This text provides a foundational overview for those who have an interest in, but little knowledge of the history of Icelandic women at sea. It introduces some of the more well-researched and commonly known historical accounts of women seafarers over the centuries, and more recently describes some of the accounts of those who worked in the fishing industry during the 20th century. It provides the reader with a glimpse into an often-overlooked history of Icelandic women’s relationship to fishing and the sea, and the perseverance and strength they have demonstrated.
The earliest accounts of women at sea are described in the Icelandic sagas, which were primarily written in the 13th and 14th centuries. Unnur or Auður djúpúðga Ketilsdóttir—Aud ‘the Deep-Minded’ in English—was a 9th century seafarer whose life story was detailed in several of the sagas. Aud lived at a time when Vikings crossed the northern seas to explore and colonize new lands. According to the Laxdæla Saga, following the death of her son, Aud commissioned a ship to be secretly built in the north of Scotland. She gathered her family, friends, and slaves, and from there set sail with a crew of twenty to lead her people to Iceland, via Orkney and the Faroe Islands. After a successful journey, Aud eventually established herself in the west of Iceland, where it is said that her settlement extended across all the valleys of Breidafjördur.
Aud became one of the few independent female settlers in Iceland. She was well-respected and considered to be exceptionally generous and strong-willed. Upon her arrival in the west, Aud claimed all the lands in Dalasýsla between the rivers Dagverdara and Skraumuhlaupsa. She gave large estates to her family, friends, and crew. She also granted her slaves “freed-men” status, a class between slave and free. Moreover, she gave them land upon which they could farm and earn a living. Aud made her own home at the current church estate of Hvammur in Dalir. Unlike most early Icelandic settlers, she was a devout Christian and is often credited with introducing the religion to Iceland.
In the sagas, a voyage across the northern seas without losing people or goods is quite rare. Aside from being one of a the few female settlers, this is another aspect that makes Aud so unique in Old-Norse literature. It is also possible that Unnur’s first name is derived from the Old-Norse word ‘unnr’ that means “frothing wave.” Unnr (Uðr) is also the name of one of the nine daughters of the Old-Norse deities Ægir and Rán. Each daughter’s name reflects a distinctive characteristic of an ocean wave.
There is a deep connection between Aud and the sea in the Laxdæla saga. Even in death, her body is displayed in a ship filled with treasures. In Landnámabók1 (Book of Settlements), a different account of her passing is told in which she is laid to rest where the ocean waves wash over the shore. Though both stories differ at this key juncture, there remains a clear connection between Aud and the sea. Even though some of the details of Aud’s life remain contested or unclear, Aud’s extraordinary story seems to reflect the events of the period.
There are a few mentions of seawomen in the 1500s and 1600s. Even though female farmhands were expected to work at sea, especially during times of crisis that produced shortages of labor, for instance, when a plague decimated the population in the 1400s, or following a major smallpox outbreak in the early 1700s, little has been written of them.
From the mid 18th century on, women begin to be documented more frequently. Two of the most well-known Icelandic fisherwomen—Thurdur Einarsdóttir, known as Þuríður formaður (Thurdur the foreman) and Björg Einarsdóttir (known as Látra-Björg)—struggled for their seafaring positions, and were accomplished by all accounts, yet they are best remembered for exploits that are not directly related to their work at sea.
Thurdur the foreman was a seawoman and poet that lived from the latter part of the mid-1700s through to the mid-1800s. It was not just her fishing skills that made her renowned, but also her detective abilities. There is evidence that several crimes were solved due to her efforts. She is credited with being one of the country’s greatest fishing captains, reportedly bringing in the largest catches of her contemporaries. Moreover, she did not lose a single crew member during her 60 years of fishing. In addition to her natural ability to fish, she was also independent. When her rights were violated, she was known to have filed lawsuits. In one instance, she reportedly filed a police report after a man verbally harassed her, and in another, she went to the local authorities when a boat owner refused to pay her fair wages as a foreman. Astonishingly, during her lifetime, the 1775 law requiring equal pay for fishermen and fisherwomen was enacted.
