Redefined Gender Roles

New Bedford’s Commercial District, looking down the hill toward the waterfront: “View looking east down Union Street from Purchase Street,” ca. 1870, stereograph by Stephen F. Adams. Courtesy of Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum (Neg. 12232)

Whalebone helped to establish women’s’ new gender roles within the community.  It was the source of two conflicting roles for women left ashore; feminism and Victorian domesticity.  Whalebone gave whaler’s wives their independence because the women were left in charge of the land during their husbands’ expeditions for periods ranging from months to years.  While seafaring had historically been a gender-divided labor; men working at sea and women in the home, the maritime New England communities shifted from pre-existing social, cultural and economical dimensions.  As Lisa Norling notes in “Captain Ahab had a Wife,”

“In the eighteenth century men and women shared a vision of
the world as one unified place, organized hierarchically, in which women were not
so much different from men as they were simply weaker, less capable, and therefore
properly dependent and subservient .“[i]

Baleen Drying Yard
Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Musuem

Thus, with the whalers hunting for whalebone, the women were given a complimentary role to their husbands even if the distinction divided the partners between land and sea.  The women’s responsibilities of the land included overseeing the household and finances, which transformed the social sphere of the community. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich describes these two separate yet semiautonomous family economies, one male and one female, stating “female trade was interwoven with the [primarily male] mercantile economy and with the [sex-integrated] ‘family economies’ of particular households, but it was not subsumed by either.”[ii]  The men depended on their wives to maintain the household while they were gone and viewed marriage as a partnership.  In this sense, the whaling communities were not so concerned with the rigid gender division of masculinity or femininity but with descriptive roles such as husband and wife or master and mistress.   In a1782 letter describing the Nantucket whale fishery, John de Crevecoeur commented that,

“[the whalers’] wives are necessarily obliged to transact business, to settle accounts,
and in short, to rule and provide for their families.  These circumstance, being
oftened repeated, give women the abilities as well as a taste for that kind of
superintendency, to which, by their prudence and good management, they seem to
be in general very equal.  This employment ripens their judgment and justly entitles
to a rank superior to that of other wives.”[iii]

Whaling Invoice
Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Musuem

Although the quest for whalebone gave women new social roles within the community they were still held by gender conceptualizations of Victorian domesticity.

[i] Norling, Lisa. Captain Ahab Had a Wife, 5.

[ii] Ibid, 42.

[iii] Ibid, 16.


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