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"Good looks don't boil the pot": Irish-Newfoundland women as fish(-producing) wives
Dr. Willeen Keough, Simon Fraser University
[FLV 147,750 KB]
Thank you, Bruce. I sort of wondered what I was doing in the midst of this panel as well. I think they were kind of desperate in terms of placing me, but the people whom I am going to be talking about today actually came out to Newfoundland well in advance of the great Famine; they came from about 1750 to about 1830. So they are a different crew, a different crowd as we would say, but there is an element of commemoration in my talk and so I guess that's how I ended up in here. Anyway, I'll try to get you warmed up for the rest of them. I certainly want to thank Library and Archives Canada for inviting me here and thank all of you for coming out today. I am certainly going to enjoy our discussions over the next two days and meeting new people who are interested in Irish Canadian Studies and re-acquainting myself with some old friends. But I'll get going here now.
The two buildings that comprise the Civic Centre in St. John's each boast a sculpted representation of maritime womanhood. At the entrance to the stadium, a colorful, fiberglass mermaid poses provocatively for passers-by — one of many that surfaced on the streets of St. John's in the summer of 2006. Now according to the sponsor's web page, this is "Nemah," which is "ancient mermaidian" for "the heart of a child." She's apparently swum "the seven seas exploring the wonders of the world beneath the waves" and "can sometimes be spotted sitting on the rocks off Cape St. Francis gazing out at the sunset."
Across the street, two Newfoundland women, cast in aluminum in front of the conference centre, lift a 'barra'. A barra is like a flat, sort of stretcher device with handles at each end. So they are lifting a barra loaded with salt fish. And it seems appropriate that a four-lane dual carriageway divides them — symbolic of the disjuncture in meaning that is created by these two forms. The mermaid is an anachronistic, sexualized, some would say vulgar, image that emerged as a fund-raising gimmick and tourist attraction in the "City of Legends." The cast aluminum sculpture represents the more iconic status of women who worked in household production in the Newfoundland fisheries well into the twentieth century. And it is this latter understanding of maritime womanhood that I wish to explore today by examining women in Irish-Newfoundland fishing communities along the southern Avalon Peninsula.
Now my paper will not talk about fishwives in any popular sense of the word. These women did not market fish; they produced salt fish for market. And while some middle-class observers of the day may have found them coarse and bold, within their own families and fishing communities, they were seen as essential partners who contributed equally to family economies. Within a sexual division of labour that assigned vital and complementary work to both men and women, Irish-Newfoundland fish-producing wives carried out hard physical labour at public sites of production. This contributed significantly to the construction of womanhood as "essential worker," which, in turn, had broader repercussions for their status and authority within their fishing communities.
As in other European settlements of colonial North America, women in Newfoundland were a stabilizing influence on communities; but there was a significant difference in the Newfoundland context. For centuries, the island had been considered a British fishing station rather than a colony. Indeed, well into the eighteenth century, authorities tried to discourage the presence of women there in order to try to maintain the hub of the fishing industry in the west of England. A predominantly male fishing population, largely transient, came out from the West Country and also from the south of Ireland for a fishing season or two, maybe for several years, but ultimately with the intention of returning back home. But as increasing numbers of women came to Newfoundland, and Irish women came to the southern Avalon in the eighteenth century, that provided a basis for a permanent population. And in fact, we see that matrilineal bridges and matrilocal residence patterns often featured in early settlement as male immigrants came in and settled down in the communities of their wives.
But also more fundamental to community formation was women's contribution within the work cycle. They performed a broad range of inside and outside work activities, but absolutely key to the success of the settlement process was these women's ability to adapt to fishing production. Now this was quite a feat for women from the south of Ireland, who came from farming backgrounds, backgrounds in the woollen industry.
Some, primarily widows, operated independent fishing premises in their own names. What you are looking at there is a grant in 1773 to Mary Shea, and she is being given a property in Ferryland to use provided that she can continue to use it for the purposes of the fishery. So she was a fishing employer. Other women managed fishing premises with their husbands or their cohabiting partners, and so they were boarding fishing servants and juggling the resources of the household as well as taking on other responsibilities. Other women came out to the area as hired fishing servants; some were hired in Ireland and had their passages paid out; others were hired when they arrived. And increasingly, women processed fish in family production units, replacing that hired, transient, primarily male shore crew that had been operating in the traditional planter fishery. And I cannot emphasize how critical this was, particularly in the early 1800's. Now the transition to household production was already underway in the late 1700's. But the shift really escalated in the severe depression and bankruptcies that followed the Napoleonic Wars after 1815. And this was a period when the old migratory fishery was in its death throes because it had just absolutely been blown out of the water by almost continuous warfare; they just couldn't operate anymore.
