Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail

Suzanne Stark, Author US Naval Institute Press $29.95 (205p) ISBN 978-1-55750-738-9
Though officially ignored by the Admiralty, women on the vessels of the British Royal Navy, according to this myth-puncturing study, exerted a surprisingly strong presence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, during both peace and war. Stark, an editor at American Neptune magazine, distinguishes three primary sorts of women aboard ship: prostitutes; the wives of warrant officers; and women in male disguise serving as members of the crew. When ships were in port, women in skirts contributed to the atmosphere of pandemonium aboard ship, where the decks were filled with people ""drinking, dancing and fornicating."" At sea, women endured considerable hardship. Pregnancy was common, with childbirth often taking place in the heat of battle, just as surgical crews were preoccupied with tending the wounded. The ""women seamen"" who impersonated their male counterparts, meanwhile, lived in constant fear of being discovered, although unmasking rarely resulted in anything worse than being booted off the crew. Stark explores women's reasons for going to sea, and provides evidence that women have served ably in warfare--but that mingling of the sexes on board ship can bring chaos. This admirable study will garner attention both for its groundbreaking social history and for its contributions to both sides of the women-in-combat debate. Illustrations. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/01/1996
Release date: 04/01/1996
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