Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870 (Gender and American Culture)

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Synopsis: During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the whaling industry in New England sent hundreds of ships and thousands of men to distant seas on voyages lasting up to five years. In Captain Ahab Had a Wife, Lisa Norling taps a rich vein of sources--including women's and men's letters and diaries, shipowners' records, Quaker meeting minutes and other church records, newspapers and magazines, censuses, and city directories--to reconstruct the lives of the "Cape Horn widows" left behind onshore.

Norling begins with the emergence of colonial whalefishery on the island of Nantucket and then follows the industry to mainland New Bedford in the nineteenth century, tracking the parallel shift from a patriarchal world to a more ambiguous Victorian culture of domesticity. Through the sea-wives' compelling and often poignant stories, Norling exposes the painful discrepancies between gender ideals and the reality of maritime life and documents the power of gender to shape both economic development and individual experience.

Book Description: "From its provocative title to its rich bibliography, Lisa Norling's Captain Ahab Had a Wife does not disappoint. This is an ambitious book, one that tackles important questions and analyzes them over an inconvenient span of time that few historians are brave enough to attempt at all, let alone in a first book. . . . A signal achievement in American women's and gender history, but anyone interested in the interplay between culture and economics in any period of American history would do well to read this book. Her thesis is provocative, but it is also thoroughly researched and cogently and engagingly argued. Scholars will ignore her at their peril."-- Journal of American History

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