Book Review: Seawomen of Iceland

For centuries, Icelandic women have been some of the world’s hardiest, and hardest-working, fishing captains. Anthropologist Margaret Willson gathers their stories and achievements.

Published January 27, 2017

It started with a tale of a remarkable woman and a simple question. An Icelandic friend took American anthropologist Margaret Willson to see the winter fishing hut of Thurídur Einarsdóttir, one of Iceland’s greatest fishing captains, and—unusually—a woman. Known as Foreman Thurídur (foreman being the title given to the skipper of a traditional fishing boat), Einarsdóttir was born in 1777, and famously fished for 60 years without losing a crew member—a remarkable achievement in the dangerous North Atlantic. Willson herself once worked as a deckhand on an Australian fishing boat and knew enough to be impressed by Foreman Thurídur’s record. She asked about other Icelandic seawomen, and her friend admitted she’d never heard of any.

So begins a detective story that uncovers the all-but-forgotten history of the seawomen of Iceland. For centuries—right up to the present day—Icelandic women have been pushing their way into the traditionally male world of fishing and the sea. Their work and abilities were once common knowledge, but not today. In Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge, Willson sets out to retrieve that lost heritage.

The author and her research assistants—mostly Icelandic women—combed newspapers, diaries, lists of drowned seafarers, and other historical records right back to the sagas to find seawomen’s names and stories. They traveled to remote villages where women related their own tales of fishing and seafaring or those of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. They met people like Hulda, who, at age 88, was still going shrimp fishing with her 89-year-old husband. And they heard about others from the more distant past, such as Foreman Halldóra Ólafsdóttir, who fished in the mid-1700s, hired all-women crews, and was known for her skill and success. In fact, the seawomen were generally respected. In all the accounts of female foremen and helmswomen, both contemporary and historical, writes Willson, she found no record of any of them having a serious accident at sea or losing crew.

The tale of the seawomen goes hand in hand with the story of fishing in Iceland, so the book is also a social and economic history. It covers some difficult times, including long centuries when Danish law forced most rural Icelanders into servitude to the farmers who owned the land. Fishing—although still part of their service to the farmer—was one of the few breaths of independence available to both men and women.

In many ways, the history of both Iceland and its seawomen is grim, but this is not a grim book. Nor is it dryly academic. The seawomen’s tales are full of their love of the sea and pride in their strength and achievements, and Willson’s sense of humor and enthusiasm for the sea and the seawomen shine through her very accessible writing.

Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge
By Margaret Willson
274 pp. University of Washington Press