Masculinity, Fishermen, and Gender

Fishing narrowly understood is a masculinest occupation. Crews and skippers are overwhelmingly men, not just in my homeport of Prince Rupert, but globally. That does not deny the fact that the wider social world of fisheries is a human multi-gendered social world. Donna Lee Davis and Jane Nadel Klien were among the early cohort of researchers who documented the integral role women play in fisheries communities (1988). Much of the focus of the work that preceded Davis and Nadel Klien highlighted the crew at sea (see, for example: Orbach 1977; Zulaika 1981; Cohen 1987). Other approaches retained an anthropology of the village and wrote about peasant-like settings (see, for example: Firth 1966; Faris 1966). The turn to view fisheries within a wider gendered lens developed through the1980s; one important result of which is the normalization of an approach that assumes gender is relevant as opposed to merely something to add after the fact (Neis et al 2005; see also, Menzies 2011:99-110).

The social world of fishing communities is not a homogenous space – it is riven by class and gender just as aspects of the wider society are. While the early maritime anthropologists (such as: Orbach 1977; Zulaika 1981) focused on the crew at sea as the sum total of the fishing community as an occupational culture, this paper zeros in on how aspects of onboard work are implicated in the reproduction of gender, specifically masculinity while appreciating this occurs within a wider social field than the boat itself (Davis 1993; Yodanis 2000; Power 2004; King 2007).

In a paper explaining why women don’t fish, Carrie Yodanis argues, “women are women because they do not fish” (2000:268). She found gender to be defined in relation to the at sea practice of fishing. Yodanis’ study was based in a Maine lobster fishing community. Her observations are similar to my own among British Columbian fishermen (Menzies 1991). Yodanis goes on to say “‘Man’ is defined as one who fishes and ‘women’ is defined in opposition to that which is a fisherman” (2000:268). This echoes Nancy Chodorow’s1978 observation that gendered parenting –motherhing and fathering (as opposed to simply an androgynous parenting)- is at the root of societal gendered inequalities. In her rendering girls simply grow into women while men are made as their masculine identity is severed from their mothers as they become ‘not women’ (Chodorow 1978). There are, of course, women who fish (Wilson 2014, 2016). Yet their presence on the boat is constructed in such a way as to maintain normative hegemonic masculinity (Menzies 1991; Meyer 2015; McMullen 2018).

Julianne Meyer explores the question how women who fish are gendered and asks what does this say about masculinity on boats (2015). She does this through a study that combines active participation in two seasons as a Bristol Bay setnetter and at fisherpoet festivals in Oregon where she spoke with women about their experiences, ideas, and performances as fishermen and fisherpoets. Meyers notes that women fishermen and fisherpoets “must show they are prepared to engage in the hypermasculine culture of commercial fishing” (2015:18). While they are not explicitly excluded, “women have a difficult time breaking into and remaining in the occupation” (Meyer 2015:19). She further notes “working in a male-dominated industry, women often struggle to keep their jobs if they are not involved in a relationship. Women often find work in industry through familial or romantic relationships and those women who chose to enter the occupation without relationships face additional struggles. … Men in the occupation occasionally expect women to have sex with them, based solely on the demographics of the occupation. … In addition to this, women must also be ever vigilant in their activities in the industry because of the looming threat of sexual violence” (Meyer 2015:22).

Building off of Meyer’s work with women, Bradford McMullen explores the ways in which male fishermen who are also fisherpoets define masculinities. He too notes the overtly masculinist tone of commercial fisheries as a contemporary occupation. While observing a variety of masculinities at play among fishermen (even a variant that includes women as masculinized) he locates them all within the wider sense of hegemonic masculinity – straight, androcentric, and valuing competency and credibility. He defines these last two attributes as follows: “Competence in the context of the fishing industry is the ability to perform well succeeding as a fisherman by doing one’s job and surviving the stresses that accompany it. Credibility in fishermen speak could also be called trustworthiness: one’s credibility resides in other people’s belief that fishermen will live up to their promises and accomplish the things they are expected to do, no matter their difficulty” (McMullen 2018:17). Becoming a man, in the eyes of the fishermen’s world, is all about demonstrating one’s ability to do the job and do it reliably. That women might also do the job doesn’t necessarily take away from this masculinist conception as they either aren’t there (Yodanis 2000) or they take on the masculinist attributes (while remaining female) that reinforce the idea of the maleness of the world of fisheries (Meyer 2015).

In the early 1980s I had been part of an anti-pornography campaign to remove magazines like Hustler from the campus bookstore. Our campaign was inspired by writings in the edited collection Take Back the Night (Lederer 1980). Thinking that this might be a good way to approach the onboard pornography and sexist attitudes pervasive on many coastal fishboats of the time, I made copies of several chapters of Take Back the Night to use as educational materials during the herring season that year.

In the 1980s commercial herring seining lasted from late February into early April. There were a hundred or so boats in the fleet. We would travel from opening to opening, waiting for a week or more at remote fishing grounds for a chance to load up that might last a little as a few minutes. A season could be made or lost in ten minutes after having waiting for weeks on anchor. Aside from waiting there wasn’t much to do but socialize, do a bit of sport fishing, share food, booze, and other stuff. Pornography was a major item circulating amongst the fleet. So, I thought I might do a little bit to change things.

I had periodically been placing the copies of Take Back the Night chapters onto the galley table in the boat that I worked on. It looked like other crew members from our boat and visiting boats had been picking them up and reading them. But I was soon disabused of any positive interpretation. About three weeks into the season our boat cook sat down at the galley table across from me. He seemed to be reading one of the pamphlets. He glanced over at me, looked back at the pamphlet, then asked me:

“So, Charlie. What is this miss-ogg-ah-knee?”

“Misogyny, I corrected.”

“Hmm.” He said.

“It means women hating.”

He looked me directly in the eyes

“So, what man hates a women.”

He tossed the pamphlet onto the table and returned to his cooking. It was then I realized two things: (1) the cook was the sole person (not the crew) who was using the pamphlets (and not as I had anticipated), and; (2) I had really misunderstood my audience.

Male centered ideas of sexuality, as presented by the onboard pornography, were a physical manifestation of the definitional masculinity of the space on the ship. Unlike the more polite and public spaces ashore, the display of pornography and sexualized images of women were explicit boundary markers. These spaces were felt to be private male worlds within which women were not expected to enter or to participate in. Shoreside, when wives, girlfriends, or daughters were expected to visit the boat the skipper (or more often, the cook) would make certain the most explicit materials were swept away out of sight – though the calendars of partially glad women would almost always remain untouched. This ideology of sexuality and gender undergirds the working world and the ways that one learned the fishing trade. The inclusion of a few women in the occupation served to underscore, rather than alter, the masculinity of fishing labour and the process of becoming a fisherman (Menzies 1991, Meyer 2015, Yodanis 2000).

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