By Lia ní Aodha,
“Without the fisherwife, the fisherman’s tasks could not be completed”
(Nadel Klein 2000: 367).
Today, on International Women’s Day, and in a year that marked the centenary of women’s suffrage (and election to Parliaments) in a number of countries – including the UK and Ireland – women will celebrate all over the world. They will also take to the streets and engage in strike action, demanding progress on equality. The list is long, the issues are many and intersecting- ranging from reproductive rights, pay gaps, unequal household burdens, and gender-based violence to wider demands for labour rights, environmental justice, and against racism. They are in themselves at once specific, whilst simultaneously being grounded in broader patterns, and relations of inequality, injustice, and exploitation. Certainly, they have not been inconsequential regarding women and gender relations within fishing, and no doubt women involved in all aspects of fishing will have been celebrating (?), protesting and striking today!
There has been much work done highlighting the manner in which societal organisation determines how nature (including human nature) is constructed and defined socially by different societies (Braun and Castree 2001). In this regard, feminist theorists have long highlighted that gender and nature constructs are deeply entangled, materially, historically and socially situated (for example, Haraway 1991; Merchant 1981). The instrumental fashion by which nature has been organised over the past centuries – one facet of which has been the manner in which gender has been constructed – manifests in the persisting inequalities that people have been out on the streets protesting against today.
Considering the role of women in fisheries, more specifically, I have blogged here before, highlighting the direct and indirect – essential, though often marginal and unseen – roles women play all along the fish value chain in capture fisheries. In that post I detailed briefly, some of the contemporary gendered implications that shifting fisheries policies and regulations (aimed at economic rationalisation) have had. These developments have, in some instances, opened up spaces for women, with women finding themselves in perhaps stronger positions (e.g. management, as quota owners and so on), whilst in others (and perhaps more commonly) they have entailed shifting familial arrangements, and altogether more precarious developments (living with the consequentiality of diminished and lost livelihoods, trans-local family life etc.).
While that post detailed the positionality of women in capture fisheries today, reflecting on the positionality of women in fishing communities historically, and the relational shifts that have occurred (or not occurred) within this space, can tell us a lot with respect to how different socio-natural configurations are shaped, shaping and, indeed, resist certain politico-natural configurations.
The intention of this post is not to romanticise or generalise the lives lived by women involved in fishing historically, or today. Contextual distinctions matter here, and the examples drawn on relate to a small number of recorded experiences relating to fishing women, families and communities in Ireland and across Britain. Nonetheless, these experiences do provide some insight into the manner in which specific politico-natural configurations construct natures, confine and demarcate gendered space, while simultaneously illuminating the manner in which the ‘nature’ of fishing itself has traditionally structured gender roles within these contexts, thus, providing a good vantage point for consideration as to how these may (or may not) have changed over time.
Historically visible women
Feminist theorists have long recounted how the roles of women were remade and reshaped (in much the same manner as nature has been reshaped as a passive, controllable, and productive machine) with the economic and scientific reordering of society that unfolded in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe (Merchant 1981:149). While there is little doubt that gendered space at this time was already hierarchical (Tsing 2012), pre-industrial capitalism, buoyed by these processes, saw women’s economic roles become more restrictive, their domestic lives more rigidly defined by their sex (rather than by class, as had been the case previously), and their marital relationships defined more as dependent rather than partner (Merchant 1981: 150). But how did this process unfold within fisheries across Britain and Ireland?
Although terms such as unseen, invisible and uncounted are often used as referents when discussing women in fisheries today, women within this space have not always been invisible (Britton 2012). On the contrary, historically (and right up until the 1950s) women played a distinctively visible role within fishing communities surrounding the coasts of Ireland and Britain (ibid), with strikingly similar levels of complementarity, equality and female autonomy having been detailed as existing within Northern Irish (Britton 2012), Scottish (Nadel-Klein 2000), English (Hall 2004), and Irish (MacLoughlin 2010) fishing communities.
Historical accounts (spanning from the seventeenth into the twentieth century), detailing how gender roles were assigned, families and communities organised indicate that complementary divisions of labour, shared onshore work, alongside active involvement in paid onshore work beyond the family, a strong role in household decision making and control over finances meant that women within fisheries in Ireland and across Britain held a very visible role indeed within society, when compared with the ways in which gendered space was constructed elsewhere (e.g. see Britton 2012; Hall 2004; Nadel Klein 2010).
Necessitated by the realities of fishing and its demands regarding both onshore and offshore work (Thompson 1985), fishing families were structured in a manner that conferred a role more akin to a partnership between husband and wife, rather than dependence (that at the time was increasingly becoming the familial norm elsewhere), with authors suggesting that in some instances families displayed an altogether matriarchal organisation (Nadel-Klein 2000) that was certainly distinct. These roles were facilitated and supported by strong kinship structures – again necessitated by the nature but also vagaries of fishing – that extended beyond the confines of the nuclear family that had become the norm in other communities by the turn of the twentieth century (Hall 2004), and meant that marrying within the fishing community became quite normal, being bounded if not by local geography then by fishing itself (Nadel-Klein 2000).
