Crossing North 23: Woman, Captain, Rebel.

Dr. Andrew Nestingen with Dr. Margaret Willson at the University Book Store.


Anthropologist Margaret Willson discusses the dramatic life of Icelandic Sea Captain Þuríður Einarsdóttir, who saved lives, solved crimes, and was largely overlooked by 20th-century historians.

Jump to Show Notes


Colin Gioia Connors: The words you are about to hear describe real events that took place in 1812. All quotes are from historical accounts.

Thea Lund: [*Reads from Woman, Captain, Rebel, pp. 84-87*] 

[*sounds of ocean waves and seagulls*]

The only Sundays God took a back seat to fish was when swarms of migrating cod guaranteed a huge catch—surely even God wouldn’t condone such a waste. On those Sundays, they fished but appeased God by giving a portion of their catch to the poor. All things in balance.

Captain Jón Rich soon arrived, and together they dragged the boat across the rocks and into the water, joining eight other boats on the open ocean beyond the Stokkseyri skerries, rowing west until they were just east of Eyrarbakki, clearly today’s best fishing spot. Þuríður, as usual, surveyed the weather. Good now, she thought, but sure to change.

[*sounds of strong wind and surf*]

Sure enough, a sudden strong wind soon sprang up. They pulled up their lines and rushed toward the nearby Eyrarbakki shore before the surf rose. Everyone else did the same.

The skerries at Eyrarbakki lay in a parallel line out from shore, closed at one end but open to the sea at the other, creating a fairly deep but narrow single channel to the rocky beach. Boats coming from the east, as they all were that day, entered this passage through a narrow gap in the skerry line, requiring two tight turns hugged between skerries. Only one boat could enter at a time, the first one to arrive taking precedence while others waited their turn. As the waves got worse, Jón Rich’s boat skimmed speedily over the water, one of the first to the channel entry.

Þuríður took note of the tide. Returning through the Eyrarbakki passage on an ebb tide was much more dangerous than on a rising one. She nodded in satisfaction. Luckily, the tide was incoming.

They pulled the boat from the water and paused to watch the other boats arrive. Six made it swiftly to shore, but the two clearly with “weaker” crews lagged behind. Þuríður glanced at her crewmates. Not good. Surf was mounting fast, now cresting over the outer line of skerries.

The lead boat, which held four people, entered the narrow entrance, veered in the churning backwash, crashed into one of the outside skerries, and became solidly wedged against the rocks. No matter how hard they pushed with their oars, the crew couldn’t get it off. Violent surf now smashed the boat back and forth against the sharp lava; they’d break up in no time.

[*sounds of wood creaking and waves splashing*]

As Þuríður and everyone else watched, the second boat close behind them intentionally veered its own course directly toward the skerry. At great risk to themselves, they would try to save the stranded men.

This was going to be tricky. Any overweight made a dangerous difference on these open boats—especially in rough waters; unbalancing could make a boat easily flip. Still, through buffeting waves, the crewmembers managed to pull two of the stranded men into their boat. They’d now overloaded their boat, its gunnels riding barely above the waterline. Any more weight would sink them, an impossible choice of whom to save, with no time for debate. They left the other two men behind.

[*sounds of boats clunking, then rowing*]

As the rescuers rowed to safety, the remaining two clung desperately to the damaged boat as it began to break apart, filling steadily with water. On the rising tide, the waves now crashed over the skerry and would soon submerge it. Then they’d drown.

[*somber piano music begins*]

Þuríður glanced at Gamlason. They’d seen this tragedy too many times before. They all then looked at Captain Jón Rich. Any rescue attempt was his responsibility.

He yelled out to the other skippers. “Aren’t you going to give me people so I can get those men?”

The other skippers looked out at a sea increasingly white with froth, the skerry a good twelve hundred treacherous, watery feet from shore. They shook their heads. Neither of the men on the rock was kin to anyone on shore. They wouldn’t take the risk.

So no one did.

Jón Rich shrugged and turned to his crew. He’d tried, more than anyone else was willing to do. “It’s probably not a good idea to attempt to rescue those men from the skerry,” he commented. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Þuríður kept her eyes on the two men struggling to stay above the sea’s greedy maw. “It will be known to the authorities if you don’t make an attempt to get those men,” she said very quietly.

Jón Rich’s other crew members stopped what they were doing and stared. Gamlason glanced at Ingibjörg.

Jón Rich jumped up and glared at Þuríður. “Then you take my job and be responsible for the ship and crew!” he shouted. Not that he expected her to take his angry invitation seriously.

He should have known better.

Þuríður considered her captain’s words. She assessed the risk, the distance, her crewmates. She nodded. She could bring a boat alongside the stranded boat to save the men.

