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The 2020 Stefansson Memorial Lecture: Seawomen of Iceland

Date & Time

Dec. 1, 2020
2:30pm – 4:00pm ET


Note: please submit any questions for the Q&A section to

Though most in modern Iceland assume seafaring was and is primarily male-dominated, Iceland’s rich written record reflects a very different reality—one where hundreds, even thousands, of women participated consistently in sea fishing from the earliest medieval times in the mid-900s to the near present. Their insights and experiences provide a deep understanding of shipboard dynamics in the Arctic, as well as the ways female crew members may influence a ship’s working environment. Based on extensive historical and field research, Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge by Dr. Margaret Willson is the first large-scale study of this important—and as yet largely invisible—group of women, their lives, contributions to, and knowledge of Arctic fishing.

Please join us for the Stefansson Memorial Lecture to explore the importance of a gendered perspective toward fisheries policy and practices in Iceland and the wider Arctic. In partnership with Iceland’s Stefansson Arctic Institute and the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College, the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute is pleased to host this keynote lecture with professor and author Dr. Margaret Willson to commemorate the life and work of Vilhjálmur Stefansson, famed 20th century Arctic explorer, anthropologist, author, and policy advisor, to be followed by an expert panel discussion.

This event is part of a Wilson Center series held in recognition of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (November 25 – December 10, 2020), an international campaign to build awareness and galvanize action in the fight against violence against women and girls.

Speaker Quotes

Margaret Willson

“[Throughout the early 20th century], there is gender division. There’s a lot more influence from Europe and the gender divisions are becoming much more concretized and there’s this growing idea that a woman should be a housewife—this was becoming elevated, that that was her role. The accounts begin to change, she was as good at sea as she was knitting; or it was said she liked to be as sea as much as working in the kitchen. She is still being applauded for her work at sea but she’s firmly being placed within the house and her sea work is now adjunct—it’s outside her primary role. In the early 1900s, you see this shift again. Then, you begin to get derogatory comments about women at sea but you also get the people who want to defend them [...]. It’s now unwomanly for women to go to sea. Another major thing that happened in Iceland at this time is called Iceland’s Industrial Revolution. This is when they got motorized boats, bigger boats, controller type boats that would go out for much longer and come back when they caught much more fish [...]. Guess what? In this division, the people on shore who earned very low wages were women and the people on the boats were men and this is when the sea becomes masculinized. You first start hearing reports of women not lucky on boats and things like that, they have a superstition.”

“The women diffused that shore-sea divide. They brought onto the boat a more integrated community that they felt was not so far from shore, that people felt more connected and this family atmosphere was quite strong.”

“The mobility in Iceland has increased, improved massively. The roads are much better than they used to be and people with cars can go to Reykjavik. There were some sliding away from these communities, some people are going back now. You have real big economic changes. Now, tourism (not this year) and aluminum smelting are big economic boosts. Fishing is no longer seen as the job to have. When people are looking at the job, they’re looking at better education. Women have much better access to education, their income inequality is much higher, so it’s really changed and women aren’t going into it.”

Embla Eir Oddsdóttir

“This work is casting a stronger light on what we all know to be true already, that women have been hidden creatures, invisible from the pages of history [...] and interests, knowledge, and strengths of women that have been sort of created and perpetuated, myths that are based on alternative truths which for some reason have taken a stronghold on our realities. I also think that Margaret [Willson] is providing us with role models, I think that the importance of role models should never be underestimated. It is enormously important for many reasons, but not least does it help us dispel myths and bring to light images of strong characters that can show young women of today that there may be alternative paths to choose, paths they thought were unavailable to them. Now, not saying that this means that these paths are easy or clear, they’re likely filled with obstacles, although I find that most paths do have some hurdles. It may be existing structures that resist women from taking certain paths, but knowing that other women have walked in these shoes may make the struggle to move forward a little bit more bearable.”

“We have made some forward strides of course, not least due to the increased number of educated women, but they still struggle to deal with the male spaces or with reaching higher levels of positions. While we find more of them in project management for instance or at middle management levels, the top layers of society are still largely populated by men, and why does this even matter? Well, we could go into a philosophical discussion on equality, fairness, just societies, and basic respect, or we could just discuss why greater diversity at higher levels of decision-making processing bodies is crucial. The places where choices are made, the road maps for our communities are laid and policies for hopefully sustainable futures are forged.”

 “We have found how empowerment is a recurring theme not only for women and girls but also men and boys, LGBTQ+ communities, indigenous communities, and it seems to me that this is our big task ahead: finding ways to empowerment and although it can be somewhere elusive and difficult to fathom, capture, and maintain—whether it be at group community or individual level- little pockets of empowerment can spring from unexpected sources.”

Linda Behnken

“Every time I would see someone haul out a boat I would go offer to help paint or scrape or just find some way that I could work and help out. And eventually, when some deck hand didn’t show up or showed up drunk I got my first chance to go fishing […]. There weren’t that many women working on boats, but the women who were either running their own boats or working on boats were well respected.”

“There were skippers who preferred to hire women, especially on the trawlers because they knew women or they thought women would take really good care of the fish and were more adept at managing the gear. And then there were skippers who didn't think women were strong enough, and there were also skippers who had wives who wouldn’t let them hire women if there was just going to be the two of them on the boat. So really there was a full spectrum.”

“It’s really difficult to help young people come into the fisheries or get started in the fisheries, so we’ve started an apprentice program to help people get that first job. We’ve run over 50 people through it—over half of them women—to give them that start.”

Hosted By

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

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