A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2020 Sep 23, 17:46 -0700
Don Seltzer, quoting Joan Druet, who wrote:
"it was by no means unusual for the captain's wife to be able to navigate."
That's fair phrasing... "by no means unusual". That's basically how I describe it in my workshop "Celestial Navigation in the Age of Sail". A couple of points: there is culture to consider. Yes, this was common on American commercial vessels for a period of time from the middle of the 19th century through the early 20th century, it seems, but this was mostly because it was not unusual for wives to join their husbands at sea on long voyages. They could not join as crew. Also, nautical astronomy could even have been listed as acceptable "women's work" -- no heavy-lifting and lots of clerical and mathematical detail. But were there women navigators on German vessels? Or Spanish vessels? It obviously wasn't the case on navy vessels anywhere. There are a lot of particulars and cultural differences.
The late 20th century state of the subject where men were dominant and chauvinism was common can, I think, probably be traced to the post-war era and the rapid rise in sexism during the 1950s (again, speaking specifically of American culture). Huge numbers of men were trained to be navigators during the war and very few women, and they created the illusion of a "man's world" subject.
Susan Howell at Mystic Seaport Museum was certainly widely respected in the 1970s/80s as a navigation teacher and textbook author (teaching was counted as women's work in the 70s), but as a competent navigator? No. Women were relegated to a backup role. Such a sadness Sue Howell died young. By the beginning of the 21st century, times had changed somewhat, and my navigation classes are often 30% women, but still certainly a minority.
It's an unfortunate mark against the NavList community that we have only occasional women members, but there's no easy solution.
The quote from Joan Druet ends with a comment about "Mrs. Cressy" and unless there's some crazy coincidence involving another navigating woman named Cressy, this is a reference to the navigation of the clipper ship Flying Cloud (some details). So I assume that her comments here were intended to counter the impression that many have taken away from the story of Flying Cloud that Cressy was some kind of mathematical or navigating genius --exceptional, rare, and exotic (which would itself be a sexist conclusion). A navigating woman was "by no means unusual" --as Pruet says at the top-- from the middle of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, at least aboard American commercial vessels.
PS: Don, thank you so much for sharing these comments from Joan Pruet.