[*piano music ends on a triumphant note that lingers*]

“I’ll do it,” she said to Jón Rich. “I’ll guarantee the safety of the crew.” [*silence*] She paused. “But I can’t promise the same for your vessel.” [*sound of loud waves and surf*] She looked at her crewmates, Gamlason, Ingibjörg, and the rest. They looked from one to the other. They’d go. If she led them.

Jón Rich gave her an infuriated wave and stormed up the bank. [*sound of footsteps on pebbles*] Þuríður and her crewmates quickly pulled the boat back into the water and set off. [*sound of wood scraping on pebbles and a splash*] With Þuríður at the helm, they rowed rapidly through the spray, sliding alongside the skerry in minutes. [*sounds of oars rowing*] Then balancing Jón Rich’s boat, they dragged the two men aboard. [*sounds of boats clunking*] Þuríður ordered them to shove off—fast. [*sounds of quick, desperate rowing*] In an instant they were rowing toward shore again. They’d done it. And they hadn’t even damaged their captain’s boat.

[*sound of loud surf gives way to gentle waves*]

As Þuríður rested on the rocks beside her jubilant crewmates, she looked around. All this drama and still morning. Her keen eyes scanned the horizon. [*sound of seagulls*] Well, well, it looked as though this was just a passing squall. No need to waste a good day’s fishing. In an hour or so they could go out again. She checked out the other boats. They seemed to be deciding the same.

So, they cleaned fish and chatted until the seas calmed. Then they headed out again.

[*sound of the sea fades, piano music begins*]

The following year, the authorities issued an award for bravery in the daring and courageous rescue of the two shipwrecked men. They awarded it to…Jón Rich. Who readily accepted it.

Regardless of official accolades, covert conversation along the waterfront—which Jón Rich did not hear, since he was almost never there—was that his crew had begun to consider Þuríður their leader. They said that if she left his boat, so would they. Talk also spread that, even though a woman, Þuríður would make an excellent captain for the lucrative and dangerous winter season.

[*Piano music ends. Intro music starts*]

Colin: Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.

[*Intro music ends*]

Margaret Willson is an Affiliate Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. She is an accomplished writer and her first book is an ethnographic memoir, Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond. This book won the Independent Book Awards’ Silver Medal in Multicultural Nonfiction and her second book, Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge, was a finalist for the 2017 Washington State Nonfiction Book of the Year. Her latest book is Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain, which is now available in bookstores.

The subject of her latest book, Captain Þuríður Einarsdóttir, was born in 1777 in a rural community in southwest Iceland to poor tenant farmers. Þuríður first went to sea at the age of eleven, and she quickly proved to be luckier at fishing and better at reading the weather than any of her peers. In the treacherous sub-arctic seas of southern Iceland where drowning was a common occurrence, she never lost a single crew member. She became the most sought after crew member herself, and eventually the most renowned captain of her time. Intelligent, compassionate, brave, loyal, and pious, Captain Þuríður fought for the poor, the powerless, and the disabled against self-interested land-owners and bureaucrats. She earned a local reputation navigating the Dano-Icelandic courts, and when the county commissioner failed to solve a nineteenth-century who-dunnit, he turned to Þuríður to solve the crime.

Captain Þuríður’s life and achievements were largely overlooked by twentieth-century historians, and it is now thanks to Margaret’s research into archival sources that Þuríður’s story can be told in dramatic and arresting detail.

To celebrate International Women’s Day and the publication of Margaret’s newest book, the University Bookstore hosted a conversation with the author, led by Professor Andrew Nestingen, Chair of Scandinavian Studies. The event was recorded live, but has been edited for time. Questions from the audience were re-recorded in studio.

 [*crowd applauds*]

Andrew Nestingen: Thank you to the staff at the Bookstore for making this event possible. It's really exciting to be here and see such a nice turn out tonight. The book is— a little bird told me that it was one spot ahead of Michelle Obama in the biography and autobiography section on Amazon today. So it's also selling like crazy—

Margaret Willson: —for 10 minutes. 

[*crowd laughs*]

Andy: —and that's a good reason to get one. I want to say my own little introduction here that has to do with the fact that I am Margaret's neighbor and it just is a really special and exciting moment for me here to see neighbors in the room. It's just a— it's kind of a weird feeling. There's academic colleagues, and some people I don't know, and then neighbors. Very special to be here with Margaret, my neighbor. And I learned about Margaret— I didn't know she was an Icelandic expert, and another mutual friend who's not here— I feel like I was in my car or something like that? I maybe pulled over. And was talking to this person— 

Margaret: —She was a neighbor, too. 

