From the Galley: Conflict of the Feminist Fisherman

30 03 2011

There’s a treacherous voice in my head. It maintains a mosquito-like buzz in the back of my brain, an oppressive equation: “You are X, so you need to do/dress/behave Y.”

You know the one. Maybe you’ve struggled with your own version. Maybe someone explicitly stated these rules, building a box around your self-image one rigid, restrictive word at a time. Maybe we absorb a cultural narrative, sucker-punched by the messages saturating daily life. The box goes up higher still, stronger, until we can’t distinguish where the walls end and our true selves begin.

Rock with Driftwood – trapped & constrained, or securely embraced?

I was 27 when, burned out and broken from my 7 years as a social worker, I fled back to fishing. It seemed a good omen, exchanging a social service life for a boat named Sadaqa, the Arabic word for charity. Full of good juju, we were Team ‘77: vessel, captain, and crew, all born in the same year.

April 28th was a glorious day to throw off the dock lines. Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal is unusual in that it is a fresh-water home to ocean-going vessels. Lake Washington’s water table is higher than Puget Sound, and requires passage through the Ballard Locks to access the sea. Marlin manned the helm as I supervised our lines on deck, ignoring the crowds of spectators.  The water table slowly fell, a mariner’s elevator down to the exit floor.  One of the workers, a man around my age, smirked down at me.  “Are you the cook?”

I pointed at Marlin: Nope, he is. Six years later, Marlin’s still chuckling about this. “He didn’t say anything after that; I think you imploded his mind. ‘What? But you’re the girl!’”

The captain crisping our tofu, blowtorch-style.

Joel and I were a couple for almost 2 years before I agreed to crew for him.  After earning a reputation as a skilled deckhand, I was afraid of going backwards in the fleet’s eyes, being relegated to “the girlfriend” on a boat. When I hopped aboard the Nerka, the chip on my shoulder was a 4×4 beam, ready to bludgeon anyone who’d box me into a stereotypical role.

As is so often the case, I ended up clobbering the person I loved most. Turned out Cap’n J had never done the cooking on board, and, consumed by the full-time task of keeping the Nerka functional and fishing, wasn’t eager to start. Of the 7 boats I’d crewed on, all of my previous captains had handled the meals. The realization that I’d be the woman in the galley, taking direction from my male partner, sent me into a total tailspin. We had some ugly scenes those first few years.

The ridiculous, complicating truth?  I love food, and believe anyone who enjoys eating yummy goodness should know how to prepare said yummy goodness.  I’m the conflicted feminist who carries still-steaming pies down the dock to share with friends and cooks big pots of soup to keep on the stove in case anyone stops by – and who resents the hell out of anyone assuming I’d do these things.

It’s been a long road to realize my struggle has more to do with my own internalized sexism, insecurities stashed in my psyche, than the actual perceptions of my fishing friends.  The fishermen who thought I was a good deckhand before I joined forces with my sweetheart, they still think so.  Cap’n J and I navigated this storm, creating a pretty awesome partnership along the way.  Peace generally reigns, on deck and in the galley. Me cooking is the most efficient use of our respective skills (and appeals to my controlling nature), and he does the cooking at home, enjoying the big kitchen.  Everyone wins.

I was reluctant to post recipes on Hooked. Had a whole big back-and-forth in my head about it. That nasty voice sneered that I’d be boxed as “that fisherwoman who blogs about fish recipes.”  But your time is valuable, sweet reader, and I want you to gain something from your visits to Hooked. Beyond these stories, the tangible offering I can share is a deep love for wild seafood, and some of our favorite ways to enjoy it. Delicious, heart-healthy, beautiful fish… If not from our boat to your table, at least from this page to your recipe box.

(I wonder – are there places where you struggle with the shoulds and supposed to’s, and the path that makes you happy to be you? How do you make peace with this tension in your own life?  Hey – I’ve got a berry pie coming out of the oven. Pour some tea and join me, and we can peek past those false walls and sit with our authentic selves, at least for a moment.)

Pie and tea? Yes, please.




14 responses

30 03 2011
Kim Mc

I too have had a conflicted feminist past. My feminism started early – elementary school – when I stopped a bully from picking on my younger sister. I told him to pick on someone his own size – and I was! In jr high – I refused home ec in favor of metal shop, enjoyed beating the boys at math, sports and anything else I could compete in. At the same time – I also wanted to be a super model!

I was determined to make my own place in the world and not have my social and financial future depend on if or who I married. I went to engineering school and had to put up with comments and attitude no student should – from teachers and fellow students. I encountered resentment on the job from people who had not bothered to go to school for the credentials needed for the job. I tried to always rise above the conflict and assume they were ignorant instead of malicious and that they just didn’t know better.

After years of shunning “women’s work” of all kinds, I developed an interest in quilting from a love of the quilts my grandmother made – and had to learn to sew since I had never taken home ec. I soon started a quilting business. Then I started a home business selling kitchen products and teaching people (mostly women) how to make meals for their family. Then I started spinning, knitting, crocheting, weaving…. I have become a home economics DIVA!

But I decided – the whole point of feminism is to have the freedom to do what we want and earn a fair wage for it. And the right to choose how we live our lives. I actually think that is more humanism than feminism – because I want it for everyone – not just women.

Great posts – keep up the good work.

