A Brief History of Women in Marine Industries

It is assumed by many that women haven’t worked in the marine industries until very recently. But that isn’t the case. Women have been at sea for hundreds of years in some form or another. Still, in order to do so, they sometimes had to disguise themselves. But history shows you just can’t keep women away from the sea.

Secret Sailors

Hundreds of years ago, women acquired positions on board ships dressed as men or boys. For those determined enough, this was the only way to go to sea. For whatever reason, there are many superstitions about women being bad luck at sea. This kept women away and men determined to keep them away. The medieval Scandinavian women may be an exception to this rule. There were a number of women who commanded ships in this era, however, many were of noble heritage and therefore had the means to do so. These included Princess Sela, Rusla, and Elise Eskilsdotter. All three were of Norwegian heritage.

Later on, from the 1500s-1700s, there were actually well known (and feared) female pirates. In the 1500s was Lady Mary Killigrew who engaged in piracy right under the nose of Queen Elizabeth I. In the 1600s was a Caribbean pirate named Jacquotte Delahaye. She is said to have faked her own death to escape from those pursuing her. She then took on a male disguise for many years. Later she returned to her own identity and was known as  "back from the dead red" due to her red hair. She led hundreds of pirates and took over a small island that she later died defending in a shoot out. Anne Bonny and Mary Read are the two most famous female pirates of the 1700s. The two engaged in piracy in the Caribbean until they were captured and sentenced to prison. Read died in prison but there is no record of what happened to Anne Bonny.

[[{"fid":"5610","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"class":"panopoly-image-original media-element file-default"}}]]

L: Anne Bonny. Engraving from Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates (1st Dutch Edition 1725). Retrieved from Wikipedia. R: Women working in a cannery, VMM Negative

The other way women were able to get to sea was with their husband or father. Often wives learned navigation from their husbands and were sometimes allowed to help him run the ship. On British ships, the captain was able to hire his wife as the stewardess who served meals, cleaned, and kept financial records. In one instance, a woman was able to become a shipwright in the 1700s. At the age of 19, Mary Lacy ran away from home, dressed as a boy, and worked as a servant for a British Navy ship carpenter. She then worked as an apprentice and finally took her exams in 1770. Sadly, due to her health she was forced to retire a year later. In 1773 she wrote about her experiences in her memoir called The Female Shipwright.

Women in Fishing

For the most part, women have a long history working with fish. Generally the husbands and sons went out fishing and women and children processed the fish. For example, from the early 1800s to the 1940s, women worked the inshore industry in Newfoundland. After the men brought in the catch, the women (as well as children) would split and salt the fish. They would also dry and cure the fish on racks. Women were also workers in the many canneries that dotted the British Columbian coast. 

[[{"fid":"5611","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"style":"color: inherit; font-family: inherit; font-size: 15.3px; font-weight: normal; line-height: 1.45; background-color: transparent;","class":"panopoly-image-original media-element file-default"}}]]

L: Rosina Vanier, 16-year-old female worker employed in the Pictou shipyard. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada / e000761165. R: Female workers in action at the Pictou shipyard, Nova Scotia, January 1943. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada / MIKAN 3198240.


Women joined the shipbuilding industry during the First World War. They took on traditionally male roles, such as working the plate-rolling and joggling machines, flanging, fitting, upholstering or polishing. Women filled these roles as many men were called to duty, leaving the positions vacant. Women again entered the industry in record numbers during World War II. In the United States, more than 10 percent of the workforce in shipyards was made up of women. The famous “Rosie the Riveter” was their symbol, although more welding was done during this time than riveting. At the end of the war, the women had to give up their high paying jobs to the returning men. 

[[{"fid":"5612","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"class":"panopoly-image-original media-element file-default"}}]]

Sailors onboard Type 42 destroyer HMS York smile as the ship arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2012. Photographer: LA(PHOT) Dave Jenkins. Image 45155812.jpg from www.defenceimages.mod.uk

Modern times

Today, women are largely encouraged to join the marine industries. There are many initiatives in place to do so. Since 1988 the IMO has focused on increasing educational opportunities for women with its Strategy on the Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector. There is also the Women in the Marine Industry Initiative that offers scholarships, mentoring, and courses for women. The Council of Marine Professional Associates also has a gender equality strategy in place. The push now is to not only tap into an unused workforce, but also offer women excellent career opportunities at sea. While we by no means see gender equality in the marine sector today, the future looks a little more balanced with initiatives such as these.