I first saw this YouTube video on The Fiddeye Guide, Joe Follansbye’s remarkable website, an encyclopedia for the lover of American maritime history. The video is an excerpt from a 1999 documentary following new cadets on their voyage aboard the U.S. S. Eagle, a Coast Guard sailing vessel used to teach team building as well as the history and traditions of the maritime profession to select cadets.
I was thrilled and proud to see so many young American women alongside the men aboard the Eagle. When it comes to climbing the rigging, the differences between men and women are equalized. It does not require brute strength but a willingness to overcome a natural fear of heights, attention to safety and instruction, and self-confidence.
Watching this video I was reminded of my 3 weeks aboard HM Bark Endeavour in 1999, when I was a voyage crew member and one of the foremast watch along with my husband Bob, who served for a week as Captain of the Tops. I learned what it’s like to do a man’s work aboard a ship, and I began to think about what it might have been like to have been a woman in disguise working aboard a ship in the age of sail… (In all honesty, it was a lot of hard work. When I wasn’t bloody exhausted I was hungry, or terrified. OK, terrified is a bit extreme. Let’s say I vacillated between moderately anxious and fearful for the first two weeks. By week three I was actually enjoying the whole experience, even climbing aloft and going out on the foot rope like a circus performer, to make or furl sail. (watch the video!)
Watching this U.S. Coast Guard clip I feel admiration for these fresh-faced, confident young women and men who are serving our country and gaining an appreciation for the discipline and teamwork required to sail a traditional vessel. My fictional Patricia MacPherson would find her place at last in this 21st century, when as a woman she could be a surgeon or a sailor — if she could prove herself. (Well, at least in America or Britain she could. There are many countries and cultures where that is still not possible, where women are still chattel.)
Now that reminds me of 9/11, and that attack on the United States makes me fear for the freedom of women everywhere. Yes, men too. But particularly for women. Our own freedoms came about gradually as the rights of most of the population of the United States (women and blacks) were not included in the original Constitution of the United States. Blacks — and women of any color — were not yet citizens in 1776. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were not intended for us.
At the time of the American Revolution there was no system of public education for women in the United States. Married women had no legal status, could not vote, sign contracts or bequeath property. We weren’t quite slaves, yet we were property of a sort and our options as females were limited.
In my historical fiction novels one of the themes I explore is what it might have been like to have been a British born woman in the 18th century, trying to survive in a man’s world; a world that could be brutally harsh even if you were a man. Or a woman pretending to be a man…