31 03 2011

Kim, thanks so much for contributing your story! As an admirer of your more “traditional” endeavors (Diva, indeed!), I love learning about your preceding path. I suspect my mom had some experiences similar to those you had in engineering school – early ’60’s, she was one of 3 women in her class, Cornell’s veterinary program. And like you, she seemed to put the bulk of her energies into focusing on her own path, figuring the negativity she encountered said more about its sources than its target. Her experiences – in school, captaining her own fishing boat, working in a refinery – seemed to me to epitomize feminism, but she’s never used that F word with me. Such tremendous weight of baggage on one word, so much misunderstanding and resistance to a concept I believe most of us are truly supportive of. When you take out the trigger word, is it really such a radical goal to have equal opportunities, equal wages, and self-determination for all genders? Good grief.

Anyway – thanks for contributing, Kim. I’ve missed my quilting friends this winter, and appreciate the long-distance support!

31 03 2011
Linda R

Just the writing is enough…It’s desert after the meal. I see you’re diversified and have displayed other than a fish meal. Where’s the recipe for the berry pie???

31 03 2011

Thanks, Linda! Well, the pie wasn’t super-special – beyond the special-ness that every pie inherently has, of course! Mixed berries, frozen from my mom’s farm, with some sugar and cornstarch, in a store-bought crust. (I don’t have the patience to muck about with homemade crusts, but have great admiration for those who do.) To be honest, that pie was much more about wanting something for a closing photo… Worked out well for Cap’n J, who had pie for breakfast.

Standby for a Black Cod Miso Soup recipe… Think that’s going to be the first one to go up here.

31 03 2011
backcountry writer

I think I was born a femenist, definitely a tomboy. Loved being my dad’s deckhand but hated the galley girl portion, not because of cooking, but because I found the odor of cooking grease in an enclosed galley nauseating–the closest I came to seasickness. I don’t do seasick.
My son, about your age, worked a couple of years as a cook on a research vessel out of St. Petersburg, Florida. I am so proud.
Unfortunately there is no such thing as fresh fish at the supermarket, not here in the backcountry. Fresh is when you catch it that day and cook it that evening. Yum. But I make a mean apple pie–the best you ever ate–with apples from my own tree.

31 03 2011

Mmm – fresh apple pie sounds pretty fantastic, CJ! One of the few things that I regret during our boat time is the absence of fresh fruits and veggies. Don’t realize it so much during the season, then come south and remember that cucumbers aren’t supposed to be squeeze-able, and one small red pepper doesn’t need to cost $5. I’m envious of the produce my Down South friends enjoy over the summer months.

31 03 2011

I have to agree with backcountry writer…the smell of cooking grease in an enclosed galley was nauseating to me, too. Thank goodness my older sister did the cooking when we were our dad’s deckhands in SE!

Congrats on your blog, Tele. I just posted a link to it from our Facebook group, Commercial Fishing Families & Friends. 🙂

31 03 2011

Thanks so much for the link, Jen! I’ll add yours here, too, as soon as I figure out developing a Links page – haven’t gotten that far yet. Really appreciate that the sense of community among fishermen appears to translate to the internets, as well as it exists on the dock.

I’ve been awfully lucky on the seasickness front. Generally have one getting-my-sea-legs-back episode in the spring, and it’s almost always my own fault, being determined to read while we’re bucking into it. Cooking hasn’t been a trigger for me, seasick-wise, but trying to put a meal together when onions are leaping from the cutting board, pots of water sliding across the stove top, and you can barely let go of the counter to put anything in the oven, without getting thrown across the galley… A guaranteed foul mood-maker for me!

31 03 2011

Love your blog! You have a wonderful way with words… can’t wait to read more!

31 03 2011

Hello Robin! Thanks so much for joining us over here. I’ve been delighted to discover that there are so many of us, women representing commercial fishing, out here, and loved the photos and wild seafood advocacy on your site. Will definitely link to your work (as soon as I’m technically up to speed enough to develop that next step!) Be well!

4 04 2011

Tele – you have a very interesting blog here! I love your writing and what an interesting life and perspective to share! This is a fantastic post and really resonates with my own experiences. I’ve struggled with gender roles for years, but luckily, I’m now in a wonderful relationship where we both oppose rules and traditions and balance each other beautifully. But it was a lot of years of defending myself and standing my ground to get here…

7 05 2011

Enjoying this. I DON’T go out anymore, but fished salmon in the 70s on board our troller out of Ilwaco, WA and my husband is a commercial fisher. We now own a boat which our oldest son is driving while his dad works the back deck. 🙂 My son’s girlfriend went out and she did every job on the boat, not just helping make meals, which is everyone’s job on our boat! 🙂
Going to keep reading and recommending and good luck out there!


28 08 2011
Nancy Mendnehall

I trolled in the 1960s-early 70s in SE AK. I think that is where women may have first gotten their leg aboard a commercial boat, where there wasn’t that “old country” tradition that women can’t come aboard. Many women out there. They got those improved, bigger cabins with all the comforts, and wives were willing to be unpaid deckhands and trollers saved the cost. The battles started when I was relegated to steering all day and wanted to have my turn out on the pit with a little action. When I got mad enough I would steer at a big kelp bed and try to time it so I would just miss it. Sometimes my timing was off.!! Oh, the gaff hook banging on the rail, the cursing. Hah.

28 08 2011

Ha! That’s great, Nancy – thanks for sharing. One of the surprise delights of doing this blog has been how many old school trollers are out there, especially women. I’m so glad to be meeting the bunch of you!

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