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Margaret Willson, Seawomen of Iceland. Survival on the Edge, Seattle: University 
of Washington Press 2016

Författare Aant Elzinga
Publicerad i Journal of Northern Studies
Volym 10
Nummer/häfte 2
Sidor 231-239
ISSN 1654-5915
Publiceringsår 2016
Publicerad vid Institutionen för filosofi, lingvistik och vetenskapsteori
Sidor 231-239
Språk en
Länkar www.jns.org.umu.se
Ämnesord Seawomen, fishermen, gender studies, Iceland, fisheries, fishing women of Iceland, ethnography, fishing quotas, New Public Management, neoliberalism, monopoly capitalism
Ämneskategorier Vetenskapshistoria, Vetenskapsteori


The book’s title challenges taken-for-granted terminology: if “seamen” is an accepted term our digital dictionaries approve, why not “seawomen”? As I write, the auto-correction program on my computer already wants me to change this seemingly “alien” term to something else. A gender skew is inscribed not only in our dictionaries but as it turns out, also in commonly accepted historiographies. The author recovers a hidden history that has been obscured. Her mission is to demonstrate the why and how of this curious state of affairs even in a fishing nation like Iceland. In the course of doing so, she takes us on a geographic and intellectual journey of discovery; her own voice recounts her research process while the voices of many Icelandic seawomen—past and present—come to the fore in the gradual uncovering of a “hidden history.” In the course of her extensive research the author uncovered old records of Icelandic seawomen going back to medieval times, laws from the 1700s guaranteeing their equal pay to men for the same sea work, and numbers that suggest that still in the late 1800s, thirty per cent of seafarers in West Iceland were women. It seems their presence was then so common and accepted that they were seldom even mentioned unless they did something else considered remarkable. For much of the time they comprised a significant portion of crew-members rowing and even helmsmen in charge of wooden coastal fishing boats. By the late twentieth century, however, the history and existence of seafaring women had disappeared from the radar screen. The book is about the politics of memory, the way cultural norms and imaginaries are shaped. The author’s mission is twofold, first of all to recover an Icelandic past that has been forgotten, and secondly to explain the factors at work in that eclipse. As such, it is a significant contribution to Icelandic and Northern Studies. Willson and her research assistants managed to compile a list of more than 250 Icelandic seawomen and interviewed 150 of them. The book weaves together the diverse story-lines that emerged; numerous individuals appear and reappear in several of the seven thematically organized chapters. The seawomen’s voices are allowed to speak directly with strength, intelligence, and—above all—a knowledge of how to survive. They tell about a love of the sea, outstanding achievements, risks, and successes, but also tragedies involving wreckages on rocks, capsized boats and loss of life. Further, one finds humorous stories of women one-upping the guys, their fierce independence and a strong sense of self-respect. The reason for this relative historical amnesia is found in a complex combination of factors: changes in the island nation’s social and cultural fabric, its fisher- ies policy, technology, increasing mobility, and economic conjunctures— including Iceland’s 2008 dramatic economic crash—all these and more are all found to affect present-day women’s ability and desire to fish. Willson’s book has already had a public awareness-raising effect. Even before it was published the research that went into it inspired museum exhibitions, like the one at Reykjavík Maritime Museum in 2015, “Sea women: The fishing women of Iceland, past and present.” As a case study, the book also constitutes an important contribution to the field of gender studies. Its popular writing style and interlacing of many individual storylines, moreover, should appeal to wider audiences. Finally, a couple of small maps and a handy index make it easier to keep track of a maze of people, place-names and tangles of overlapping storylines.

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