Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nantucket's Influential Women in Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea

I recently finished Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart of the Sea. Subtitled The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, it tells the true story of the boat and whalers that served as the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick (just bought the book--anyone want to read it with me)? For those of you with a strong stomach, I highly recommend it.
In an era in which we constantly discuss whether or not women can "have it all" (can people have it all?), the women of early Nantucket should not be forgotten. And before the Essex leaves shore, Philbrick makes a point of mentioning these women--even in a story about an all male boat. For that he deserves credit. Here are a few highlights:
--Nantucket Quakerism, a defining part of the island's identity, was only possible because a woman allowed it: "It was Mary Starbuck's conversion to Quakerism that established the unique fusion of spirituality and covetousness that would make possible Nantucket's rise as a whaling port" (Philbrick 8). Starbuck (there is a connection to the coffee company) had refused similar efforts, as Philbrick notes: "Throughout the seventeenth century, English Nantucketers resisted all attempts to establish a church on the island, partly because a woman by the name of Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it" (Philbrick 8). For a woman to wield the power to choose a society's religion and by extension its culture and, ultimately, its economy, is remarkable. Men may have gone on the whaling missions, but they owed their livelihood to a woman.
--"With their men gone for so long, Nantucket's women were obliged not only to raise the children but also to run many of the island's businesses. It was largely the women who maintained the complex web of personal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning" (Philbrick 15).
On pages 15 and 16, Philbrick describes how the island's Quaker faith (which, as you recall, was allowed by a woman) gave women a status and equality that the would not have received on the mainland, a point that was acknowledged by the Nantucket feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott (15-16).
Yes, In the Heart of the Sea and Moby Dick focus on an all-male voyage. But those voyages were made possible by the hard work of women. And the Nantucket Quaker culture found the roles played by women to be of equal value to those played by their male counterparts.

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