Andy: —Yeah, she was a neighbor, too. And she's like, “Oh, do you know Margaret?” and I was, I said, “Oh, I don't know Margaret.” “Oh, she wrote this book about Iceland.” “Oh, really? What's the book?” And she said “It's [*intentionally mumbles*] dahdahdah…Iceland.” And I was, “What? What?” And I couldn't quite get it. And then I thought I heard her say “Seals of Iceland.” And like, “Seals of Iceland? What kind of book is that?” And so then I went home and I started poking around to find out Margaret— “Oh, Seawomen of Iceland.” So I was then educated, and what a lovely, amazing book that is, too. It was nominated for a best non-fiction book in 2017, state of Washington best nonfiction book. That was an incredible achievement and contribution there, and then that one of the main characters in that book, Þuríður Einarsdóttir, becomes the main character in this book. So there's a neat continuity from that project to this one, so maybe you could just begin by telling us, you know, why you wrote the book, what drew you to this project and Þuríður Einarsdóttir. 

Margaret: I don't know. I think about chance. Like, what makes us— what small things do we do in our lives that makes such a huge difference and have such ramifications, you know? And we call it chance, is it? I don't know. But as I was just talking with someone here, I was working in Brazil and, but in 1997 I bought a house in Seattle in the Central District, which even then I couldn't really afford and so I was renting rooms out to pay my mortgage. It's a four bedroom house. I still live there, so I didn't lose it to foreclosure, but so one of those people was an Icelandic— is an Icelandic woman who was here in Seattle, and so— and she is an oceanographic physicist. And so I was renting a room to her, and she was going to go home to her native Iceland for an EU project, and she's going to be there for a while. And she said, “Well, why don't you come and visit me?” This was a little after 2000, and there weren't— it wasn't the tourist place it is now and I thought, “Well, OK, I mean, when else am I ever going to go to Iceland? Never.” So I went to Iceland to visit her there. And in showing me around as any good host would do she took me to the small coastal community of Stokkseyri, which is about an hour east of Reykjavík. And we're walking along through the, sort of, backstreets. And we came across this little hut. It was a— it is still there. It's a stone hut, sod-roofed stone hut, and next to it was at that time, it was just a little stone inscription. And she started translating the Icelandic and she said “Oh! So, this is a re—” It said 1949. And she said, “This is a reconstruction of the winter fishing hut of Captain Þuríður Einarsdóttir.” And then she said, “She lived from 1777 to 1863.” And I went, “She? She? The sea captain was a woman?” And she said, “Well, yes, that's what it says.” And I said, “So history tells us these sea women don't exist, right? There aren't supposed to be any captains that were women, sea captains.” And I'd worked at sea myself and I thought “Hmm.” You might call it chance. What is it? But that's what happened. That's— I just couldn't let go of it. I couldn't let go of it. That's it. 

Andy: One of the things that's really remarkable about the book is the level of detail that you are able to recount about Þuríður’s daily life, and about some of the crises at sea she experienced in storms and things like that. It's almost minute by minute narration of the events in her life, in moments of the book— you know, it reads like a novel, really. And I think that's part of the draw of the book, but how did you do that? Can you tell us a little bit about how you were able to learn that amount about her life and then communicate it in the book in a way that is so compelling? 

Margaret: Well, is it me or is it Iceland? [*laughs*] Really? I mean, well, there are several Icelandic scholars here and there are people who know this perfectly well, but for those of you who might not know this, you know, Iceland is the land of the sagas, the incredible literature which has inspired everybody from Tolkien to Wagner to Game of Thrones to you-name-it. And Iceland had the earliest democracy in modern Europe and then through political infighting, they lost their democracy and were ruled by first Norway and then Denmark for 600 years. They didn't get independence and full independence until 1944. And during that time where they lived in incredible oppression and near starvation, what really kept them—their sense of self, their identity and their language—was this fixation on themselves as a literary people, and on these sagas, and an obsession with poetry. So everybody knew how to read at least well enough to pass their catechism. Women weren't taught to write particularly—[*sarcastically*] why did women have to know how to write? But men were. And they wrote obsessively. This is what we discovered. I mean, we didn't discover—other people talked about this, but this is what we found— that just farmers wrote about their neighbors. When I first started doing this research, there was one book written by— started by a 16 year old boy who had no education, who started interviewing Þuríður when she was older—phenomenal! And he spent 50 years putting this together, and he did a series of newspaper articles in the late 1800s, which were put together in an edited book in 1945, about Þuríður, actually. It's amazing. And I thought that's all there was practically. Not so. Because she was such an amazing person, everybody wrote about her. There's just tons, both in the archives as we going through these archives, page by page, we come across more and more and more and more about her, and in books in the library, old books, where people— they have these books like Saga of Stokkseyri or some town, that people talk about their own towns and record what people say or these occurrences. And so people recorded, they remembered and wrote down verbatim conversations. And they wrote about adulterous affairs. They wrote about children who were born that weren't really supposed to be born to that person. They wrote about fights. They wrote about betrayals. They wrote about love. It's phenomenal the detail with which they wrote. So you know, we were lucky. I was— It was so exciting as we were doing this research to just find more and more and more. So yes, OK, I was able to do the research. I would say that I started writing this as fiction. I wrote a full third of the book as fiction. And then I thought this is stupid and I threw it out and I thought you have so much material, just— you can have it almost read this way and make it non-fiction. And to try and do fiction is not fair to Þuríður or to women altogether because this is real. And so then I started it again. It's just amazing. It's Iceland. I don't know of anywhere else that has this kind of record. And because she was such an amazing person, everybody wrote about her. It's phenomenal. 