The resident fishery that was based on the planter fishery and was massively dependent on hired labour, was also in serious trouble, because employers could no longer afford to pay the inflated wages from the war years and found themselves caught short when fish prices plummeted in their markets. So that traditional fishery was struggling. So when the migratory fishery was nearing collapse and the traditional planter fishery based on hired labour was in crisis, women increasingly took the place of male fishing servants in producing salt fish for market. So their intervention was critical. Without women's capacity to adapt their routines to include this additional work, the beleaguered resident fishery would have been hard-pressed to survive after 1815. And we all know how difficult it is for Newfoundland to continue without its fishing industry. So it was very, very critical.
Women processed fish onshore. They were splitting, washing, and salting it, carrying it in those barras that you saw earlier over rocky shores and along steep cliff faces, spreading and re-spreading the fish on flakes, carefully monitoring the drying process. Now how important was this work? Well, in the traditional planter fishery, hired shore crews were paid higher than the boat crews, so it was seen as vital, skilled work. And indeed, many household mistresses performed the same duties as the "master of the voyage," as it was called in the old planter fishery—the supervisor of the shore crew, whose work had been of equivalent value to the boat master's in that older form of fishery. Women's skill and judgment were vital throughout the curing process, for if the fish was damaged or did not contain the right amount of salt or moisture for its intended market, the quality was ruined. Quintals of fish might become sunburned or maggoty if the shore crew was not diligent. It was difficult, physical hard work, and had to be juggled with childcare, housework, and other outdoor work. Yet the processing of fish took absolute priority. As one elderly Cape Boyle woman told me, "If the fish wasn't spread when the men came in from the water, there'd be some racket."
Still, these women did not look at shore work as drudgery and they "loved to be at it." Indeed, many fishing families hired female servants—or "shipped girls," as they were called —not just to help their mistresses with household routines, but to "free" their mistresses from childcare and household duties so that the mistresses could go down and produce the fish. Nor was the "respectability" of this outdoor work at issue. Women saw themselves as full participants in the family enterprise in which they held an equal stake, and they took pride in their capacity to contribute to that process. Furthermore, the value and dignity of their work was acknowledged by the larger community. The perception of these women as essential, skilled workers in the fishery was an integral part of their own self-image and of the construction of womanhood within the broader fishing community.
Adding to this image was women's vital contribution to the subsistence agriculture that was crucial to the survival of the family work unit. Women performed numerous labour-intensive tasks — clearing land, planting, fertilizing, weeding, trenching, haymaking, harvesting. Men and women worked together in the spring and the fall of the year; but in the summer, when men spent most of the day fishing, women assumed the greater responsibility for the gardens. Women also shared in the care of livestock. And in fact, fattening of the family pig and the care of fowl, with the potential for earning extra cash or extra credit, was primarily carried out by women. Woman also performed very arduous outdoor work in relation to housewifery — shouldering windfall branches home from the woods on these wooden frames or in brin bags, so that "you could just see their legs coming down the road"; or trying to carry 5 or 6 gallons of water from a well that perhaps might be a half-mile away from the house. Those who were "too sickly" or "too grand" to go down to the flake or into the fields or into the woods were objects of pity or scorn. Only local middle-class women, a very small, predominantly English group, followed the pattern of withdrawing into domesticity during this period.
Far from being economically dependent, these women were actively engaged in a variety of economic activities—not just household production, but paid work as domestic and fishing servants, as washerwomen and seamstresses for single fishermen and middle-class clients. They worked in the hospitality trade and in community healing. Surviving merchant account books demonstrate robust participation of women in the economic lives of their communities, running independent economic activities and having separate accounts with their merchant, regardless of their marital status, which is unusual. And because Newfoundland's economy operated on a "truck" or credit system, these women were therefore a significant part of the exchange economy that underwrote the entire fishery.
