Women in Coastal Communities

Strength of Character

During my research I became fascinated by the lives of earlier women living in coastal communities. Fortunately, there are authors, predominantly female, who have written extensively about women in coastal places in both historical and contemporary contexts. The literature, in terms of the past, reveals that these women remained steadfast to their way of life; managing house and children, theses hardworking women also performed tasks for their fisher-spouses mending nets, gutting fish and selling the catch.

Darlene Abreu-Ferreira (2012) tells us that women were known to have held key trading positions in 17th-century Portugal. They were active fish traders and agents who didn’t necessarily depend on the male population; they had a strong sense of independence.

Although many women from European coastal regions gained independence through fish work, the fish wives of Amsterdam stood out from their European counterparts as they enjoyed a certain wealth. Denise Van der Heuvel (2012) informs us that the fish wives assisted their husbands in selling the catch at various markets. They also held their own stalls independent of their spouses and succeeded in juggling motherhood and work.

In other countries, such as France, some women fished in small boats or accompanied their husbands; and in Ireland many went kelp fishing which necessitated a great deal of physical strength and stamina.

At a time when travel was regarded with suspicion and trepidation, people were reluctant to journey much further than their local hinterland. However, in 19th-century UK during the herring fishery, women in coastal communities left their homes to work gutting and filleting fish. These dirty and tedious chores most men were unwilling to do. That said, the jobs provided young girls and women with a sense of freedom and independence that was rarely experienced by their inland cousins.

Traversing the Atlantic Ocean to 18th-century Newfoundland women processed fish and replaced the traditional male ‘shore crews’. Willeen Keough (2012) recounts how they gutted, washed and salted fish; and not unlike their European counterparts, they too juggled physical labour of the fishery with childcare and household responsibilities. They were known to be full-time participants in the family business in which they held equal share. And to be fair, the wider fishing communities acknowledged the value of their work, regarding them as vital, skilled workers on the fishery.

Unfortunately, due to profound changes within society, the patriarchal characteristic of the ‘civilised’ population steered its course into coastal communities and, as a result, into the fishing industry. The discourses of the time were turned towards the male ‘breadwinner’. Nevertheless, the majority of fishing families remained resilient to these changes by establishing joint maritime households, the type that I observed during my fieldwork in both Ireland and Brittany (France).

There was a large quantity of women involved in maritime trade. These women should be remembered for their strength of character and for their input into the local economies in which they engaged regardless of marital status. These independent women developed their own life courses. They managed and organised their work both within and outside the home that very much resonates with the lives of contemporary women. Assertive for their era, these women should be regarded as role models to empower subsequent generations. They have left a great legacy that could inspire present-day women.

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