UW Today

February 15, 2017

UW affiliate faculty member in anthropology presents her book, ‘Seawomen of Iceland’

News and Information

Maritime communities take various forms around the planet and through the centuries. Margaret Willson, affiliate associate professor of anthropology and Canadian Studies Arctic Program at the University of Washington, is the author of “Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge,” published in 2016 by University of Washington Press.

UW Today asked Willson a few questions about the book, in advance of her talk Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. at Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats.

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How did you get interested in this topic?

I worked at sea as a deckhand when I was younger and have always been interested in the sea. I was invited to visit Iceland some years ago, and there found an account of a historic sea captain who was a woman. She was renowned for her weather-reading abilities, for getting the largest catches, and for never losing a crew member in the 60 years she fished. And yet people in Iceland told me there had been few seawomen in their past, and few in their present. I found this strange in a country of such purported gender equality. This curiosity led to the research and all that came from it.

Is this a historical community, or does it continue to the present?

Women have worked at sea in Iceland from medieval times to the present, filling all roles. The book explores the wealth of accounts through this entire time period to the present.

What made you realize this could be the focus of a book?

I was surprised, as were my Icelandic research assistants, when we began to discover the large numbers of women working at sea for so many centuries, and that they worked in all roles, including captain. They were also lauded by everyone in earlier centuries, and they were the authors and subjects of poetry.

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Margaret Willson

How does this book relate to the subjects you teach at the UW?

I am not currently teaching, but I am involved with the Arctic Program of the Canadian Studies Center. The research of this book is important for all communities in the circumpolar region.

Have you studied female sailing and fishing communities in Seattle? Do they exist?

I have not researched local families specifically. However, women have fished in the Pacific Northwest for a long time, and many do commercial fishing now, alone and with their families.

Book review: Seawomen of Iceland” January 2017 in Hakai Magazine

What should people expect at Friday’s talk?

The event will be a lively, engaged talk that will appeal to a wide audience, full of scintillating accounts, adventure and surprising revelations. Since this talk is taking place at the Center for Wooden Boats, I will include aspects relating to the wooden boats used in Iceland through the centuries. I look forward to people’s thoughts and questions.

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For more information, contact Willson at willsonm@uw.edu.

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