WOMEN SAILORS &SAILORS' WOMEN

NONFICTION BY DAVID CORDINGLY

Random House, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-50041-3
In the long history of maritime writing and scholarship, few authors have undertaken the difficult and rewarding task of examining known "fact" in search of the fictions that, once bred of myth and prejudice, are difficult to displace. Few authors in any genre, in fact, are known for "the buck stops here" attitude that makes David Cordingly’s revealing docu-drama of nautical women, Women Sailors & Sailors’ Women, a vivid and fascinating historical text.
         Mr. Cordingly’s incisive pen discards perilous suppositions about the place of females in a sea-faring society: that those who served as whores were driven to their position by unnatural feelings or natural wantonness; that sailors’ wives were often gold-diggers or extortionists; that women stayed in the home; and, most importantly, that the high seas were exclusively a man’s domain. Women Sailors discusses the roles of the so-called "fair sex" on land and water, including how sexual relations of the legal and illegal varieties allowed them to circulate where popular ideas say they were unwilling or unable to go. The book’s success is in no small part attributable to the author’s exhaustive use of first-source material, witnessed by the considerable annotation that accompanies the text. Interesting among Mr. Cordingly’s many presentations of unusual artifacts are a series of engravings by Thomas Rowlandson that depict the lifestyle of the seafaring community in the late eighteenth century. Specifically, Rowlandson is not inhibited by the standards of his era’s gentile upper classes. Sailors frolic with bawdy women while others drink and gamble. Lovemaking is not a private affair.
         The traditional conception of the woman’s place has been that she is either fragile, precious, untouchable beneath her layers of frippery or a deceptive sot tainted by a sordid fondness of sex. Occasionally the "fallen dove" is permitted a role beside her more common sisters. But there is something unreal about these characters–real people feel and act and yearn for more than their romantic Victorian counterparts. David Cordingly sees through the packaging and regal language to discover that the women of the sea were driven to their roles for reasons intrinsic more to their personalities than to the call of supine melodrama or the forethought of a society. He relates how the copious streetwalkers were not so much sexual toys to their oversexed sailors as mothers, sisters, and wives. As one prostitute remarked, "He is a nice man and give me all his money when he lands always. I take all his money while he with me, and not spend it quick. ... If I do not care, he would spend it all in one week. Sailor boy always spend money like rainwater; he throw it in the street and not care to pick it up again." Sailors were driven to prostitutes to fill both their sexual and emotional appetites. Many had favorite women and lived as husband and wife while on land. Having someone to come home to in their numerous ports of call made the sailors feel a part of society rather than as transient workers who could look but never belong. Once the sailors were recalled, the women were free to return to their profession, where they enjoyed more freedom and a sometimes higher standard of living than properly married females forced to rely upon what money their husbands sent home or, when widowed, begrudged pennies from an unwilling government.
         More interesting were the women who went to sea. Captain’s wives were occasionally allowed to accompany their husbands; rarely, children were permitted. In several famous cases, women accepted their husbands’ roles when illness or accident left the captain incapacitated. In 1856, for instance, nineteen-year-old Mary Patten navigated the clipper ship Neptune’s Car around Cape Horn to complete her husband’s voyage from New York to San Francisco. Mr. Cordingly offers a chapter to female pirates and another to the heroines of the lighthouses, who commonly gave up the comforts and privileges of life on the mainland for unenviable years of hard service as paladins for ships under sail and saviors to those who had been wrecked. Women Sailors remarks on the unusual number of women in the whaling fleet. Because of the voyages’ excessive length–more than two years in some cases–many officers’ wives were inspired to take to sea themselves. They gained the companionship of their husbands at a difficult cost. Gone were the comforts of land life, including the independence some wives enjoyed when left alone to run the business and family. Instead, they were faced with a lack of female companionship and the inexorable tedium of life at sea. Many turned to diaries that today offer a wealth of insight into the lives of all concerned with the operation of the nineteenth century’s most famous hunting expeditions.
         Incredibly, some women were able to undertake lives as sailors with all the benefits and horrors thereto ascribed. Some dressed as men to follow their loves to sea. Others went out of boredom, necessity, or a zest for adventure. When Hannah Snell died she had served as a soldier, marine, and sailor, and had accomplished the astounding feat of collecting a pension resultant of injuries suffered at the siege of Pondicherry. Mr. Cordingly explains that the female sailors were not revealed because they were similar in appearance to young cabin boys who often wore long hair and baggy clothes, and who were present on every voyage.
         The result of Mr. Cordingly’s varied explorations is a comprehensive picture of both the multitude and the exceptional few. The text’s only fault, if it may be called a fault at all, it that the subject matter leads inevitably to an anecdotal tone and pacing. Mr. Cordingly might also be invited to look more deeply into the entire history of women and the sea. Though the importance of females in the sea’s mythology is touched upon, the only reference to the roles of women in today’s fleets and port cities is a brief mention of the Hannah Boden’s deservedly famous captain, Linda Greenlaw.
         Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women is a dynamic and inviting look into the lives of British and American women of the water and, as such, is an exceptional academic feat. David Cordingly has made what could have been a dry and disinterested textbook into a captivating story no one interested in women’s history, community psychology, or maritime studies will want to be without.