Whaling Communities

The spatial organization of New England’s whaling communities like New Bedford, produced new relationships and gender roles within the communities.  Men and women were no longer separated solely by industry but now also geographically by land and sea. The arrangement of maritime couples changed the dynamics of family relationships and generated new gender roles for women, in particular, the whaler’s wives.  Unlike the rigid social division of labor in factories the whaling industry depended as much on males as it did on females.  Whale fisheries relied on women and their essential role in controlling the land while the men were at sea in order to operate.[i]   While the women had control over social, economic and cultural aspects of the community the whale fishery held a control over them as well.  Whalebone manifested this power, as it was a product of the industry that simultaneously empowered and limited women.

“The Manner of Catching Whales,” An English image depicting early-eighteenth-century whaling off Greenland, reproduced in Churchill’s Voyages, Vol. 1 (London, 1744). Courtesy of Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum (Neg. 16192)

“Stove boat,” ca. 1840, watercolor by unknown whaleman artist. This image vividly depicts one of the dangers of the chase: having the boat “stove” or smashed by the whale. Courtesy of Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Musuem (Neg. 6772)

[i] Norling, Lisa. Captain Ahab Had a Wife, 6.


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