Women in New York City’s Maritime History

Mar 12, 2013

by Anna B. Baaske-Rodriguez, M.A. History, Monmouth University

New York’s waterways have played an important role in the City’s rich and colorful history, but most residents and visitors to New York barely notice the vessels that still to this day transport people and goods through the harbor and along the East and Hudson rivers. The waterways remain a vibrant source of pride to those who work upon them.

Although other historically male-dominated industries have shown an increase in female employees over the past century, the maritime industry has lagged behind. As we enter the 21st century, most mariners are men. Yet in New York—as in other coastal towns and cities—women have always played an integral part in their community’s economic life. Throughout the 19th century, women contributed to the maritime industry’s growth by performing tasks considered “appropriate” for females. Occasionally, one could find a woman on board a ship. Reportedly, some women even disguised themselves as men to get hired on ships, most likely to access better paid positions or to simply live their lives without the gender constraints they faced on land.

The “inmate” records of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a residence for retired mariners, indicate that women began to apply for admittance to the facility in the late 1960s. The women had to present records that proved that they worked at sea. Rose Castle Rhode, born in Rochester, NY, resided at Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the 1970s until her death in 1995. Rhode noted on her entrance forms that she worked at sea for twenty years on deep sea fishing vessels. Marion Veronica Hegenberger wrote on her entrance application in 1978 that she only got her husband’s approval to work at sea once she agreed to do so under her maiden name, Keenan. She did not specify exactly why he placed this condition on her, but he may have considered the work inappropriate for females or felt that her decision reflected on his ability to provide for his family.

Despite this history, women in the 20th century continued to gain access in small numbers to positions traditionally held by men. Although women have often been found at sea in unpaid, unofficial positions, women in the 20th century slowly infiltrated the ranks of the maritime industry in an official capacity.

Captain Pamela Hepburn currently works on the waterways surrounding New York City. Captain Hepburn, a Licensed Mariner and founder of the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project, started working on tugs in 1976. When she started, few other women worked in this field. Of those she knew, one worked on a NY Exxon tug, another was a tankerman/deckhand at Exxon and a third worked as an engineer on the NYS Barge Canal. These women acted as pioneers, helping to open the doors for other women who desired more physically and technically demanding positions in the maritime industry.

As of January 2013, the NYC Department of Transportation/Ferry Division reports that women held 15 out of 359 marine titles. Ninety-percent of women who applied for positions gained employment. As societal shifts occur, the number of women in positions such as oiler and captain slowly increase. The maritime industry will ensure continued vibrancy in the years to come by continuing to seek out the best candidates—male and female—to fill jobs our world so desperately needs.