These detailed factors (the nature of work, alongside the family and community structures it engendered) meant that the lives of these fisherwomen involved a degree of freedom – in terms of access to the outside world – that was dissimilar from that afforded to many women at that time (Hall 2004). At a moment in history and space when women’s identities were being increasingly shaped by their sex and confined to the domestic sphere (i.e. rendered invisible and unseen), accounts of fisherwomen are suggestive of a level of autonomy (Nadel-Klein 2000), and an identity that was as much occupational (i.e. economic and thus public) as it was domestic, if not more (Hall 2004).
For example, in his social and cultural history of fishing in Ireland MacLoughlin (2010: 168-169) – with reference to The Claddagh fishing community in Galway – has highlighted that “a rough equality of the sexes was a marked feature of this and many other fishing communities throughout Ireland in the pre-famine period.” Primary accounts detail “the powerful influence exercised by the women” within that community, that to outsiders was striking and spanned beyond selling the catch when it was landed, but to divvying out the money from that catch and controlling household finances in totality, including what men “spent on such luxuries as whiskey and tobacco.” and “of which they themselves also liberally partake.” Other commentators noticed the fishing women of The Claddagh “…were always in the equal of men…maintaining the complete control of the purse.” Not without interest, I have heard strikingly similar sentiments echoed by my uncles with respect to my own Grandmother’s “control of the purse” when they were fishing with my Grandfather in the 1950s/1960s.
Thus, far from the passive nature implied by terms such as unseen and invisible, work within this space details fisherwomen as being renowned for their strength, independence and outspoken manner, which in the context of shifting ideas about gender that was taking place more broadly across Britain at that time, served to set fisherwomen apart as somewhat extraordinary (Nadel-Klein 2000).
Conditions of production
As indicated, the lives lived by fisherwomen were seen as distinct at that time. In this respect, different conditions and modes of production had (and have) different relational consequences. Hall’s (2004) work in this regard is particularly interesting, highlighting how the lived experiences of women within the same space and time could differ quite dramatically, providing an excellent insight into the way that gendered spaces were (are) determined by how production was (is) organised. Comparing the lived realities of women in mining and fishing families in Northumberland at the turn of the last century, Hall’s (2004) research has indicated that, for example, in comparison to their mining counterparts women within fishing communities played a more central and economic role within the family, whilst the role of women within mining communities was limited to the non-economic and domestic sphere.
Indeed, in terms of organisation by that time fishing and mining were quite distinct. Mining by the turn of the twentieth century, having developed rapidly in the sixteenth century (driven by the increasing scarcity of timber alongside the demands of fast developing copper and brass industries) and along lines that required large-scale capital investment (Merchant 1981), was highly capitalised (Hall 2004). Given this, it was structured in a manner whereby miners were employed as wage workers (Merchant 1981). Inshore fishing, in contrast, by that time remained based on shared artisanal work (Hall 2004). In short, the transition to pre-industrial and industrial capitalism occurred much earlier within mining than in fishing, with fishing’s resistance to organisation along capitalistic lines persisting well into the twentieth century, and in some respects continuing to persist today (e.g. see St Martin 2007).
Although the “natural constraints” surrounding fishing ensured that it remained a non-state and less industrialised space for much longer than other occupations, which evidently had implications in terms of gender, resistance to organisation did not (and has not) entailed total insusceptibility. Indeed, authors have indicated that certainly by the nineteenth-century fishing was not totally immune to the shifting relations, market expansion, and technological shifts that were occurring at that time (Nadel-Klein 2000). While this was the case, the “matter of nature” (Bakker & Bridge 2006) however, continued to shape women’s roles within this space. For example, as larger catches were landed, and given the biological characteristics of fish – for instance, it’s propensity to spoil quickly – a considerable onshore effort was required in terms of gutting, salting, and packaging the fish. With respect to herring certainly, there is much evidence documenting the women and girls (married and unmarried) that were central to this work, following fleets around the coasts of Britain and Ireland to this end (Britton 2012; Hall 2004; Nadel-Klein 2000), and becoming politically active when conditions demanded (Nadel-Klein 2000).
Given this aforementioned account of exceptional visibility – how then has the term invisible and marginalised come to so often be coupled with the words women in fisheries? No doubt, the (ongoing) processes of rationalisation, industrialisation, and neoliberalisation of fisheries since the 1950s have been consequential for women within fisheries across Britain, Ireland (and further). Their roles have shifted. Herring girls have been displaced by machination, and trawling does not demand baiting as lines did (Britton 2012). In terms of the geographical space on which this blog has focused, entry into the then EEC most certainly has also had gendered implications (ibid).
