THE growing vision for gender equality in this industry culminates each year as the International Day for Women in Maritime. It’s a fairly recent addition to our calendars, observed for the first time on 18 May 2022. The acceptance of women in maritime roles may as well be just as recent in the historical timeline of these ancient professions.

DCN has been around since the late 1800s. These past couple of years we’ve taken to trawling our archives for news articles to raise to the surface a hundred years later in this. Unsurprisingly, women are largely absent from these stories. A captain’s wife may have been mentioned in reports of a foundering incident, but other than that, the words “she” and “her” are only ever used in relation to vessels.

It would seem women simply did not go to sea in those days, and “those days” appear to extend right up until the end of the twentieth century. But professor and historian Diane Kirkby – who has spent much more time in the archives than DCN has – has found that women were going to sea earlier than what is widely thought.

And so, while the maritime community celebrates International Day for Women in Maritime for 2024, DCN is launching a humble project in its pages. We’re sitting down with the women who forged pathways for others, who were among the first in their respective roles and who stood up to an industry which told them they had no place in it.


Ms Kirkby’s broader research focuses on labour history and women moving into non-traditional industries and occupations. She found women in transport industries had been somewhat overlooked, and their role in maritime largely under-researched. Ms Kirkby’s interest in this area began with her work on the history of the Seamen’s Union.

“I was blown away; I just thought … it is so rich, there’s so much history here,” Ms Kirkby said.

“There’s so much to know about it, but in writing that history [of the union] I said, ‘So, where are the women?’ “I was writing about a period of time when women were just starting to come into the industry … I started writing about women, I started exploring the issues of what it was like for families, what it was like for husbands and wives and what it was like for the kids growing up in seafaring families.”

Ms Kirkby said it is widely accepted that women never worked on the Australian coast or went to sea prior to a fairly recent point in history.

“And it seemed to be the case, although I realised that wasn’t true in the Scandinavian countries, it wasn’t even true in New Zealand. It wasn’t true of the United States, where the wives of the captains were allowed to go away to sea on the whaling ships,” Ms Kirkby said.

“That was never the case in Australia. And so, what I’ve discovered … is that’s not entirely true. That there were, in fact, women working as stewards in Australia, long before anybody’s known about it, and nobody has looked at that record or told that story.”

And that is exactly the story Ms Kirkby has set out to tell.

“We found a letter from way back in the 1890s of a woman writing to say, ‘I want to go away to sea, I want to apply for [a cadetship]. I want to be an officer.’ And she gets a letter back saying, ‘No way … We don’t employ women.’ But women were asking to go. Women wanted to go. They wanted to do this work.”


Some of the women who managed to secure work on ships overseas found themselves on Australian shores, occasionally as a consequence of a shipwreck. One of the stories that has emerged in Ms Kirkby’s research is that of a British steward who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Having migrated to Australia some years later, she wrote a letter.

“She tells this story about how she survived the sinking of the Titanic. It goes to the heart of the story we’re telling because, when they’re piling the women into the lifeboats, she’s working as a steward. And she says, ‘I’m crew, I’m not getting into the lifeboat.’ And she’s told ‘you’re a woman, you get in the lifeboat.’

“So, it’s this kind of situation where you’re either crew, or you’re a woman … you can’t be both.”

Part of Ms Kirkby’s job as a historian is to pinpoint the moments things change in history – for better for worse – and to understand why. War, for example, caused waves of women to enter the workforce and take up non-traditional roles.

Ms Kirkby notes women have been accepted into maritime and ports only to be pushed out again throughout history.

The common knowledge is that women first started working on the wharves in 1989 or 1990, but Ms Kirkby has established that there were women on the wharves back in the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government introduced anti-discrimination legislation.

“It’s the women who were pushing [who said] ‘Now, finally, we can work on the wharves … it’s what our dads did, it’s what our brothers do.’ It was better money and career structure.”

Conversely, legislation has also prevented from working in the industry, back when working with cargo meant physically carrying dangerously heavy loads. Campaigns for safer working conditions and labour reforms at the turn of the twentieth century saw the International Labour Organization limit the weight of a load a woman could legally carry, the main consideration here being motherhood.

“When women were going to start working on the wharves, one of the things that stayed in place was that women will be expected to do all the same work that men can do, except where they’re not allowed to do it by law, because they’re not allowed to lift certain weights,” Ms Kirkby said.

“But you can see why, if you’re carrying bags of wheat on your back. It’s harder for women to get jobs in an industry that’s like that.”

Another factor that has influenced the role of women in the industry is technology. The introduction of port equipment and even shipping containers meant people were not carrying the cargo, but controlling the machinery that did it for them.

“So that technological change makes a huge difference to women’s ability to get employed. And it’s the same on ships … it’s not until the 1960s that you start getting much more modern ships.”


Life at sea is challenging, irrespective or gender or era. It is lonely and it is isolating. Having a family adds a whole other dimension to those challenges. Many seafarers have told Ms Kirkby how difficult it is to have a family and stay in their seafaring careers.

“They either have to find a partner who’s also in the industry, or who has flexibility that enables things to be juggled, but it makes it really, really hard,” she said.

The isolation of seafaring is another ongoing challenge, for everyone, but especially women who are rostered on as the only female in their crew, and particularly when issues such as violence, abuse and sexual harassment arise.

“If you have a case of sexual harassment within the crew, and you’re stuck away at sea, you have no access to social welfare or police. It’s terrifying, I think.”

The numbers of women in the industry are still “incredibly low” nowadays, Ms Kirkby said. The first women to work on the wharves also experienced this isolation – some have reported never encountering another woman at work because they were never rostered on together.

But in light of this sense of loneliness shared by many in the industry, Ms Kirkby has been encouraged by how women are organising events and developing support networks. She emphasised how important it is to also have the support of men in the industry. And the stories that lead us to where we are now, as an industry, are stories worth telling.

“Historians are storytellers, and that’s how human beings have learned,” Ms Kirkby said.

“Every society tells stories in order to teach its young. Women have been basically invisible in history, and it’s really important that we find their stories and we make them known, so that it inspires and informs young people growing up, and a new generation. And it enriches us as well, in terms of understanding how we came to be where we are now.

“I think sometimes the most powerless and the most invisible people are the ones we should know most about. They have had a life and they’ve been valuable. And we should know more about them.”

This article appeared in the May 2024 edition of DCN Magazine