Björg Einarsdóttir (or Látra-Björg as she was known)—likely no relation to Thurdur—was another 18th century poet and adept fisherwoman who spent much of her life going to sea in an isolated fjord in northern Iceland. She is best known, however, for her creative fiction writing (skáldskapur), and was thought by some to be able to cast spells through her poetry. Feared, misunderstood, and eventually cast out of society, she wandered the fjords and regional farms as a beggar, writing poems about her encounters, and eventually perished during the time of the Mist Famine.2
There is a rich written history of women seafarers in Iceland. Cultural anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Willson has researched the experiences of hundreds of Icelandic women at sea. She discovered one account by Kristín Ólafsdóttir, a late 19th-century fisherwoman who lived in the Bjarnareyjar islands. ÓLafsdóttir wrote that it was customary only to hire a farmhand if she was prepared to go to sea. Ólafsdóttir suffered many hardships. She was crippled and prone to seasickness, but having no other option than to fish, had her head plunged into the water by her crew to remedy her nausea.3
Willson writes of many other extraordinary accounts of women seafarers over the centuries. She tells of one fisherwoman named Safold Runólfsdóttir, who lived in eastern Iceland during the 1800s, who was said to be so strong that she could pull her boat onto shore by herself. She was also apparently able to lift two 100-pound bags, double that of most men, and would put men in a headlock or throw them into the ocean if they made unwanted sexual advances toward her. In the 18th century, captain Halldóra Clubfoot, whose rowers were all women, regularly defeated her brothers in fishing competitions. Further, in 1868, Rósamunda Sigmundsdóttir, Iceland’s most famous female seal hunter and fisher, was known to have worn red to attract seal pups and landed enormous catches as a result. Willson reports that seawomen were not necessarily discouraged by pregnancy either. In the late 1700s, Anna Björnsdóttir was reported to have fished while in labor, with the encouragement of her father.
Willson’s research counters the notion that the sea was a male space, positing instead that Iceland’s women seafarers were representative of typical everyday coastal life. Níels Einarsson, an anthropologist and director of the Stefansson Arctic Institute in Akureyri, however, challenges Willson’s conclusions. He believes that women seafarers were by far in the minority.4 Likewise, Gunnar Karlsson, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Iceland, believes that women represented a small proportion of seafarers, and that their work was noteworthy because it was unusual. During the 1700s and 1800s, he estimates approximately 10,000 men fished in Iceland each year, and over several generations that number could be estimated to be in the several tens of thousands. Therefore, he surmises that if hundreds of women fished during that period, only about one percent of crew members would have been female.5
Regardless of the figures, it was clearly a difficult life for Icelandic seawomen. They were exposed to snow, wind, and sleet in their open boats. In addition, legal prohibition against women removing their wool skirts to fish, hampered their work and increased their likelihood of drowning if they went overboard.6 Female farmhands were provided with food, shelter, and clothing by their farmers, but they were subject to their control. Farmers usually took the farm laborers’ wages but provided female farmhands with less food and clothing than their male counterparts. Due to the increasing value of fishing in the 18th century, farmers who had access to the ocean contracted farm laborers to work at sea, whether they were men or women. They were distinguished from one another not primarily by their gender, but by their physical strength, although seawomen only earned a third of the wages of their male counterparts before 1775.7 Despite the drawbacks, for some women fishing was a way to escape oppression. Women could lead a more independent life if they worked at fishing outstations for part of the year.
The numbers of women at sea gradually diminished as fishing technology improved, as laws governing marriage and homestead ownership changed, and as attitudes shifted. In the early 1900s, as steam trawlers appeared and people began to move to coastal towns from harbor to harbor, social norms changed, and labor became more divided according to gender. Women became increasingly tied to their responsibilities as wives and mothers and were encouraged to engage with domestic activities like knitting and cooking. Subsequently, their work in the fishing industry became more relegated to utilizing their skills on shore, for example, by hauling the fish off boats and processing the catch.