Andy: Yeah, it really comes through in a sparkling way in the book that the depth of sort of story, that lies behind or in that archive that you found in your work. One of the things that I noted when you were talking in your introductory marks, you said it was “a woman? Sea captain?” You wrote a book about seawomen of Iceland, and there's a lot of seawomen in this book. Were there many women captains? Could you talk a little bit about where she fit in as a seawoman, sea captain? 

Margaret: Again, it's why we do the things we do at the times we do them, right? So I wrote first, even though I was first intrigued by Þuríður, I wrote first a book on women in Iceland working at sea. And I don't think I could have written this current book had I not done the other one first because it gave me a depth of knowledge that allowed me to write this book. I think that's— I can definitely say that. But what made the first book I— or the Seawomen of Iceland book so amazing was that Iceland itself images its history of sea work as male. Entirely male. And it wasn't at all. And because, I mean, you know, how do we create reality? How do we create reality of our histories and our present through that representation? In Iceland, because it's written down, we can contradict what the present says about the history. And so when we looked at it all, myself and my wonderful research assistants, we found not just dozens, not just hundreds, but thousands of women in the history of Iceland who were working fishing. The records of them and there are accounts of them. That's what's amazing. And they tell in their own—because people writing about them, you know, the same sort of deal interviewing them during their lifetimes—they tell exactly what it was like for them to go to sea, so that was phenomenal. And so I could say with confidence, at least in the 1700s and 1800s that a full third of the fishing fleet was women. It’s phenomenal. You know, what I realized in the end—because I kept thinking, why? Why? What is this? And— they didn't have enough people. I mean, fishing was vital, and they didn't have enough people to be picky. It was just anybody who could go out, went out. A lot of them drowned. But of course it does make me wonder about the history of, say, sea- or whatever else in other countries, and it's not written down, and can we find that? And it's very hard to recover it. But there are a few counts of women being sea captains, some of them even longer than Þuríður. There was one woman, Halldóra, who was in the mid-1700s and she only took women in her boat. She wouldn't even take a male crew member. And so she apparently—this is what was recorded—she used to— her brothers both had boats, too, and they used to have competitions al the time. And the women always won— in the recording in what they said at the time. So and— there was another one who was only mentioned— she was a captain for 30 years and only got mentioned because she got really drunk once and people— She said, “Oh, God, no one must know about this, not even God itself.” But of course everybody wrote it down so we can read about it 200 years later. [*laughter*] But so there's several accounts of women, but none of them— Þuríður was so remarkable in so many ways that people wrote a lot more about her. That's the difference. On the others, there's— I haven't done the kind of research for them that I have with Þuríður, but I don't think there would be. You know, I didn't in the first book, I didn't find that much. I didn't do a lot of archival, deep archival research for that first book because it was more of a big survey around the country. But Þuríður was just such an amazing person that a lot of people wrote about her. So she's been written about, but there were quite a few. And she took, you know, there were a lot of women working at sea when she went to sea. It wasn't remarkable at all that she went to sea. There were lots. 

Andy: One of the things that you discussed in the book that sort of makes her stand out from her first fishing trip is her luck. She's a lucky fisher. I think that the fish are sort of jumping into the boat on her first fishing outing and everyone was impressed with all the fish that she's caught. Now that's a fish story, right? Like, the fisher says, “I was skillful,” when everyone else says, “You were lucky.” What about skill and luck? In her life, it seems like that she's a very skillful person, but often people sort of attribute her success to things that are happenstance or or attributed to luck. So I just wonder if you can talk a little bit about that. That's kind of an interesting tension in the book.

