An evening with Margaret Willson, author of Seawomen of Iceland


On the Nordic Heritage Museum website, I saw an event with an irresistible description:

The plaque said this was the winter fishing hut of Thurídur Einarsdóttir, one of Iceland’s greatest fishing captains, and that she lived from 1777 to 1863.

“Wait,” anthropologist and former seawoman Margaret Willson said. “She??”

So began a quest. Were there more Icelandic seawomen? Most Icelanders said no, and, after all, in most parts of the world fishing is considered a male profession. What could she expect in Iceland?

She found a surprise. This book is a glimpse into the lives of vibrant women who have braved the sea for centuries. Their accounts include the excitement, accidents, trials, and tribulations of fishing in Iceland from the historic times of small open rowboats to today’s high-tech fisheries. Based on extensive historical and field research,Seawomen of Iceland allows the seawomen’s voices to speak directly with strength, intelligence, and, above all, knowledge on how to survive.

Margaret Willson is affiliate associate professor of anthropology and Canadian studies at the University of Washington. She is the author of Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond.

“I have to go!” I thought. “I had to meet this woman! I had to get her book!”

And so I DID!


I’ve lived blocks away from the Nordic Heritage Museum for five years – our neighborhood, Ballard, has a long history as a fishing community with nordic roots. Personally though, I know very little about it. We’ve gone to Viking Days, which the whole family loved, and we ran into the gift shop once to pick up a horned helmet for the Syttende Mai parade. But we’ve never actually viewed the museum! Hardly a patron of the local arts, are we!

Then I met my friend in Norway, and I’ve been trying to learn Norwegian. I’m doing rather terribly, and I finally figured out why: I’m trying to learn from podcasts and apps, which are all audio. I need to write what I’m learning, not just listen and repeat. I need to see the word in my head. I checked out the museum’s website in the hopes they had some classes in Norwegian. They did! Turns out they also have lots of other events that I wish I’d checked out earlier. I think my nordic education has begun.

Margaret started her talk by noting how different she looked from her author’s photo on in the back of the book. It turns out she became very ill at the start of 2015, with a rare blood disease that is often deadly. She thanked the great folks at Fred Hutch for their amazing work in treating her, and <knock on wood>, she’s now doing very well. She expressed how grateful she was just to be here. We gave her some big applause! I thought about my friend passing long before her time, and how we really don’t have forever. It’s so easy to forget that in your twenties and thirties, but geez, the forties really wallop you with that new reality. I imagine the next few decades wallop you even harder. Watching this interesting woman talk about her work, I was so inspired! I need to work on the things I want to accomplish in life, now. I’m so glad I’m going back to school.

I’d love to talk more about the book, but I haven’t read it yet! Her presentation delved into her research, which involved digging into archives in Iceland (oh, heaven!) and talking to present-day seawomen. Funny sidenote – the woman who introduced Margaret to the group joked about how she’d been writing to friends and colleagues about this upcoming event at the museum, and every time she wrote “seawoman”, her computer complained that it wasn’t a word. Mine is doing that, as well.

Her research led to a re-discovery of a long and well-preserved history of women in Iceland who fished and went to sea, often with the men, but also on their own – sometimes with women-only crew. None of this was considered strange in the time period it happened in, although later, much of the awareness of these women was lost to the archives.

Her research has inspired a museum exhibit in Reykjavik, which has a great description you should go read. Here’s a snippet:

The exhibition is based on Dr. Willson´s findings; her research overthrows previous ideas about women’s participation at sea in Iceland, which is higher than ever imagined. The working title “Hidden from history” refers to women being made invisible in the realm of Icelandic fishing, both in the past and in modern times. The reality is that their presence was so common and accepted that they were seldom even mentioned unless they did something else considered remarkable. Dr. Willson has written a book on her research, to be published in 2015, written in a style to be of interest to a wide audience of scholars and laymen alike.

And from a news article:

Dr. Willson’s research focuses on women who have worked in commercial fishing in Iceland, covering all kinds of fisheries. This research is based on rich historical material and also on interviews and discussions with almost two hundred Icelandic women who have worked at sea in the last several decades. A presentation of this research through an exhibit at the Reykjavík City Museum, will bring new and exciting perspectives for both Icelanders and for visitors in Iceland. A book on the subject comes out in the fall of 2015.k

When the presentation was over, a line formed to say hello to her and get our books signed. I told her that I sailed, and had a small boat that I’d named Elska. “It’s Icelandic,” I said… “……for love!” she finished. We talked a little bit, and I told her I was a late-blooming student with an interest in history and anthropology. I was about to ask what she thought of doing this work later in life, but she was a few steps ahead of me and read my mind, and said I should email her! What a kind offer! I really enjoyed the talk, and I loved hearing about her time in Iceland. I can’t wait to read her book. What an amazing life!


  1. shemaya says:

    Hi Hollie,
    This is so great, finding out about this! What a treat it must have been, going to that event and meeting the author. Thanks so much for sharing it with the rest of us!

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