Whalebone gave women new work opportunities but it also subjected them to prescribed notions of domesticity. Such was exemplified by the corset, which was made of whalebone and consequently one of the leading demands that fueled the whaling industry. Women began wearing “whaleboned bodies” during the sixteenth century when their cloth bodices began employing rigid material in order to showcase their silhouette.[i] In England corsets, or whaleboned bodies, were often referred to as “stays” which meant support, since as Valerie Steele notes in her book “The Corset: A Cultural History”, the female body was considered to be naturally weak.[ii] The women showcased their curves with whalebone and simultaneously handled their entrusted social and economic responsibilities of the land while their husbands were absent hunting for whalebone.
The whalebone enabled the whalers’ wives to be independent but gave them the appearance of the dutiful housewife. Similar to whalebone, the women were strong yet flexible-evident by their crucial role in the community when their husbands were absent. The occupation of male whalers demanded women’s duties that were contradictory to the effortless Victorian appearance of domesticity. Hence, whalebone defined women’s gender roles materially and bodily through the corset and socially through responsibilities of the land.
[i] Valerie Steele. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
[ii] Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History, 42.