The Coastal History Blog 11: “Women in Port”

untitledThis will be the first of several posts about a promising new volume edited by Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell entitled Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800.  [1]

Catterall and Campbell point out a familiar problem: “The iconic Atlantic-world figure is a traveler, explorer, or merchant, certainly a man, and someone who leaves the familiar patterns of his home society to venture out in pursuit of profit and glory.” [2] I suppose there are some alternative icons of the Atlantic world by now, but pirates and rebels skew male as well.

What makes this book special is not just the decision to focus squarely on the Atlantic as a space for women, but also the editors’ effort to push the language and the analytical categories of Atlantic History in a direction friendlier to the issues surrounding what they call “marginalized” groups.

There is always something a little odd about referring to women, who are a majority in most places and times, as a marginalized group, but Women in Port builds quite explicitly on some of the insights of the scholarship about Africans in the Atlantic diaspora.  For example, enslaved persons and free blacks alike had to negotiate zones of autonomy for themselves despite codes of custom and legality that did not really have a viable place for them.  However, the novelty of a frontier or overseas setting could undermine custom and law alike, creating a “clean-slate” situation. [3] This was also true for migrant women who might find a way to practice a trade or run a small business, even if corporate tradition (for example, guilds) in their country of origin would have prohibited this.  The editors’ discussion of how women gradually opened up opportunities for themselves, in one arena after another, is an important contribution to our understanding of how unplanned pragmatic adaptations—adding up slowly—can amount to a tolerant atmosphere or “port effect.”  Several of the chapters in the book discuss women of color, who had to navigate around two sets of obstacles at once.

Hybridizing Circulations: A New Kind of Atlantic History

The editors acknowledge a tension between sweeping, big-picture Atlantic history (the “majestic expanse of [Amsterdam’s] roadstead or its main gateway, the three-sided expanse of anchorages…”) versus the particularities and resistances of the local: the “bridge’s hinge or a chain’s links [that] actually governed access to a port’s harbor and interior waterways.” [4] They nod, then, both to David Armitage’s circum-, cis-, and trans-Atlantic, but also to the claims of microhistory: “Like the hinge of a canal bridge, women could determine the motion of these forces in ways that supported their own agendas.” [5]

They propose their own three-part division of the subject matter, under the heading of “Hybridizing Circulations.”  The first, prescriptive circulation, has to do with the religious and legal conventions that women had to navigate with, or around.  “Prescribed gender norms” placed women at the center of the action (in church, in nation-building), yet also set limits on their freedom of movement. [6]  The second is lineal circulation, which relates to “the circulation of the strategies and practices to foster a family or kin group’s fortunes.” [7] In this arena, there was ample room for women, including those newly arrived as refugees from religious persecution, to make marriage alliances and cultivate a “middle ground” role as a culture broker between communities or business partners.  Third, and finally, there is subaltern circulation: community-building and acts of “everyday resistance” that transcended mere kinship ties and set itself, necessarily, in opposition to prescribed norms and established law codes. [8]

Catterall and Campbell’s introduction is rather densely written, but it is a remarkable synthesis, and would be well worth a look for the footnotes alone.  For those of us who have had trouble reconciling Bernard Bailyn’s Atlantic with Marcus Rediker’s Atlantic, they offer the beginnings of a welcome compromise that acknowledges some of the strengths of both approaches.



[1] Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell, eds., Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800 (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[2] Catterall and Campbell, 37 (introduction to Section One).

[2] Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell, “Introduction: Mother Courage and Her Sisters: Women’s Worlds in the Premodern Atlantic,” in Women in Port, ed. Catterall and Campbell, 1-36.

[3] Catterall and Campbell, “Introduction,” 7.

[4] Catterall and Campbell, “Introduction,” 8.

[5] Catterall and Campbell, “Introduction,” 9.

[6] Catterall and Campbell, “Introduction,” 25.

[7] Catterall and Campbell, “Introduction,” 25.

[8] Catterall and Campbell, “Introduction,” 29.

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