Explore the myths and facts of women and the sea

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – For centuries, the battle to survive the elements and sail the world’s waters was depicted as a struggle between men and the sea. The Mariners’ Museum reveals a different story in its new exhibition Women and the Sea, on display from March 17 through Jan. 6, 2002.

From the myths and legends of mermaids and Greek goddesses to the heroics of female lighthouse keepers and “firsts” for women in the navy, this interactive exhibit takes a look at the role of women in maritime history. Artifacts, paintings, lithographs, photographs and recreations of a harbor town, tavern and ship carver’s workshop, will show the impact of women on the maritime world and economy.

Myth and legend.

Greek mariners were the earliest to associate female mythological creatures with the sea. Over hundreds of years those myths have evolved into the mariners’ belief in mermaids and sirens.

Reports of mermaid sightings by explorers and sailors were common. Described as creatures having the torso and head of a woman, but the tail of a fish, mermaids were depicted alternately as kind servants of the sea and as malicious animals with powers to entrap seafarers.

Ship carver’s shop.

Throughout the life of the exhibition, carver Bob Harvey will work in his ship carver’s shop on weekends to demonstrate and recount how seafarers used women as models for wood figureheads that were mounted on the bow of a ship to ward off harm at sea.

Life in a port town.

As visitors leave the ship carver’s area, they will encounter storefronts, business windows and a home commonly found in a port town. This portion of the exhibition explores how women overcame the months and sometimes years they were left vying for themselves.

The first storefront features the motif of the sailor’s departure and return, often depicted on ceramics and in prints of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Visitors can also peer through a window to view a home filled with souvenirs brought back by male relatives and sweethearts after time at sea. An ivory spool holder, a carved seashell from the ship Africa, a glass rolling pin showing the vessel Leonora, scrimshaw, a sewing basket and a glass egg with an ivory-framed photograph are some of the many artifacts that adorn this makeshift home.

Actual letters from USS Monitor sailor George Geer to his wife Martha during the Civil War give visitors a look at how women struggled to survive while their husbands were away at sea.

Visitors will then make their way past a business front and into a tavern, learning how women ran shops and inns during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Women at sea.

During the early 18th century, women began disguising themselves as men to get aboard vessels in hopes of being near a loved one, financially supporting themselves or finding adventure. The museum’s exhibition provides visitors with an interactive look at what it would have been like to be a woman living as a man on a ship. Visitors can walk aboard a recreated fo’c'sle and try on sailors’ attire to get a sense of what women had to overcome to get away with their secret.

Visitors will learn about women sailors like Hannah Snell, Mary Anne Talbot and Mary Lacy, who fought and worked aboard ships as men for years. The famous story of 18th-century female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who pillaged local fishing ships, is also conveyed in this portion of the exhibit.

One of the most difficult inevitable consequences of wives following their husbands to sea was childbirth. The term “son of a gun” resulted from the firing of a ship’s guns to hasten a difficult birth.

A first for women.

Also on display are artifacts and records borrowed from Susan Lamm of Massachusetts. Just 12 years ago, Lamm found the personal possessions of Mary Ann Hathaway Tripp (1810-1906) in a pile of trash sitting in front of a neighbor’s yard. Tripp was one of the first American women to travel around the world. She circumnavigated the globe three times with her husband Captain Lemuel Carver Tripp, a merchant mariner in the China trade, between 1833 and 1845.

These remnants of Tripp’s life include her silk hat, a tiny portrait in a golden locket, and china and silver. Visitors will get a glimpse of life at sea in the recreated captain’s cabin featuring furnishings from actual ships.

Lighthouse keepers.

Though not always recognized, lighthouse keeping was often performed by women. Heroines such as Grace Darling and Ida Lewis have been etched into history for enduring the lonely life of a lighthouse keeper to save hundreds of lives from storms and deadly accidents. In this portion of the exhibition visitors can read the stories of these women, catching glimpses of their lives through photographs and artifacts.

Changing roles.

By the mid-19th century, new roles for women began to open up along the waterfront, and more women began working the water in partnership with their husbands. Some even found success carrying on the family business after their husbands died. Yachting, fishing, trading, and even serving in the navy, women have stepped into a wide variety of roles.

Several women became known as competent pilots along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers during the late 19th century. Callie French and her husband, Captain A. B. French, operated several floating theaters. Callie piloted the vessel New Sensations and took charge of every aspect. After her husband died in 1902, Callie continued to pilot boats for five more years until she retired.

Women in the navy.

As early at 1811, women served as nurses in the “man’s navy.” By World War I, women were called on to “free a man to fight” by taking the place of men in administrative positions on the home front. By World War II, the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and Coast Guard SPARS (from the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus,” Always Ready) became a vital part of the war machine.

A modern view.

Today, women run successful fishing businesses and compete against men in international yacht racing. Women such as Dame Naomi Christine James, the first woman to sail solo around the world and Cape Horn; Gertrude Vanderbilt and Phyliss Sopwith, the first two women to compete against each other in an America’s Cup race; and Dawn Riley, captain of the first all-woman America’s Cup team are just a few of many who have helped pave the way for more women to play an active role in the recreational, military and economical aspects of the sea.

In this last section of the exhibit, visitors will see and read stories about these historic women, as well as watch video interviews with women currently working in the fishing industry, Coast Guard, Navy and government.

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