Women’s Roles: Introduction

W. R. Gilkey family aboard ship

At least 72 Searsport captains’ wives went to sea in the nineteenth century, and approximately 60 Searsport children were born at sea or in foreign ports. Captains’ wives joined their husbands because many of the voyages were very long, often keeping the captain away from home two or more years at a time. In many cases, it may have been difficult to keep women at home; many of them were born and grew up at sea, so it was a familiar environment.

The roles of the women who accompanied their sea captain husbands were as varied as the women themselves. Ranging from the twenty-year-old bride who left on her wedding day for a three year trip around the world, to the woman who sailed with her husband for almost twenty years and bore seven children while doing so, women learned and accepted these roles. They filled their days at sea and ashore with a variety of activities that ranged from helping with navigation aboard to shopping in port cities like London, Singapore, and Valparaiso. While ashore they renewed acquaintances with other wives from home; explored the local history, flora and fauna; and made new friends. They sewed for themselves, their families, and often for the church fairs back in Maine. Sometimes they sewed on the very sails on which they depended for a safe passage. Sometimes they experienced great danger and drama.

In this chapter we will look at some of the experiences of several women who went to sea in the late 19th century. Now, of course, women serve in the Navy and Coast Guard; command merchant vessels; fish professionally; attend maritime academies; and sail competitively. But their predecessors filled different roles; less glamorous perhaps but requiring a different kind of courage. Here are some examples from primary sources—journals and letters—and from research done at the Penobscot Marine Museum archives.