Transatlantic Single-Handed Race by completing the course in twenty-nine days. She then became the first woman skipper to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race. After retiring from competitive racing, Francis wrote three books on her sailing experiences: Come Hell or High Water (1977), Come Wind or Weather (1978),and The Commanding Sea (1981).

Legislation ended the Women's Reserve. Women were integrated into active duty, the Coast Guard Reserve, and Officer Candidate School. The combat exclusion for women ended. The first SPAR (Alice Jefferson) was sworn into the regular Coast Guard.

1975 Naomi Christine James took up sailing in 1975 and only five years later broke the women's record in the Observer Transatlantic Single-Handed Race. Embarking in the 53-foot yacht Express Crusader, she became the first woman to sail solo around the world and the first woman to sail solo around Cape Horn. She was awarded the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1979 in recognition of her extraordinary achievements.

Catherine Via and Beatrice Taylor
Courtesy of Starke Jett

1977 Beatrice Taylor and Catherine Via took over Payne's Crab House after their father's death.

1979 In 1979, Beverly Gwyn Kelley became the first woman to command a U.S military combatant vessel. From April 1979 to 1981 Kelley commanded the 95-foot patrol cutter Cape Newagen, receiving (with her crew) a citation for "professionalism" for rescue work during a storm off Hawaii in 1980. In seventy-mile-an-hour winds and twenty-foot seas, the Cape Newagen rescued twelve people from endangered boats over a four-day period. Kelley is currently captain of the USCGC Boutwell.

1981 In 1981, Kathleen Saville of Providence, Rhode Island, and her husband Curtis set out to cross the Atlantic in an unusual way: by rowing. They left the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa on March 18 and arrived in Antigua in the West Indies on June 10. In doing so, Kathleen Saville became the first woman of any nation to row the Atlantic. Since then, the pair have rowed the coast of Labrador, rowed the length of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, and rowed the longest voyage ever: 10,000 miles from Peru to Australia.

1982 Lieutenant Colleen Cain was a helicopter pilot and the first female Coast Guardsman killed in the line of duty. Her helicopter crashed during a rescue mission off Hawaii in 1982.

1991 In June 1991, Nance Frank became the first woman skipper to enter an ocean sailboat race with an all-female crew. On the 50-foot sailboat Ichiban, Frank and her crew of twelve sailed a 475-mile race from Annapolis, Maryland, to Newport, Rhode Island, finishing eighth. It was the first time the thirteen women had been to sea together.

Captain Allison Ross, Maryland Pilot
Gregg Vicik, photographer
The Mariners' Museum

Captain Allison Ross became the first female pilot at the Maryland Pilots Association and the East Coast.

America's Cup 1992--Dawn Riley Aboard America3
Courtesy of Dawn Riley, America True, San Francisco, California

1992 Dawn Riley competed in the America's Cup.

1994 Englishwoman Lisa Clayton had read about other women's attempts to sail solo around the world and decided to take up the challenge herself. After rebuilding a 38-foot boat to her specifications and naming it the Spirit of Birmingham, she left Dartmouth, England, on September 17, 1994, and arrived back home 285 days later, thus becoming the first woman to sail entirely around the world by herself. She wrote a book about her adventure titled At the Mercy of the Sea.

1995 Dawn Riley became captain of the America's Cup racer America True.

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