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Frauen an Bord von Frachtsegelschiffen 1850 bis 1939

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Frauen an Bord von Frachtsegelschiffen 1850 bis 1939

By Ursula Feldkamp

Bremerhaven: Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum & Wiefelstede: Oceanum Verlag, 2014
8-14” x 10-3/4”, hardcover, 327 pages
Illustrations, English summary, notes, bibliography. €34.90
ISBN: 9783869270753



The subject of women on board sailing ships has attracted considerable scholarly attention, particularly on the past twenty-five years. In the United states, much of this work has focused on the wives of whaling captains during the “glory years” of the American industry and, to a lesser extent, on those of the masters of the large ocean-going merchant vessels engaged in the international trades in the later half of the nineteenth century. There is also a growing literature addressing the experiences of women serving aboard American sailing ships during the twentieth century, primarily on what may best be described, broadly, as sail training vessels (quite a number of which now have female captains).


Ursula Feldkamp’s new study covers a rather different demographic. The first part parallels the experiences of the wives of nineteenth-century oceanic traders from the German perspective. The most compelling elements are her discussions (based on the women’s own accounts) of their experiences as essentially “invisible” people; they were clearly noticeably on board ship but, simultaneously, their presence was ignored as much as possible by the crews, except to the extent that their femininity (and the related ideals of womanhood of the period) impinged on activities. Good examples of this were special arrangements to allow women to embark and disembark without offending their modesty and the impact of children (and even childbirth) on ships at sea.


The second component of her work addresses women working as crew on ships, mainly during the twentieth century. Labor shortages during world War I seems to have been a major precipitant of such work, but it continued well after the end of hostilities, especially as major fleet operators discarded their sailing vessels. Many of these ships entered service with “budget operators” whose primary concern was to minimize expenses. Consequently, they were less attractive as berths for professional sailors, which opened the door, on a limited scale, to women. For the most part these women openly served aboard ship, creating scenarios for considerable tension, especially as most of the male sailors tended to be young apprentices, often with less experience than their female shipmates.


Feldkamp’s study is a very important contribution to this field of study. Her approach combines women’s own narratives with thorough exploration of the contexts and paradigms within which they lived and worked to generate new perspectives on this very old story.


Helena Goldstein
University of Chicago

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