I am just going to show you a couple of examples of accounts, they are not the originals because they would be too hard to read so I have typed them up for you. This is an 1840 account from Mary Foley with the merchant firm Goodridge's of Renews. And you can see from the debit side, the left-hand side, that she has received supplies from the merchant on her own account. And on the credit side, which is the right-hand side, we can see that she has partially "paid" for her supplies by providing eggs, ducks, and cream to the merchant house. She has also been washing; if you can see the lower part there, she has been washing and sewing for fishermen in the community. You see Philip Power, John Sheen, William Roe, and John Beer's names there. And this, too, has been credited to her account. Now what has happened is a contra entry has been made in the merchant's books by debiting the accounts of these male customers, so her washing and sewing will show up on the debit side of their account and then they will ultimately pay in cash or kind, or, more likely, bring in fish and oil at the end of the season to pay and that's how the system worked.
Here is another one. This is Julia McCarthy also with Goodridge's. And we can see there on the right-hand side on her credit account that she was sewing and washing for the Goodridge family itself; also, for fishermen in the Renews area. She worked as shore crew on Goodridge's flakes—down at the bottom there, you can see thirteen-and-a-half days work on the flakes—and she sold hay to the firm. And there are numerous similar examples. All these women made important contributions to family incomes through cash or earning extra credit. Some even had their profits applied towards their husbands' accounts. Most remained in debt to the merchant, but this was true of most men as well, and this was a chronic symptom of the "truck" system. And the fact that merchants carried their debts over from one year to the next indicates that they had some reasonable expectations that they were going to get something out of this down the road, that they would be paid. So the working careers of Irish women within the fishing community were quite multi-faceted, and their fishing work, while crucial, was just part of a package of economic coping skills that helped make family ends meet.
Women's contribution to family economies had repercussions not just within their families, but in the broader and social economic life of their communities. And I find that they really enjoyed considerable status, power, and decision-making autonomy. They were household managers, responsible for looking after any small amounts of cash the family might have earned and stretching resources to get their families through that "long and hungry month of March," before the merchants advanced "spring diets" on credit. In marriages, they were seen as partners, rather than helpmates, and men and women discussed concerns and made major decisions together. Although a veneer of patriarchal authority was maintained in public, men had usually consulted with their wives before airing their opinions on community matters or before settling up with the merchant in the fall. As a local saying goes: "She made the cannonballs, and he fired them." And please note that this influence had nothing to do with male absence — as often that explanation offered in other fishing areas — because these were inshore fishing communities, so the men returned from the water every day. So that doesn't help us explain this.
There were other spheres in which they these women exercised informal power. And I can't go into them because I am conscious of my time constraints, but there are two that I am just going to briefly mention here. Maybe we can talk about them later. Firstly, there was the spiritual realm, where Irish-Newfoundland women acted as both spiritual guides and symbolic figures in both formal Catholicism and also an informal, pre-Christian system of beliefs and practices. Secondly, there was a very public sphere of conflict resolution, be it through verbal wrangling or physical assault in individual assaults or collective actions, but we certainly see them very, very out there. Also in the court system, another place that we see them, as complainants and defendants in a wide range of actions from debt collection and employment disputes to matrimonial matters and criminal charges.
And we really must resist the urge when we do women's history to summon up the image of woman as the "helpless victim" in all these court cases, because this would not even closely resemble the complexity of their involvement. For example, women in assault cases in court were aggressors almost as often as they were victims, by a proportion of 86:100 in my study. And when they were assailants, they were just as likely to pick on the men as the women. So it is quite evident that the assertiveness of these women was not at all shocking to the local community and that they felt that they had the right to protect the interests of themselves or their families or communal interests in the public sphere.
And it is also very interesting to note the very matter-of-fact way that local magistrates dealt with these women in the courtroom. And I don't want to belittle the systemic discrimination that women encountered through the formal legal system. But it is always really important to monitor how statutory law and common law plays out on the ground.
Local magistrates on the southern Avalon gave women access to formal legal processes, even waiving coverture on occasion; they meted out similar judgments and sentences to both men and women; they did not in any way encourage abused women to go back to failed marriages; they recognized separations on the ground; they upheld women's rights to fair and decent treatment within employment contracts. Certainly, although they increasingly monitored the behavior of women in their own class, in the middle class, they did not try to encourage these fishing women to adopt any sort of modified form of plebeian respectability and certainly did not try to encourage them towards domesticity and economic dependence. And that's quite different from what we see in many other British jurisdictions. But these men, these magistrates, were predominantly from mercantile families, and they made their money by supplying local fishing families in return for their fish and oil. And the resident fishery had become overwhelmingly dependent upon the household production unit in which the labor of these fisher women — work that took place in public — on stages, on flakes — was essential and accepted. And, as noted, these women, in their various economic capacities, were also very much part of the exchange economy. So it was, therefore, not in the interests of these magistrates and merchants to encourage the withdrawal of these fish-producing women into the respectability of the private sphere.
