Women’s History Month is an annual celebration that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.
The National Women’s History Alliance designates a yearly theme for Women’s History Month, this year the theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”
With this in mind, we have researched some of the women in shipping who throughout history have made contributions to the maritime industry.
Historically, being a woman was a challenging task – strict rules around gender roles very often made women accept their fate, no matter how unfair it was.
However, ‘very often’ doesn’t equal ‘always’, and there were courageous women proving their worth, accomplishing feats even more impressive given they had to break through the thorns of social prejudice.
Nowadays gender equality is one of the most acute topics in the world. Gender pay gaps are closely monitored, and there are more women in charge now than ever before, even in traditionally male-dominated industries.
To celebrate the path we’ve come so far, we take a look at women in history in the maritime industry who tamed the waves despite fears of the mere female presence on board.
Lagertha (9th century AD)
Let’s go back to the beginning, way beyond Christianity, and travel north, to the cradle of shipping. Vikings have left their mark as renowned seafarers, but few know they were quite progressive in terms of gender equality – Norse women could raid and fight alongside men. Lagertha was one of the most famous shield-maidens of her time, having sought glory and recognition for her skill and ‘indomitable spirit’ rather than for the sole fact she was the first wife of Ragnar Lothbrok, King of the Vikings. History mentions her being a valuable ally, ensuring King Ragnar’s victory by commanding 120 ships to his aid in battle.
Grace O’Malley (1530-1603)
Anne Chambers, the biographer, defines this remarkable Irish lady as “quite a wealthy businesswoman in her own right”. Having a seafaring background, she grew up as an accomplished mariner, understanding the sea’s tides and currents. Eventually, she established a little maritime empire, part trade, part mercenary and part piracy; built trade links with Spain and introduced tolls on ships passing the waters controlled by her clan. She’s famous for her support of Irish rebels during the English invasion. Whether it is true or not, it is said she was even granted an audience with Elizabeth I where she refused to bow to the Queen, not recognising her as the ruler of Ireland.
Mary Patten (1837-1861)
Mary became the first female commander of a merchant ship. After her husband the captain collapsed from tuberculosis, the first mate was renounced as incompetent and the second mate illiterate, Mary appeared the most qualified person to step in. Under her command, the vessel survived the storm and successfully reached San Francisco. This brave young lady managed to do so being only 19 years old and 8 months pregnant without the ability to even change her clothes for 50 days, torn between navigating the ship and caring for her ill husband.
Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz (1936-2021)
Krystyna was the first woman who sailed single-handed around the world, opening the doors to other women who then ventured on similar expeditions. Being 30 years old, she got the captain’s licence. 10 years later, in 1976, she started her record-breaking voyage on her sailing ship Mazurek. It took her 401 days to finish her journey, and upon returning to the Canary Islands from where she had set off more than a year earlier, she completed a circumnavigation of 31,166 nautical miles (57,719 km).
Angela Chao is a remarkable woman in the maritime industry. A CEO of Foremost Group, an international transportation and shipping company, she raises awareness of gender equality in maritime, and gives lectures on the shipping industry and East-West relations.
From the times of old, in countries near and far, women made their way on board – fighting, raiding, helping, saving, breaking records, proving there’s no difference between their courage and male courage, their skill and their husbands’ skill; paving the path to the much more inclusive society of the 21st century and beyond.
Written by Daryna Rozum, Reward Consultant, Spinnaker