Margaret Willson: What Defines Survival? The Seawomen of Iceland

February image_boat w Haldora

An historic painting of a fishing vessel depicting Haldóra, an Icelandic woman who worked as a fishing captain for many years in the mid-1700s. The artist is Bjarni Jónsson (1934-2008), notable for his paintings of old Icelandic fishing boats, many of which have been added to the National Museum of Iceland. – photo courtesy of Margaret Willson

For more than four decades, each month CWB has presented a speaker of wit and experience to talk about his or her special knowledge. It is also an opportunity for CWB members to meet one another and the staff. The program runs from 7pm to 9pm, with opportunities to ask questions. February’s 3rd Friday presentation will be held on February 17th.

For centuries in Iceland, women have worked at sea, sometimes alongside men and also alone. They have commanded boats, and been lauded for their abilities. But today in Iceland, this history is all but erased; even women working at sea today are almost invisible. Why?

It’s a question that anthropologist Margaret Willson has explored in several years of research with both modern-day Icelandic seawomen and the stories of their ancestors. In her recent book Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge (University of Washington Press 2016) she looks at both the vivid history and present of these women and the fascinating society from which they hail. Their experiences bring up questions about how we all create history and even our reality.

She provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of literally thousands of women who have braved Iceland’s arctic seas from Viking times to modern day, working as deckhands and commanders, fishing from small open wooden rowboats to tippy sailboats to today’s high-tech factory vessels.

She recounts first-person tales from women who fished in the classic wooden row and sail boats of Iceland, which are still used in a few areas for family fishing. (The history of these boats is fascinating because Iceland has never had trees of a kind to build boats; it is considered that early Icelanders traded their independence, in part, for a number of wooden boats.)

Previous to her current Iceland studies, Margaret did research in Papua New Guinea and Brazil, taught in several countries, worked in ethnographic film, and for 16 years was International Director of an NGO. She is currently Affiliate Associate Professor with the Department of Anthropology and the Canadian Studies Center’s Arctic Program at the University of Washington.

The 3rd Friday program is free (donations cheerfully accepted). Light refreshments will be available.

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