There isn’t much of a gender gap in Iceland, except in its maritime industry. But go back in time, and you’ll find women pulling in nets and steering the helm.

Foreman Thurídur

A painting of Foreman Thurídur by Marian McConnell.

Habitually clad in trousers, a rust-coloured coat and a stovepipe hat, Foreman Thurídur was one of Iceland’s great sea captains.

During a career that spanned decades in the 18th and 19th centuries, Thurídur was famous for never losing a crew member at sea, continuously securing large catches of fish and being a stronger rower than any other seafarer out there.

Foreman Thurídur also happened to be a woman. And she wasn’t the only Icelandic female seafarer of her time.

Björg Einarsdóttir, born in 1716, was known for her poetry and her ability to attract fish when she was on a ship — a natural ability Icelanders call fiskin.

Ísafold Runólfsdóttir, born in 1829, had saga-like stories created about her strength and intelligence both on land and at sea. Dýrleif Einarsdóttir, born in 1870, was renowned for her ability to read the weather.

From the past to the present

Having women at sea was quite normal for Icelanders, said Margaret Willson, a cultural anthropologist, writer and affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington.

But this trend has changed.

In the 1990s, Willson said, women made up 13% of the crews operating large-vessel fishing fleets. That number shrank to around 6% by 2011.

A 2021 report by RHA-University of Akureyri Research Centre, examining women in Iceland’s fishing industry, found that nearly 12% of fishing companies employ no women full time and 42% employ five women or fewer.

In the companies that employ women, more than 65% of them work in company offices, leaving only a fraction working at sea.

A history well below the surface

Willson, the author of the 2016 book Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge and a book on Foreman Thurídur titled Woman, Captain, Rebel published in 2023, had no idea there were seawomen other than Foreman Thurídur when she started researching this topic.

But, she writes in Seawomen of Iceland, “we discovered dozens upon dozens of accounts of seawomen, and mentions of hundreds.”

Although Icelandic seafaring women were once common, their stories have until recently existed below the surface of public awareness.

Looking back explains a lot about how Iceland’s maritime industry got to where it is today. Willson’s books are some of the first resources uncovering this forgotten history, helping us understand the role of women in Iceland’s modern maritime industry.

All hands on deck

Historically in Iceland, women’s participation in the labor market was just as much a necessity as an option.

Until the mid-1800s, there was “no concept of a single person being a ‘provider’ for a family,” Willson wrote in Seawomen of Iceland.

“It had been so foreign that the Icelandic language never even had a word for such a role before this time.”

As a small fishing nation, an all-hands-on-deck mentality required everyone’s contribution — regardless of gender.

Sickness and famine impacted the Icelandic populations a few times throughout history, requiring everyone to help gather food. Farm workers, both male and female, also worked at sea to ensure that there was enough food, Willson said.

And a 1720 law ratified by a Danish king who ruled Iceland at the time even ensured women would be paid an equal wage for men’s work, including fishing.

A change in the wind

But around the turn of the 20th century, a European mentality started to influence the Icelandic way of life.

Until then, “everybody did everything”, Willson said, referring to both fishing and shore activities, such as cleaning and salting fish.

“Then you had this division in the early 1900s because of the advent of the motorized boats,” she said.

Instead of small wooden fishing boats that could be dragged on shore, new larger motorized boats required a harbor. This meant that catches were larger and were brought to the port to be processed at a centralized place. As more people were needed to process the larger catches, women at sea were brought ashore.

“You had women working on shore for wages and men going to sea,” Willson said.

Men would still get a share of the fish catch — substantial earnings — and women would work for a lower wage.

From the sea to the shore

Additional events in the last century have taken women even further away from working at sea.

In 1983 for instance, Iceland’s government introduced a fishing quota system that made it difficult for small and family-run fisheries, in which many women found employment at sea, Willson said.

Younger generations were also now more set on moving from their small fishing towns in rural Iceland to the capital, Reykjavik, in pursuit of higher education and wages.

Fishing jobs now largely go to those who immigrated to Iceland in search of better wages themselves.

The result is that fewer Icelanders are working at sea — especially women. And with women in Iceland being less visible in the fishing and maritime industries, their history has been slipping further below the surface.

A male-dominated industry worldwide

Ever since the World Economic Forum issued the first Global Gender Report in 2006, Iceland has consecutively outranked all other countries in it. The 2023 report says the gender gap in Iceland is closed by 91.2%.

But when it comes to working in fishing and maritime industries, women’s participation in Iceland ebbs and flows.

“You have this country that touts itself as having the greatest gender equality in the world — and in many ways it does — but in terms of access to fishing, it’s terrible,” Willson said.

Globally, the industry is just as male-dominated. The International Maritime Organization estimates women account for only 1.2% of the entire maritime industry. But throughout history, women in Iceland have continuously pushed back and fought for recognition within the fishing industry.

Foreman Thurídur, for example, often filed suits on behalf of herself and others, Willson writes in Seawomen of Iceland.

Early in her career, Thurídur also took a boat owner to court over his reluctance to pay her a foreman’s share despite the 1720 law.

“In a testament to the power of these wage laws, Foreman Thurídur won the case,” Willson wrote.

Seafaring women around the globe

In the early 1920s, women working on shore unionized their work in the herring industry. The herring girls, as they were known, went on strike in 1925 during the suffrage movement and successfully increased their wages, Smithsonian magazine reported in 2022.

This presents a lingering question: Are seafaring women unique to Iceland’s history? In the 18th century, Iceland had a near-universal literacy rate. But while everyone was taught to read, only men were taught to write.

“If a woman was worth writing about, then (men) wrote about her,” Willson said.

This means that there is a detailed written history of what Iceland was like before any major outside influence. “This was incredibly central to their whole sense of self and how they sort of survived as a culture,” Willson said.

There are records of Norwegian women, such as Thurídur Sundafyllir, who captained their boats and settled in Iceland during medieval times, and records of Viking women and chieftains, such as one named Gudrid who sailed to Canada.

While other places may not have had the same tradition of keeping written records, it is hard to believe that seafaring women were unique to Iceland’s history. The detailed records that Icelanders kept provide evidence of women seafarers from centuries past.

“Is it just that there’s not the same kind of records in Norway? Or Scotland? Or fill in the blank?” Willson said.

questions to consider:

  1. What role did women have in Iceland’s history of fishing and exploration?
  2. Why is the role seafaring women had in Iceland not more well known?
  3. Have you ever spent significant time on the sea? If so, what was that like? If not, can you imagine what it would be like to do so?
Ashley Perl

Ashley Perl is a journalist covering climate, energy and science based in Stockholm. She is currently a fellow in the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact.

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CultureIn Icelandic history, a woman’s place might be at sea