Margaret: Well, I would say it's not something about her. They have a word called fiskinn, which means the fish come to you. The— Certain people are fiskinn. In my feeling—I'm not an Icelander—but my feeling of being in Iceland talking to all these Icelanders and doing all this research is you don't want to say you are skilled. You don't want to say, “I can do all this,” and to say it, even to others— They say, somebody was one of the better— They say that “they were the best fishing person of the area,” and they say she was. But when you say— when you talk about actually getting fish—and not drowning—you say you're lucky because I think to say— it's almost like courting disaster. To say it has something to do with you because the sea— you never try and control the sea. That's a really stupid thing to do. And so, you know, seapeople are very, you know, fishing people from time immemorial are very superstitious. Many of us are superstitious in all kinds of things. And so, wh y tempt the sea to test you? That's what I would say. It's much better to say you're lucky. 

Andy: Lucky as a fisher, but not so lucky in love. She has this marriage that falls apart and leads to more problems. And then this sort of attempt to force her into marriage. Could you talk a little bit about marriage in her times in Iceland, and maybe talk a little bit about her marital life? 

Margaret: So the Danes who controlled Iceland—Iceland was terribly impoverished—and they didn't want poor people to get together and have children, because then the children would be impoverished and they'd have to figure out how to take care of them or they would die or something. Which they did a lot. And so as a way to keep people from supposedly getting together, then they made it very hard for people to marry. You had to have— you had to be a leaseholder, which you had to have at least one cow. The price of 1 cow. Everything was done in terms of, you know, one cow or six sheep or how much of cloth or or how many fish. It wasn't, and people didn't really have much money, but you had to have a certain amount of wealth which was quite hard for people to get. So because people had to be tied as farmhands—unless they could get a lease—to work for a farmer, and that farmer was considered their master. They weren't slaves, they weren't bought and sold, and they could change where they lived once a year on Moving Days in May. That's it. And besides that, they couldn't even leave the farm without the farmer's permission, and the farmer was allowed to beat them as long as it didn't show too bad welts. So I mean, they were basically owned almost. They were serfs, basically. So. The ability to marry was just for those who had leaseholds or the elite. There were more women than men in Iceland, and women didn't get married a lot because they didn't have enough, you know, and it was usually a man, almost always a man, who had the leasehold. And so if a guy asked you to marry him, then they had to have the money to do it. But the problem is if you got married as a woman, guess what? The man was then your master. That was the way it went. So if you married someone, you went from having your father being in control of you or the farmer being in control of you to your husband. So. Then we come to Þuríður. So when Þuríður was younger, she was working partly as a farmhand, just like everybody else. And one guy did fall in— a guy who was working with her on the fishing boat, fell in love with her when she was like 20— or I don't know, “fell in love with her” is what we say. That's our interpretation. But he wanted to marry her. He really wanted to marry her and she liked him. She thought he was— “They got along well.” That's what the account says. “They got along very well together on the boat.” And he had the ability to do a leasehold, so he could get married. But Þuríður, with a chance to be married, said, “I'll live with you, but I won't get married until we're sure this is going to work because I don't want to give up my power.” This is recorded. This is what she said. This is a very unusual thing for a woman to say. [*pauses*] He drank too much. So when they started living together, he also wanted to control things on the farm. So it only lasted six weeks. And then she said, “Forget this news. I'm out of here.” [*laughter*] So she said,. “Lucky we didn't marry.” So she left him. Dumped him. And very shortly thereafter, another guy who also had a leasehold, he said, “Well, I'd like to marry you.” And she moved in with him but told him the same thing, “I'm not going to marry you until we get along. We make sure we get along.” They had a child. They weren't supposed to do this either, but everybody did because you couldn't get married. So if you can’t get together— I mean, people are gonna get pregnant, right? So it's gonna happen. So. And Þuríður really loved this child. But that was— I won't go int that. It’s too long. But that marriage was [*pauses*] duplicitously undermined and betrayed by other people. It was really a sad story. It's really, you know, it was nasty. And then the third time is when she was in her 40s and her deckhand was 20 at the time. He tried to blackmail her into marrying him because he really wanted to marry her, too. And she said, “Forget it. I'm 20 years older than yours. It’s not going to happen. I don't want it. You're— you’re a boy.” But he tried to blackmail, but it didn't work out too well for him. So. [*laughs*] She's very clever. 

Andy: Another thread that runs through the book from the beginning until the end is a ghost, Móri. Maybe you could talk about that ghost story and the place of ghosts and haunting in Iceland. 

