Seawomen of Iceland

Survival on the Edge

Margaret Willson

  • Published: April 2016
  • Subject Listing: Anthropology; Scandinavian Studies; Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 312 pp., 20 illus., 2 maps, 2 tables, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: N / A Europe
  • Contents

Finalist for the 2017 Washington State Book Award in General Nonfiction / History

The plaque said this was the winter fishing hut of Thurídur Einarsdóttir, one of Iceland's greatest fishing captains, and that she lived from 1777 to 1863.

"Wait," anthropologist and former seawoman Margaret Willson said. "She??"

So began a quest. Were there more Icelandic seawomen? Most Icelanders said no, and, after all, in most parts of the world fishing is considered a male profession. What could she expect in Iceland?

She found a surprise. This book is a glimpse into the lives of vibrant women who have braved the sea for centuries. Their accounts include the excitement, accidents, trials, and tribulations of fishing in Iceland from the historic times of small open rowboats to today's high-tech fisheries. Based on extensive historical and field research, Seawomen of Iceland allows the seawomen's voices to speak directly with strength, intelligence, and - above all - a knowledge of how to survive.

This engaging ethnographic narrative will intrigue both general and academic readers interested in maritime culture, the anthropology of work, Nordic life, and gender studies.
Margaret Willson is affiliate associate professor of anthropology and Canadian studies at the University of Washington. She is the author of Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond.

"Contributes a new and fresh understanding of Icelandic fishing culture. This is a captivating read due to the breadth of knowledge the author conveys through her personal style."
-Niels Einarsson, author of Culture, Conflict, and Crises in the Icelandic Fisheries: Anthropological Studies of People, Policy, and Marine Resources in the North Atlantic Arctic

"Willson shows that contrary to dominant conceptions in Iceland, women have gone to sea, and she explains how the ideas regarding their participation have changed. This book is a very important contribution to the knowledge of maritime life in Iceland. With her vivid stories Willson brings Icelandic seawomen to life."
-Unnur Dis Skaptadottir, University of Iceland

"Willson insightfully uses Iceland to reflect larger global social and economic transformations, showing with passion and respect how the story of Iceland's seawomen is interwoven with the fabric of the nation's history. Beautifully written and empirically rich, this ethnography sheds light on how processes of modernization and neoliberalization resulted in women's systematic exclusion from production and power. Ultimately, however, Seawomen of Iceland reveals not only struggles of poverty and inequality, but also a newly told story of empowerment."
-Kristin Loftsdóttir, University of Iceland

"This beautifully crafted saga about women at sea is framed as a mystery: not only why so many Icelandic women fished in the past and today, with clues found in harsh rural choices and wage equality at sea, but also why this story is not well know. Willson's findings are hugely important to both maritime and gender studies."
-Bonnie McCay, author of Oyster Wars and the Public Trust

"Seawomen of Iceland is a fabulous book, part memoir, part ethnography. Too often the presence of women at sea has been treated as an exception to be explained, but in this book the history and reality of seawomen is treated as fact and the stories follow from that. It's about time!"
-Charles Menzies, University of British Columbia

A Note on Icelandic Language, Names, and Landscape

Introduction: Fishing Expeditions

1. Survival on the Edge: A Hidden History
2. In Our Blood: A Lineage of Sea Knowledge
3. The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Seawomen and the Rise of Hags, Trolls, and Whores
4. Endurance: Why Do These Women Still Go to Sea?
5. The Sea's Siren Call: And the Jobs Seawomen Take in Reply
6. A Balance of Being: Ship Society
7. Paying to See the Stars: A New Kind of Survival

Appendix A Historical Seawomen
Appendix B Age of Women Registered as Seafarers, 2007-11
Appendix C Number of Female Fishermen, 1998-2011

Illustrations follow page

"Sailing on the eloquent prose of Willson's research on Icelandic seawomen is the definition of experiencing the pleasure of reading a good ethnography. The book shows how deep curiosity and small questions lead us to large-scale insights. . . . This is a book that everyone with an interest in ethnography should read regardless of the kind of anthropology or social science they are engaged with."
-Younes Saramifar, LSE Review of Books

"The seawomen's tales are full of their love of the sea and pride in their strength and achievements, and Willson's sense of humor and enthusiasm for the sea and the seawomen shine through her very accessible writing."
-Claire Eamer, Hakai Magazine

"A wonderfully detailed and lovingly crafted study of Icelandic women at sea through the ages. Willson . . . explore[s] not only why so many women fished and participated in maritime labour, especially in the past, but also to ask why this knowledge remains hidden and marginalized.NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research"
-Elisabeth Lund Engebretsen, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research

"What if a certain working demographic had disappeared from memory? . . . Willson is repeatedly told that women do not work at sea-except that archives and real lives attest that women actually do. . . . Seawomen of Iceland is about tough work and tougher weather, about fishing through changing socioeconomic currents, and about the subtle-and not-so-subtle-roles gender plays in working lives."
-Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins, Anthropology of Work