Nonetheless, women continue to be involved in all aspects of the fish value chain. Nature continues to pose physical constraints (Castree and Braun 2001) on how fishing is organised. For the majority (for example, inshore and family-based fishing operations) engaged in fishing, the nature of fishing – though the politico-natural context differs – continues to place a demand on how households and communities are organised. Someone being away at sea still requires someone onshore, and women remain involved in actively running the family business (Zhao et al 2014). Alongside this, regulatory burdens place a simultaneous demand on how these households and communities are structured (or perhaps unstructured). In these respects, onshore supportive roles remain crucial to fishing, if not even more so (for instance, given longer hours spent at sea, increased demands in terms of paperwork and regulations), whilst simultaneously they are challenged by the nature of trans-local living arrangements that have become increasingly common.
Thus, while the involvement of women in fishing has not changed, what has changed is that many aspects of this work has been rendered invisible. This is not a glitch, rather the invisibility of women’s work today is reflective of the broader manner in which society (and nature) has been organised. Within fisheries, it is part of a broader pattern of rendering some aspects visible, and others invisible, which has not been inconsequential with respect to the current shape of fisheries. In short, gender inequality is not bad economics or talentism, it is a fundamental part of our current politico-natural configuration. Thankfully, configurations can always be configured otherwise.
 No doubt, and very much in line with this argument gender relations in relation to fisheries (as elsewhere) around the world are diverse, and linked to ecology, local factors, history, policies, politics, economics, cultures and so on (Neiss et al 2005).Thus, the objective of this blog is not to generalise this experience far beyond the cases detailed here. In this respect, there are excellent accounts elsewhere detailing the role of women in fisheries both in the Global North and Global South. The cases I have drawn are down to the fact that this is the space in which I am situated physically, and where my research is currently focused (though not specifically gender focused).
 These communal structures, whilst facilitated by the cooperative nature of the work, and the peripherality of fishing communities within society more generally, was (and is) demanded of fishing given the dangers of a life at sea, and the very real possibility that someone, or indeed whole families or crews might not and don’t come home from sea (Hall 2004).
 This aspect – “control of the purse” – would have been quite different from the level of control over a family’s finances that women in other households exercised, and is a pattern also found in Hall’s (2004) work, whereby, women controlled the finances in a manner that went well beyond the immediate needs of the domestic sphere, but also in terms of the boat itself and her gear. Hall (2004) has further highlighted that fishing women were renowned for their frugality on these matters, whilst the term “shrewd” is used by the commentator in MacLoughlin’s (2010) account – a reasonable characteristic given that the uncertainties entailed by the very nature of fishing demanded a level of frugality, in terms of ensuring that families would have enough when fishing was poor (Hall 2004).
 Hall (2004) suggests that her findings were not unique to Northumberland, but were similar to what would have been similar to those found around England, and perhaps beyond.
 In her work, with respect to Scottish fisherwomen at that time, Nadel-Klein (2010) has suggested that “herring girls” were politically active, and took an active part in the strikes that occurred in the 1920s demanding better wages and living conditions.
 For example, Britton (2012) details the impact that entry into the EEC has had for women in Northern Ireland’s fisheries (and no doubt elsewhere), who for a while took up processing jobs while they lasted, but alongside the decline experienced by fleets, these too have slowly declined.
 For those who might be interested, details with respect to talentism may be found within the World Economic Forum’s (2017) Gender Gap Report.
Bakker, K., & Bridge, G. (2006). Material worlds? Resource geographies and the matter of nature’. Progress in human geography, 30(1), 5-27.
Bavington, D. (2009). Managing to endanger: Creating manageable cod fisheries in Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada. Maritime Studies, 7(2), 99-121.
Britton, E. (2012). Women as agents of wellbeing in Northern Ireland’s fishing households. Maritime Studies, 11(1), 16.
Castree, N., & Braun, B. (2001). Social nature theory, practice, and politics. Blackwell Publishing
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Hall, V. G. (2004, November). Differing gender roles: women in mining and fishing communities in Northumberland, England, 1880–1914. In Women’s Studies International Forum Vol. 27, No. 5-6, pp. 521-530). Pergamon.
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Merchant, C. (1981). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and Scientific Revolution. HarperSanFrancisco
Moore, J. W. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso Books.
Nadel-Klein, J. (2000, May). Granny baited the lines: Perpetual crisis and the changing role of women in Scottish fishing communities. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 363-372). Pergamon.
Neis, B., Binkley, M., Gerrard, S., & Maneschy, M. C. (2005). Changing tides: gender, fisheries and globalization.
St Martin, K. (2007). The difference that class makes: neoliberalization and non‐capitalism in the fishing industry of New England. Antipode, 39(3), 527-549.
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World Economic Forum (2017) The Global Gender Gap Report, available at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2017.pdf
Zhao, M., Tyzack, M., Anderson, R., & Onoakpovike, E. (2014). Women in English fisheries: roles, contributions, barriers and prospects. In Social issues in sustainable fisheries management (pp. 233-254). Springer, Dordrecht.
Photo source National Library of Ireland. Ardglass, Co Down, circa 1910?