Margaret: The thing about when we think about ghosts here is often that there are these ethereal sort of beings and they, you know, there's scary things that go bump in the night? That doesn't seem like Icelandic ghosts at all. Often they're just persons from the other side that are within a community. You don't really want them around, but they're there. And they're— people can see them as well. They say, for instance, Móri, this one— they say, “He looks like a boy, just like a regular boy. Except that he wasn't.” That's what they say. That's what they said again and again. So this kind of— maybe a “specter” or a “fetch” in English, it might be better because they're very solid. They're all different kinds of ghosts that we call ghosts. But this kind is— I think the border is more permeable in Iceland between the other side and this side. The movement is— It goes more easily. And of course, it's the interesting thing. If a dead person appears through a dream, they're not a ghost. A dream being that liminal space between this world and the other. Yeah, there's a lot of interesting things you want to think about these presences. But this one, Móri: in 1783, there was this horrific volcanic eruption and people were starving to death because it was killing people. There's lava going all over the place and in the winter all of the animals died, and so this boy had been walking for probably—if you look at the geography, he must have been walking 100 miles. And he got to— this is when Þuríður was seven— And he got to their farmhouse. They were about starving, too. Everybody was. And he knocked on the door, and he asked for food. And Þuríður’s father, Einar, said, “No. We don't have any food to share.” And so then he said, “Well, at least give me shelter in your barn.” And the father said, “No.” And he turned him away in the snow. Now in Iceland, even today, to turn somebody away from your home in the winter is illegal. Because you condemn them to death. And that's what happened to the boy. He died. Icelanders in this little community showed me the exact ditch today. They know where he died. He then, the boy turning away, knowing he was going to die, put a curse on the family and said he would haunt them for nine generations. He would follow that family. And he did as far as anybody can see. He was seen until the 1980s. They say you couldn't see his feet, his feet didn't touch the ground by the 1980s, he was kind of floating. But, you know, he lasted a long time. Hundreds and hundreds of people saw him. But he caused havoc in Þuríður’s life as well as many others. But yeah, he did. He's a definite character and influence in her life that needs to be taken account of because of his influence. 

Andy: Did you? Did you see him? [*laughs*]

Margaret: I got there after 1980. [*laughter*] 

Andy: Bad question. [*laughs*] But a little speculative question, you know Þuríður very well from your writing this book. And I wonder if you could just sort of speculate a little bit, like, what kind of life would she live today? Do you have any thoughts about what kind of person she would be if she were living in our times? 

Margaret: She's obviously really, really smart. That comes across again and again and again. She's really smart and very incredibly observant. Now, you know, it's interesting for me to think about Iceland today— too much to go into here, but the way they do their quota system, they do it— they sell it in sort of almost like a commodity system. So it makes it very hard for— It's actually, since I I did my research for the other book in 2013, since that time, there are very, very few women fishing in Iceland. There are a lot more fishing in Alaska or Norway, unfortunately, I would say. And in this country, it's supposed to be the most gender equal in the world. And you know, if she were trying to be a captain now, I don't know if society would allow it in Iceland in the way there. You can't tell, of course, but it would be really, there would be— Nobody in Iceland said, “You shouldn't be a captain,” at that time. Nobody said, “You shouldn't be fishing.” There was never in all the accounts, there's nothing that said she shouldn't be fishing. Or that when she became a captain, as a woman, that she shouldn't be doing it. I didn't see a single thing of that. Yeah. When I was doing my other research for the Seawomen of Iceland, what you do see is toward the late [1800s], when Iceland begins to change, then you begin to see this whole idea that women shouldn't be at sea. So, and it got even stronger after 1900. So now when you have this whole image of the sea is male in Iceland. It's because of this huge shift that women are not allowed to be and not supposed to be on sea, whereas in the history they certainly were up to basically to the time of her death, until 1860s and 1870s is when it begins to change, the 1880s. So it's quite interesting. I mean gender equality, as we know in this country, doesn't just move steadily forward. 

Andy: Now there's some time for questions from the audience and I think what we'll do is we'll just keep one mic up here and just ask you to pass the mic. So just raise your hand. If you have a question, I see one in the back, so I'm just going to—

Audience member 1: What kind of boats did they fish in? Could you describe their boats for us? 

Margaret: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I've got great descriptions of that. I've even got pictures of them. They're— Well, the pictures are from the 1890s, but it's the same boat. So they were wooden, round-bottom boats, open, with just thwarts across it. So the whole boat was open. And they were, the smallest ones would have space for four oars and the larger ones, certainly in the south, would have twelve. Where she was you couldn't really get a twelve-oar boat because they were going in between the reefs. Over a little bit more— In other parts of Iceland, they could have twelve-oar boats and you'd usually have about 15 people. Like, in a ten-oar boat you'd have 13 to 14 people in it. The other people would be bailing and doing the other things they needed to do. But they were just straight open row boats. 

Audience member 2: I'm just curious to hear what brought about the change where women were not considered equal to men when it came to being on the sea.