Iceland became independent from Denmark in 1944. The wealth derived from the commercial fishing industry was a key factor in the leadup to that achievement,8 9 and women were essential to that prosperity. Herring fishing exploded at the beginning of the 20th century, giving rise to boomtowns in the far north of Iceland, in places like Siglufjörður, the country’s largest herring hub. These herring processing centers attracted women from around the country, where they found autonomy and opportunity working in the harbor gutting, cleaning, and salting barrels of freshly caught fish. These women became known as “herring girls” (síldarstúlkur in Icelandic). They were paid by the barrel and could cut, gut, and salt quickly, and often earned more than male dock workers. Between the 1910s and 1960s, these young women formed the backbone of Iceland’s fishing industry.10
Iceland’s herring girls fared better than many seafarers. Still, some women remained committed to their lives at sea. In late 19th century and throughout much of the 20th century, there appear to have been many female fishers in Breidafjördur, the bay containing several small islands where Aud’s family and crew came to settle. Despite gaps in records, Icelandic historian, Thorunn Magnúsdóttir’s research has estimated that at least one-third of seafarers crewing in this region during this time were female, with death records indicating that over half of the rowers on some capsized boats were women.11
There is insufficient evidence to determine whether women’s participation at sea was as high throughout the rest of the country as it was in Breidafjördur. Gunnar Karlsson suggests that the Breidafjördur area might have had an unusually high number of female seafarers because fishing grounds were closer to homes or because women were more likely to row on frequent commutes between islands, so it was more likely that they would have engaged with fishing activities.12 Despite Karlsson’s position, however, there are numerous written accounts of women fishers throughout Iceland that do not indicate that their work was unusual. Willson interviewed more than 150 Icelandic women who worked on boats between 1950 and 2013, including a woman who was once rescued by helicopter from a capsized vessel, and another who had had her finger amputated as a result of a fish bite.
Women at sea have historically suffered from discrimination in various forms, including hazing and sexual harassment. The hiring of modern seawomen has further been hampered by a controversial quota system introduced in the 1980s.13 Following this change in the system, many small businesses were subsumed by large firms whose administrative centers were located far away from the communities in which their operations took place. Seawomen were thus forced to travel to larger cities to apply for employment, instead of finding it through friends and acquaintances in their local harbor. The increasing size of trawlers that stayed at sea for longer periods of time, up to a month or two, also presented an additional obstacle for mothers who needed childcare or did not wish to be separated from their families for long periods of time. More recently, the economic collapse in 2008 resulted in many unemployed men seeking fishing jobs, which led to further displacement of women in the industry.
According to Willson’s research, about 13 percent of large boat crews were women in 1999. That percentage had fallen to 6 percent by 2011. The fisheries and aquaculture sectors today account for approximately 2% of Iceland’s labor force overall, and a 2015 FAO report assesses women’s overall representation in the fisheries workforce (harvest and post-harvest) to be 33 percent for 2013.14 This number, however, does not distinguish how many are women seafarers. Most women at sea in Iceland today work for tourism companies, such as whale- or puffin-watching boats.
Elsewhere around the world, more studies are needed to assess the contributions and the health and wellbeing of women seafarers in general, both at sea and on shore. The FAO concluded that though women participate in all segments of the seafood industry, including fishing, farming, trading and selling, monitoring and administration, they suffer a “widespread lack of consideration for their role and work”, which disadvantages them and ultimately prohibits them from “participating fully and equitably in the industry.”15 Another 2015 survey of the health and welfare of women seafarers concluded that there is a large degree of gender-based discrimination and a noteworthy lack of health and support services for women at sea.16 More recently, a 2022 global survey by WISTA International, determined that women seafarers experience significant rates of onboard gender-based discrimination, harassment and bullying.17 The research suggests that despite critical ongoing contributions, gender discrimination and inequality is still putting women seafarers at risk.
Although many fascinating accounts of women seafarers in Iceland have been documented throughout history, their contributions have largely gone unnoticed, and their tenacity and determination have been undervalued or ignored. Despite Iceland being well-known for a culture of social progress and gender equality, holding a profession as a woman at sea still requires pushing past many barriers. In the 21st century, as the waters around Iceland warm, pushing many fish further north out of reach of Icelandic fishers and creating more competition for a place in the industry, no doubt women will continue to struggle for their place at sea.