So I am going to conclude now. I am just going to return to my opening comments about these fish-producing wives. I mentioned their iconic status; and what I am talking about here is the cultural memory of these women. Granted, they had been written out of the traditional history books until very recent times, but the collective historical memory of the area celebrates women's participation in fish processing work. I was told by a couple of historians of the Newfoundland fishery, by the way, that women simply could not lift the barras, that they would not have been physically strong enough to do that heavy work. So you can imagine my delight when I came across this photograph of a woman lifting a barra on a flake. But the oral tradition also insisted when I was doing my research that women did this work as well.
And I am just going to tell you a little anecdote, a very brief one, about a woman by the name of Mary-Johnny Kavanagh of Caplin Bay, who worked in the family fishery and regularly carried one end of a barra. Now the physics of the matter demanded that if you were going to share the weight equally, then you carried the handles out by the very end. But if one person was going to take the brunt of the load, then that person had to carry the handles closer into the platform where the fish was loaded. Anyway, one day, Mary-Johnny was coming up with one of those steep cliffs carrying one end of the barra and the other carrier was a rather slight man and he was clearly faltering in the effort. And Mary-Johnny turned around and said to him, " Ah, ya poor little bugger, sure I'm going to have to catch that in for ya now." And note that this little anecdote, it celebrates Mary-Johnny, it does not talk about him at all. It does not name him, so it is not an anecdote to belittle him; it's an anecdote to celebrate Mary-Johnny's involvement. She was another one of those multi-tasking women that I've talked about. You know, in the family fishery, she raised a family of seven boys, she was a washerwoman for a middle-class family in Ferryland and she would walk from Caplin Bay to Ferryland everyday or every other day, pick up the load, bring it back, wash it, dry it and then repeat the journey with a clean load. She was also a midwife for the area and very highly respected — one of those community midwives about whom there are dozens of stories about their abilities and their commitment — e.g., Mary-Johnny you know attending in the winter, the horse can't go on, but she walks through the drifts up to her waist to reach the expectant mother.
Yet Mrs. Mary-Johnny was no drudge. She was also neither a coarse harridan of a woman. Just look at her picture there. I mean, doesn't she look fine, doesn't she just look the epitome of self-assurance and strength? And from everything I've heard about Mary-Johnny, she was the backbone of her family: Johnny was a fine looking fella, but he was a bit "come day, go day, God send Sunday" in his work ethic.
Here is another picture of another bunch of fish-producing wives. It is a little unclear, I know, but you can see them down here. They are enjoying a rare day out at the end of summer at Stone Island with their husbands and brothers. Again, not drudges. Now, I don't want to glamorize their lives because that would be silly. You know, they worked bloody hard; but then, so did the men. And while they probably would have seen themselves as oppressed by class, if somebody had bothered explain that concept to them, I don't think that they would have seen themselves as oppressed by their gender — certainly not in the immediacy of their day-to-day lives; and that's really what mattered to them. They merely pulled their weight, along with the men, in their families and communities.
When I conducted oral fieldwork along the southern Avalon, interview subjects were very forthcoming and almost hagiographic in their comments about women's contribution to early settlement. "Women did it all," one subject told me. "They'd be dead without the women." This perception resounded throughout the interviews that I conducted, and it was articulating the sense that women carried extra responsibility because of their combined productive and reproductive roles. Men and women also acknowledged the significance of women's influence and informal power. One elderly man framed the discussion of this older form of marriage partnership in contrast to the perception of more contemporary gender relations. He said: "There was none of this 'men against the women' stuff back then. Everyone was equal. Everyone was the same. Everyone had their work to do and they did it, and that's all there was to it."
Thus, the local cultural memory has retained the image of the essential fish-producing wife. Although she was buried by the detritus of conventional male-centered narratives in traditional history books, the ideal woman of Irish fishing communities — the "good, hard-working stump of a girl" — persisted in the collective historical memory of the southern Avalon. By contrast, the lovely Nemah, gazing wistfully out to sea, would have made little impression in these communities, for as anyone in the area could tell you, "Good looks don't boil the pot."
National Archives of Ireland [www.nationalarchives.ie]