Margaret: If you really want to know that, I suggest you get my earlier book and you can get it from the library. Just read, there's a chapter, a couple of chapters on it, because it's quite detailed. But towards the end of the 1800s, Iceland started to change a lot. And one thing— and they're moving, trying to fight for independence. But there was this whole idea of who was the proper Icelander, and it began to be that the proper woman was a housewife. They didn't even have really a word for housewife before. But there was this concept of this woman should be at home. So you started getting in the accounts things like, “It was said she liked to be at sea as much as being in the kitchen.” Or, “She was as good with the sails” —they had sails by this time— “She was as good with sails as she was at knitting.” So her accomplishment— these are people trying to be complementary to these women still, but they have to place her strongly in the home as well. They have to make sure she's good at that, too. Then, as you get on toward the early 1900s, you get people saying—you're still trying to be complementary—who are saying things, “Well, you might have thought that she was a troll, being as she was so good at sea, but she was not. She looked as good in a skirt.” So then women aren't supposed to be there. And then later on, there is this word kerling, which they use all the time then for them, which basically means “hag.” And so that's the term that's used all the time for seawomen. And it gets more and more and more derogatory towards Þuríður herself, starting in the 1900s there and even the 1890s, people are writing really derogatory things about her. Totally changes, and in her lifetime that wasn't at all— but so then in about 1900, Iceland went through what is considered their sort of industrial revolution when they got motors on boats. And that totally changed the entire society. And people—they were all rural basically before that—and then they started moving into coastal communities, fishing communities. And then you had the advent, really, of Iceland. They didn't really have the same kind of wage labor that they would have in other places because they were all working together for a farm. When it became wage labor, it was the women who were working on shore processing the fish. Also, they were going out with these big motorized boats that are not big, but they're motorized boats. So they were bringing in more fish than they could, than the crew could process. And so then you had people hired on shore to take care of the fish and they were all women. And then the men who made more money were the ones working the boats. And then you saw a big shift. That's how it happened, basically. 

Audience member 3: Thank you so much. I had a question and I'm not exactly sure exactly how to phrase this, but it's I guess it's a discipline, disciplinary question. So you're a trained anthropologist and you're writing books that are for maybe broader audiences than academic audiences, and I wonder whether you would just speak a little bit to your process of research and writing and how this might have shifted over the years. Or, what stayed the same or what's served you well in these different capacities? 

Margaret: Well before I went into anthropology, I wanted to be a creative writer, I have to say. And I went into studying creative writing I did. And I studied  with the woman at the time, Annie Dillard, who just won a Pulitzer. And so I went to— that's the reason I moved to Washington. I moved to Western and she was teaching at Fairhaven and I took courses from her, and so I took several creative writing classes. You know, I was trying to write things and get them published and I couldn't. This is, I was in my early 20s and then I took— And I traveled. You know, I left the states when I was 18 for reasons that are quite bizarre, but started traveling around there. I spent five years working my way around the world, so I didn't start university until I was 23. I just worked around the world. And so I took these— I was taking university classes, and honestly, I found university for me quite easy. You know, looking at path of least resistance. And so then I— but then when I took the first anthropology class I though, “Oh, my God, I love this. This is what I want to do anyway.” And so I got really interested in anthropology and I have been ever since. Now in terms of writing then, of course, if you're doing an academic, I started writing more academic articles, of course, as time went on and I did my PhD. And honestly for me, I always wanted to write in a more literary fashion. I always did, so I suppose sometimes that some of us it takes us a long time to get to the stage where we try out again what we really want to do. Now, the Dance—.the first one I did of this kind, Dance Lest We All Fall Down, was a memoir. It wasn't an academic book at all. So that was interesting. It was a very interesting thing to write it, but I talked a lot about race and inequality and all these sort of things that were issues that I had considered through anthropology. And people have used it a lot for classes as an ethnography, actually. For these books, it was my aim— I wanted a larger audience and I wanted to see if I could write something that read in a more literary way and had the beauty of something that's more literary and had the depth that sometimes you can get in that kind of writing, and make it so rigorously cited, because I mean here, you know, I'm saying in The Seawomen of Iceland, I'm telling Icelanders that their history—as a foreigner—I'm telling you their perception of their history is problematic. That's a very vulnerable thing to do, but also just I wanted it really rigorously in terms of scholarship. So that's what I tried to do with that book. But I wanted to see if I can make it a beautiful thing to read and really evoke the depth of what the experience of people was. Their voices, to have it come through. That was the aim in that book. For this one, I consciously tried to make it read like a novel. But I could do that of course, as I've said, because of the amazing information. But I have also, I've cited it— Like, the whole last 60 pages is notes. [*laughs*] It looks like quite a thick book, but it's not that thick. It's just a lot of notes, and they're smaller print. So I just thought it was an amazing story and— But I want people— You know, I don't want people to be able to say to me, “Oh, well, it's not really true.” And so I was very fierce about that, but it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. So I'm taking this time to just do what I want, and you know, just explore this as a way of writing. I'm still writing articles, by the way, just on fisheries policy, but that's totally different. [*laughs*] You notice you're not all here hearing my things about fishery policy. [*laughter*] 

Audience member 4: So, Margaret, you're an outsider, an American going to Iceland to write about an historic figure. So how is your work being perceived now? I could see that it would either be “oh, it's a no brainer, of course.” Or is there actually pushback against this whole concept of women at sea, despite all the evidence to the contrary? 

