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Searching for Ahab's Wife

by Mary Shafer

Lisa Norling

Lisa Norling
Photo by Diana Watters

Lisa Norling

Associate professor, history

Education

B.A. magna cum laude, Cornell; Ph.D., Rutgers

Awards

Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book in American History, Organization of American Historians, for Captain Ahab Had a Wife.

John Lyman Award for best book in American Maritime History, North Atlantic Society for Oceanic History, for Captain Ahab Had a Wife.

L. Byrne Waterman Award for Outstanding Contribution to Whales and Whaling-Related Research and Pedagogy in the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, the Kendall Institute of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

McKnight Land Grant Professorship (U of M).

If she weren't a scholar …

“I think I’d be a librarian. I have always loved books and always loved libraries as a community center. Libraries are wonderful social institutions.”

If she's having a bad day …

“It depends on the weather. If it's not too bad out, I walk along the river. If it's a really, really bad day, I have to leave people and go out into nature. I have to emulate Thoreau, I guess.”

A “lightbulb” moment

“When I was working as a secretary, taking courses in labor and women's history, I suddenly saw that history was such a powerful way of understanding the context that shapes people. For the first time I even understood my mother!”

If she could take just three books to a desert island, they would be…

“Something exciting and important in women's history, maybe A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.And then, a novel, something I rarely have time for. I’d take Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. And of course, Melville's Moby Dick. It's the ultimate American novel. I’ve read it seven or eight times.”

As troops are sent to Iraq, Lisa Norling's work could shed some light on the travails of family members left behind. But there's one big difference: Today, it's not just women who are keeping the home fires burning.

When Sarah Potter Howland wrote to her seafaring husband in 1852, her sentiments may have echoed those of any number of her neighbors in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “I have always had a good home,” Mrs. Howland wrote, “but I have ever felt homeless.” Mrs. Howland was a nineteenthcentury whaleman's wife. Her story—and that of countless New England women whose husbands went to sea for months and years at a time—is told in the book Captain Ahab Had a Wife, by associate professor of history Lisa Norling.

Norling—whose undergraduate research continued through her dissertation at Rutgers in 1992 and culminated with the book's publication in 2000—didn't expect to find such contradictory feelings of domestic serenity and homeless desperation when she began exploring the letters, diaries, and account books of these nineteenthcentury New England women. She had expected, she says, to find “a bunch of strong women” who were living lives at odds with the cultural norm of “true womanhood”—the view of women as models of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

“I wanted to know how families functioned with repeated lengthy separations in a society that operated more and more on the assumption that a ‘home ’ meant a married couple with kids, in which the man was the breadwinner and the woman the homemaker,” says Norling. “I was intrigued by how people internalized and measured themselves against such standards in the past—and by how we’re still living this out today. I wanted to find some women who hadn't bought into this model.”

New England maritime women seemed like the perfect choice. Here were women who, though married, were working for wages, taking in boarders, or doing piecework to pay the bills while their husbands were at sea. They borrowed and bartered and kept track of business.

In spite of the realities, however, these women held on fiercely to the ideals of nineteenthcentury domesticity, their lived experience contrasting sharply with their commitment to gender ideals.

“These were mostly middle class people who, even as they were dispensing with ideas about what is appropriate for women, still found the prescriptions and norms really, really important,” says Norling. “They lived with a continuing sense of depression that they couldn't live up to these ideals. Even as they were living life on one level, they were conceptualizing it on another.”

A sustaining script

And why did they continue to hold on to ideas that seemed irrelevant? Norling believes that in this rigidly divided world, where men went to sea and women remained in charge of household organization, couples had to rely on prescribed gender roles to construct and maintain their relationships.

“I believe that in the absence of each other, they needed something to maintain their relationships,” Norling says. “They couldn't interact on a daily basis, so they relied on a script to construct gender roles and sustain them.”

The script was the prevailing Victorian norm emphasizing romantic love as the anchor for family nurturance. So the writings that Norling unearthed are filled with romantic longing, and with loss that nothing else could fill.

“Ironically,” Norling says in her book, “the reliance on prescription sharpened the difference between sea and shore and ended up reinforcing the very ideas that the fishery made impossible to achieve.”

In crucial ways, Norling believes, the maritime industry itself contributed directly to and even depended for its economic survival on the old scripts that sent the men out to sea and kept the women pining away while they minded the homefront.

“The industry was built around the assumption that men could go away for many years at a time and still count on family support. Shipowners manipulated ideas about family attachment so they could send men out to sea and bring them home again. This rhythm was essential to how the industry was organized.”

Intersecting histories

Although scholars had delved into both women's and maritime history when Norling began her research, little had been done to fuse the two.

“I found tons of material that others had overlooked—simply because the work of women's historians and maritime historians had not intersected,” Norling says. “I remember once flipping through an 1850s account book when I found a letter from a wife to a ship owner asking for a cash advance because she was desperate. People who study account books don't think this kind of thing is interesting. And women historians don't think to look in the accounting books.”

A New England native, Norling grew up breathing in East Coast history. It was during a stint as a secretary—when she temporarily left her undergraduate studies— that she became passionate about labor history and women's place in it. The research has made the history more present and personal as she has stepped inside the skin of those Victorian women.

“At one point, I remember looking at a diary owned by a woman's great-grandson,” Norling says. “I was in her farm house outside New Bedford, sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window she had looked out, looking at the same apple trees. It was so poignant.

“On the other hand,” she laughs, “maybe I just like to read other people 's mail.”

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