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113 4 ENDURANCE WHY DO THESE WOMEN STILL GO TO SEA? “We are becoming vagabonds,” Birna said to me one day. It was true. This was a period of the research when we roamed the countryside on a scouting expedition, taking Birna’s small car on twisting roads along seashores and mountainsides, looking for the ever-elusive seawomen. Facebook had now given us lots of names, and once Birna phoned these women, most were interested in talking with us. But we then had to get to them. And in doing so, we traveled most of the coastal communities of Iceland, finding in almost every town women who had worked at sea at some period from the 1950s through the present. Each of their accounts was unique, many eloquent in their commentary, perception , and insight. After listening to so many women, we noticed themes, similarities in their experiences, in their emotions about their work and life, and, it might be said, shared personality traits. As we heard again and again, “A job at sea is not for everyone, man or woman.” Seafarers, these women affirmed, are special people with special traits. This is especially true with modern-day women because, in their choice and experience of working at sea, they are almost always alone. Since fishing in current-day Iceland is generally considered a male occupation too difficult and dangerous for the modern woman, women who wanted to fish now faced this major barrier of attitude before they even got to the actual demands and dangers of the sea: the resistance of a society that, after erasing their historic existence, now deemed them 114 CHAPTER FOUR incapable of seamanship. In this new twentieth-century reality, the sea had become a male realm completely separate from a female shore. This made even the concept of a seawoman something alien, out of place. Women wanting to fish now encountered direct opposition from their parents, other community members, and from those running the boats. Even in West Iceland, the historical heartland of female fishing, seafaring was an option most women no longer considered even possible . One seawoman told me that when she was in the sixth grade she said that she wanted to work at sea, and “the teacher laughed at me because I was a girl.” In this atmosphere, the women who decide go to sea anyway not only need to have enough personal strength, independence, and determination to stand up in the face of all this rejection, but they also have to somehow manage to get themselves aboard. All while others are constantly telling them that they are not strong enough, not tough enough, not competent enough. This refrain, the women said, was constant, and the justification for their rejection was always framed as what they were “not.” As I kept hearing this, I couldn’t help but reflect on the reverberating walls of discrimination and expectation that divide our worlds into spaces of what is offered as possible—and what is not. Shifting that “not” is always a mix of both our own decisions and those of powerful others around us. What is remarkable to me is that through all this social rejection , seawomen in Iceland have somehow endured; they have done what they had to do, generally alone, to get aboard, and then, once aboard, to become successful crew members. And they have done this not only in the smaller inshore fishing boats but on the larger deep-sea vessels as well. Making these single-minded decisions, and acting on them, in a society as small and connected as Iceland, is even more difficult than in larger societies. In this kind of small society, convention becomes both important and something many people just take for granted. In Iceland, this means, for example, that until very recently, most people ate dinner at six and watched the news on television at seven. Many meet regularly with their friends from school. Trends that sweep the country are widely taken up—after the recent national focus on banking didn’t work out so well, Icelanders, as I write this, have now turned, almost en masse, to a Endurance 115 new focus on tourism, encouraging visitors who now number, annually, three times the population of the entire country. There is comfort and security in this kind of community unity, but it also limits the avenues for difference: eccentricity is fine, but actions that confront embedded social convention can be dangerous, destabilizing , and powerful. And in...


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