Women workers of the maritime world

The theme for World Maritime Day 2019 (26 September) is ‘Empowering Women in the Maritime Community’. A look through the maritime-themed watercolours on our website reveals a telling shortage of paintings of maritime women, other than those that show wives waiting onshore for the men to come back from sea. We did find a few that portray women taking a more active part in maritime activities, however, and we’ve highlighted three of the most interesting below. Unfortunately, lack of representation of women in the maritime world is not only a problem of pre-1900 art: gender inequality persists today. By highlighting this gap, the International Maritime Organisation is not only encouraging the inclusion of women in the maritime sector, but also supporting the sustainable development of the industry. 


This watercolour by Bayard Taylor may at first appear to be just an amusing comparison of the male and female work ethic, but in fact it is indicative of the important contribution of women to Iceland’s maritime sector. Iceland holds one of the highest proportions of female fishers in Europe and North America, and this percentage was even higher in previous centuries. In the early 18th century a smallpox epidemic that killed off about 25% of Iceland’s population led to a huge boom in women’s employment as fishers, a trend that lasted into the 20th century, when urbanisation caused female involvement in the maritime industry to drop dramatically. Fortunately, since 2000, the trend has reversed again, and there has been a steady rise in the numbers of women studying seafaring and seeking employment in Iceland’s maritime sector.


Normally, women’s involvement in English maritime communities consisted only of selling fish, managing the accounts and other pursuits that didn’t involve active fishing at sea. However, it seems that women seining (a type of fishing) along the shallows with shrimp nets was once a common sight, as seen in this watercolour by David Cox the elder. Today, maritime organisations like the Merchant Navy have begun to recognise the need to encourage women to pursue careers in seafaring and dispel the notion that they aren’t fit for the work. In 2017 data showed that only 1% of the engineer officers and 4% of the deck officers in the British shipping industry are women, a number that will hopefully rise due to the efforts of organisations like the Women in Maritime Taskforce. 


This watercolour by John La Farge seems to be more indicative of Samoa’s future than its past. The last couple of decades has seen a distinct rise of maritime women in a culture that historically has perceived women engaging in maritime activities as improper. A new generation of female seafarers is beginning to appear on the scene, led by women like Ilalegagana Kenesareta Moananu, Samoa’s first female sea captain, and Fealofani (Fani) Bruun, Samoa’s first female yacht-master to captain a traditional voyaging vessel. Efforts to address gender inequality continue, with the Regional Strategy for Pacific Women In Maritime 2020-2024 launching on 19 September 2019.

For more information about World Maritime Day visit the International Maritime Organization or United Nation’s websites.

Author: Meshellae Payne