Margaret: Well, when I first came out with Seawomen of Iceland, I was terrified. And early on when I started speaking—I was at a conference—started at a conference where men would get up and they say, “You don't know what you're talking about.” And then I say, I talk about a certain place, they say, “Oh, well just in Breiðafjörður,” which is like a huge bay that is— it's like the Puget Sound only wider and it's really terrifyingly dangerous. They say, “Oh, well, women might fish in there, but that's not really dangerous.” And you say, “Of course it is.” And they fished all— So, but the thing is because it was so well cited that eventually people began to change their opinions. It's had quite an effect. Now, I feel very, very privileged. Overall I'm amazed how receptive and kind Icelanders have been. For this book, so I already have— And also the other thing, I interviewed 200 seawomen. And the seawomen, you know, we started a site called Sjókonur which is— we started a site for seawomen and they're all getting together. They do it on Facebook and so it's all on Facebook. And so they've all got together as a meeting. But it's really cool and so they know me. And by the way, if I hadn't worked at sea before, I never could have done that book. They all said, “Oh, and what did you do?” you know, and I wouldn't understand their experience, all those interviews. And then for this book, I'm doing it again. This is a, you know, it's a very dangerous thing to— I'm talking about a controversial person. I might say it's just come out in Iceland right now. I don't know what the reaction will be, but from the very beginning, the communities of Stokkseyri and Eyrarbakki and also, I mean, the people have been so incredible. I mean the— you look at the acknowledgements are really long. I could never could have done this without Icelanders working with me. I mean, it's amazing. People, you know, those archival things I'm talking about— I can't read them. They're in a kind of Icelandic-Danish mix and they're in this incredible writing that's very hard to read. And so you have to be a specialist. And so people, scholars in Iceland transcribe them. And just, you know, out of just, said, “Oh yeah, we'll help that. Yeah, yeah.” And people in the community there they went all out. People photocopied private manuscripts that they had, handwritten manuscripts and gave them to me to use. I mean, it's just phenomenal how much people helped me. I will say I feel very— In terms of how Icelanders are going to react, all these friends of mine are right now buying it. As we speak. So. We shall see. I haven't come across any of them who've read it yet. So Eymundsson, their major bookshop chain has it. And apparently their University Bookstore is going to get it next week. But several Icelanders read advance copies and wrote endorsements in the front of the book who were very respected people, and the First Lady of Iceland Eliza Reid, she also endorsed it. The publisher put her endorsement— It says Eliza. It doesn't say “First Lady” because that would sound like a political endorsement. But if you're an Icelander, you obviously know that she's the first lady. So. That makes me feel really happy. I'm really grateful she did that. So that makes me feel very honored. So you got me. I don't know but all over Icelanders just have been so incredibly generous to me, I will say, and to the research. And they've been excited about it. That's what makes me feel so, I feel honored, honestly. 

Andy: I think I could sit here for another hour listening to you, but I think we're reaching the end of our time here. Let's conclude for the evening with a big round of applause. And thanks to Margaret.

[*crowd applauds*]

Margaret: Thank you guys. 

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Colin: Would you or someone you know like to take a class at the UW to learn more about Iceland or Scandinavia? UW summer study is open to any US high school student, college student, or member of the public. In 2023, we’re offering four courses. In SCAND 230 Intro to Folklore Studies, you can study folktales, legends, jokes, songs, proverbs, and other forms of traditional culture, together with the living people and communities who perform and adapt them. In SCAND 270 Sagas of the Vikings, you can study Icelandic sagas and poetry about Vikings in the context of thirteenth-century Scandinavian society. In SCAND 330 Scandinavian Mythology, you can study the pre-Christian Norse religions of Scandinavia, and in SCAND 375 Vikings in Pop Culture, you can study media representations of "the Vikings" in nineteenth- and twentieth-century advertising, comics, film, literature, music, poetry, propaganda, television series, and video games. Registration opens in April. Go to

Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Thea Lund for reading the excerpt of Woman, Captain, Rebel at the opening of our episode. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Sound effects are from Visit to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at Once again, that’s

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Release Date: March 29, 2023

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors.

Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.