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Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, by Suzanne J. Stark

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Pp. xiv, 210. Illus, notes, index.. $18.95 paper. ISBN: 1591145724.

Women at Sea in the Age of Fighting Sail

Artist and historian Suzanne J. Stark passed away in 2015, at the age of 89. Her most notable work, the groundbreaking Female Tars, first published in hardback in 1996, was very well received at the time, even the well regarded maritime novelist Patrick O’Brian saying the book “has told me many things I did not know. I shall keep it on an honored shelf.”

Stark’s book is one of the few to address the role of women aboard warships in the age of fighting sail. Although she concentrates her inquiry primarily on the experience of the Royal Navy, she does touch upon the role of women in other services as well. Stark divides these women into several categories.

The most numerous group of women normally found in the fleet ship were prostitutes, who often lived aboard ship when in port, as the Royal Navy was reluctant to grant liberty, lest the men desert; in fact, the crews were virtual prisoners. Also often found aboard ship when in port were the wives of seamen, often with their children, a practice officially banned but widely tolerated to sustain morale.

There were also a smaller number of women who regularly lived aboard ship even at sea. These included wives of warrant officers, pursers, and even chaplains, legally permitted aboard. The often worked as assistants to their spouses, keep records and such, and in combat frequently served as nurses and occasionally even gunners. Stark also has a few words to say about higher class women, who might at times travel aboard ship for protracted periods as honored guests.

By far the most interesting of the women aboard ship were those who passed as men, usually working as sailors but at times even as marines. Some of these became rather celebrated upon discovery, most notably Hannah Snell, who served as a seaman and then as a marine.

In covering the role of women in the fleet, Stark discusses contemporary roles for women, as well as living conditions, sex, childbirth, health, medals, and more.

Despite its age, Female Tars, remains an interesting and insightful work about a still little known aspect of life at sea, a subject needing more research.

 

 
Note: Female Tars, is also available in several e-editions.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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