Event, Women's History

Port Women’s History

Rawlinson_Portsmouth Point


Rosie the Riveter may no longer be alive and well, turbaned and turning out Liberty ship hulls by the sea. But July’s Portsmouth-based international conference Port Towns and Urban Cultures (http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/port-towns-and-urban-cultures-conference-25-to-27-july-2013) showed that WW2 women shipbuilders like her were everywhere.

And so were women doing a range of other jobs in these ‘Janus-faced’ towns’, from coopers to hookers, on the Tyne and the Clyde, the Elbe and the Solent.

Ports can be seen as the almost-sea. That’s why women, who’ve traditionally been excluded from full access to ships, are far more present in port life than in maritime life, and in representations of that past.

Gender, indeed women, was far more on the agenda in this conference than is normal in maritime and naval history conferences. The justification for their elision is normally that few women sailed.

But in ports women were indubitably half of the population. And it’s right that they were distinctly present in papers (though not in half the papers).

So many presentations included women as subjects, were presented by women, were gender aware, and brought comments from women that it felt like the most gender-inclusive conference on maritime history that I’ve attended since the world’s first (and, still, only) conference on Women and the Sea in Wellington, NZ in 1992.

It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen more women than men at a maritime history-related conference (28 women, 25 men).  In maritime history conference until a decade ago the presence of another woman was often so unusual  that we would rush up to introduce ourselves;‘A sister in the field, at last!’


The majority of the speakers were not studying gender or women but the wider subject of ports. Indeed it was noticeable that the two speakers on women in shipbuilding, Britain’s Rosie the Riveters, were male.

Daniel Swan and  Nick Hewitt had both studied women working in Portsmouth dockyard. Interestingly, Swann found that (according to oral testimony) none of  the WW2  women knew they had WW1 predecessors. Such is the need for the women’s history to become far more available.

Port women’s histories were especially visible in some of the presentations that referred to the sex industry.  Florian Grafl found that in Barcelona during the 1850s a quarter of the female working-class population were prostitutes, meaning 10,000 women. Some were associated with the extensive cocaine dealing which was imported from France and used more widely in Barcelona than in any French city.

By contrast, women’s exclusion from seafaring meant that some had romantic ideas about the profession, and had largely-unpaid relationships with seafarers as the next best thing to sailing. Tytti Steel found that in 1940s and 50s Helsinki and Kotka some port women had a man on every ship.

The story goes that as the ship came into port women would rummage in their handbags for the right engagement ring to welcome this fiancé, not that one. No ring would have meant difficulties with dockyard gatekeepers as the women tried to access the vessels.

Unfortunately there was no discussion of the role of women as ship-owners, businesswomen such as chandlers, and peacetime workers such as coopers and rope makers. Nor do we know much about them as regulators of migration and port morals, say as wives of officials or as dockside missionaries .

The nearest thing to this was Jonathan Hyslop’s passing reference to the welfarist role of Jane Alexander, wife of the police chief who in white dress and parasol intervened in the racist crowd attacking Gandhi as he landed in Natal.

The gendered place within the system of such overlooked individual port women (some of them now only represented in a picaresque manner now) deserves attention. But Hannah Hagmark was able to discuss women’s iconic status as wives of men from the Aland Islands fishing industry.

It is surely the case that the presence of women as speakers and as foci in the world of port studies must lead, at last, to their greater presence in the world of transport studies, mobilities studies and maritime history too. This conference was a blazing example of how fruitful that presence can be.

Jo Stanley (c) August 2013

For a report on the entire conference, not only the gendered aspect, see Jo’s report at  http://lancaster.academia.edu/JoStanley/Reports-on-conferences. Dr Jo Stanley writes about gender and the sea. www.jostanley.biz and http://genderedseas.blogspot.com.


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