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Women Sailors & Sailors' Women
An Untold Maritime History
By David Cordingly

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Women Sailors and Sailors' Women

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Women Sailors and Sailors' Women: An Untold Maritime History
By David Cordingly
Thorndike Press - Large Print, (2001)
ISBN: 0-7862-3524-1
Genre: History

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 28, 2002

It has been a long-standing myth that women are bad luck on a sailing vessel. Yet despite this tradition, women have a long-standing tradition of voyaging on the sea. They have served as crew members, traveled as passengers, and many women 'shipped out' with their husbands or lovers. In Women Sailors & Sailors' Women David Cordingly explores the ofttimes overlooked history of women who went to sea, as well as the history of those women who waited on shore, never knowing if the men they were waiting for would ever return.

Cordingly's narrative concentrated upon the period known as The Great Age of Sail, This is the period when the great sailing ships plied the waters, without the modern conveniences of diesel motors, radios, satellite navigation aids, advanced weather forecast, and often, without the benefit of life boats! Not surprisingly, many ships never returned from their voyages. And even when they did return, those on shore often found that the ship's company had been thinned, often due to accidents or disease. Life onboard a sailing ship was hard. The hours long, and the food and sanitary conditions often primitive. In addition, military ships were liable to be engaged in battle, and merchant ships faced the danger of being captured by pirates. Yet many women willingly entered this masculine, seedy, and dangerous world.

In this marvelously written history, Cordingly recounts the tales of various women who served as sailors on a variety of British and American sailing vessels. As women were not allowed to become sailors, these women had to resort to subterfuge, dressing and acting as men. Despite the cramped conditions found on board the ships, the sex of many of these women where only discovered after they had died or where injured. And in a few cases, even after their true gender was discovered, they were allowed to continue as sailors. Besides discussing how these women managed to become sailors, the duties they carried out, and what their day to day life was like onboard the ships, Cordingly also investigates the various factors that ennobled many women to seek out a sailor's life. Most of the women who went to sea as sailors served on military and merchant ships. However, there are a few recorded instances where women became pirates. The stories of these female pirates are expediently interesting, and Cordingly explores their lives in detail.

In addition to women serving as seamen, Cordingly also explores the history of those women who accompanied their husbands and lovers to sea, at times even taking their children along on long voyages. Life for a proper lady aboard a ship was very restrictive. Often they were relegated spending the entire voyage in or around their cabin and they were not allowed to walk the ship. Why would a woman cut herself off from her friends and family for years on end to lead an ofttimes lonely existence onboard ship? Cordingly explains why in exquisite detail that not only allows you to get a glimpse what motivated these women to go to sea, but also how they spent their days and what happened to them when their husbands died, leaving them alone on a ship full of men...

In addition to the women who went to sea, this history also chronicles the history of the women who waited on shore. These sailors' women ranged from prostitutes to wives, and Cordingly discusses each in turn. He chronicles what their lives were like, how they felt being left alone for long periods, and how life changed when their 'man' came home. Also discussed are the roles women have played as lighthouse keepers, and the image of women as mermaids and sirens.

Women Sailors & Sailors' Women has been meticulously researched. Cordingly, a maritime museum curator, studied a wide range of primary sources while researching this book, including ships' logs, Captain's journals, diaries, letters, and military records. His prose is fluid, fast paced, and he weaves a riveting tale. In all, this is an eminently readable book that will be of interest to scholars, students, and just about anyone looking for a thrilling book to read about the golden age of the great sailing ships. For those with a scholarly bent, this book is well indexed, has a bibliography that will keep you reading for years, and the text contains detailed end notes. As an added plus, this book also contains a 'glossary of sea terms'.

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