Margaret Willson, Sea Women of Iceland: Survival on the Edge
1 Landnámabók, the medieval Icelandic text also known as Landnáma, describes in great detail the Norse settlement of Iceland during the 9th and 10th centuries CE.
2 On June 8, 1783, in the highlands of southeastern Iceland, a volcano erupted, creating a fissure 27 km in length. It tore through the landscape, triggering earthquakes, causing more eruptions and fissures, and creating more than a hundred new craters, vents and cones. Almost 600 km2 was covered with lava. Thick dry fog choked Europe, blood-red sunsets filled summer skies, and violent thunderstorms were frequent. 1783 became known as annus mirabilis, the year of awe. The eruptions continued, producing enormous amounts of gases and ash. Sulfur in the air resulted in breathing difficulties and sore eyes for many. Fluorine gas poisoned the fields, meadows, and ponds. Half of all Iceland’s cattle, four out of five of every sheep, and three quarters of the horses died, in addition to the fish and other aquatic life in the ponds, and a host of other animals. During this period, Icelandic diets were mostly meat and fish-based, so the eruptions had devastating consequences. The events lasted until February 7, 1784. By 1785, approximately 20 percent of the Icelandic population had died from hunger, malnutrition, or disease. In Iceland, this time is known for its consequences—the Famine of the Mist (Móðuharðindin in Icelandic).
3 Willson, Margaret. Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge. University of Washington Press, 2016.
4 Kwok, Roberta. “Iceland’s Forgotten Fisherwomen.” Sapiens, Sapiens, 28 Sept. 2017, https://www.sapiens.org/culture/icelandic-fisherwomen-forgotten/.
5 A legally-enforced social norm dictated that women dress in heavy woolen skirts, even when fishing, unless they obtained special permission from a local magistrate to wear leather pants.
6 A legally-enforced social norm dictated that women dress in heavy woolen skirts, even when fishing, unless they obtained special permission from a local magistrate to wear leather pants.
7 Farmhands had few rights and no entitlement to the profits from a fishing catch.
8 The rich fisheries of Iceland have attracted fishing fleets from around Europe since the Middle Ages. In premodern Iceland, however, ocean fishing was only permitted as a part-time occupation for farmers, trapping the country in abject poverty until the late 19th century. Landowners tied labor to their land to prevent competition in the labor market. Danish colonial policy of isolation and monopoly trade reinforced the constraint. Only after free trade was introduced did a vibrant fishing industry emerge.
9 Eggertsson, Thráinn. “No Experiments, Monumental Disasters: Why It Took a Thousand Years to Develop a Specialized Fishing Industry in Iceland.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol. 30, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1–23., https://doi.org/10.1016/s0167-2681(96)00839-6.
10 Heath, Elizabeth. “How Iceland’s Herring Girls Helped Bring Equality to the Island Nation.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, 8 Feb. 2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-icelands-herring-girls-helped-bring-equality-to-the-island-nation-180979513/.
11 Magnúsdóttir Thórunn. Sjókonur Á Islandi: 1891-1981. Sögufélag, 1988.
12 Kwok, Iceland’s Forgotten Fisherwomen, 2017
13 Eliason, Matt. “A Fish Stock Market: Iceland’s Controversial Quota System.” Iceland Magazine, Torg Ehf, 15 Sept. 2014, https://icelandmag.is/article/a-fish-stock-market-icelands-controversial-quota-system.
14 Monfort , Marie Christine. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: GLOBEFISH Research Programme, 2015, The Role of Women in the Seafood Industry, https://www.fao.org/3/bc014e/bc014e.pdf.
16 Stannard, Suzanne, et al. “Women Seafarers’ Health and Welfare Survey.” International Maritime Health, vol. 66, no. 3, 2015, pp. 123–138., https://doi.org/10.5603/imh.2015.0027.
17 “Press Release – The Diversity Handbook .” WISTA International, Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association, 24 Oct. 2022, https://wistainternational.com/news/press-release-the-diversity-handbook/.