First, it’s important to get it straight.
She’s not called a ‘lobsterwoman’ if the person lobster fishing is female; the correct term, no matter what the gender is lobsterman.
Susan Tobey White’s latest series, “Lobstering Women of Maine” is all about the women who haul traps, bait bags, stern and lobster fish off their own boats. The exhibit is currently hanging at Penobscot Marine Museum until October 2019.
At least 300 people showed for her artist’s reception on July 14 and among those in the crowd were several of the women she did the portraits of.
“I think most of the people who showed up at the reception were in awe. They had no idea that women even did this line of work,” said White.
White said she had to gather statistics from a number of sources to actually pinpoint how many female lobstermen are at work. By her calculations, there are 200 female lobstermen out of 4,500 license holders in the state of Maine with an uncounted number of girls and women who work as sternman or apprentices.
“When I grew up, the options for women and careers were a nurse, a teacher, a secretary or a housewife,” she said. “There are a few women who strayed from that notion, but even in the 1970s, if you were on a lobster boat, you were supporting the male in the family in some way, whether it was sterning or assisting your father or husband, or helping if he was ill. I myself am in awe of these women today, who are out there doing the work.”
As White knows herself, the work is arduous, sometimes up to 14 hours a day. It’s physically demanding, dirty; there are harbor politics and lobstering is still a male-dominated field with its own set of codes and rules.
“My husband has had his license for 30 years in Belfast and along the years I’ve played a small role — and I do mean small — assisting him on his boat,” she said. “I’ve baited bags, I’ve measured and banded the lobsters, but it’s not my thing, which is why I have such respect for these women, who do this day in and day out for a living.”
Through photographs she took herself and from other professional and amateur photographs she procured, she set to paint the women in various stages of work. Here are a few of the women, including a 10-year-old, she has painted and a little of their backstory.
“She’s 11 now, but this painting was when she was 10,” she said. “At that time, she had a five-trap license, but this year she’s fishing 50 traps. Her grandfather was a commerical fisherman and she goes out with her dad, also a commercial fisherman on his boat in Wells. ”
Though White wasn’t entirely sure, it is very likely that Norah is fishing with a student trap license, which allows 50 traps in her age category.
“Meredith fishes out of Stonington and this painting depicts her hauling a trap, while her sister opens another trap on the same string of traps and a third sternman assists,” said White. “They’re working on Meredith’s boat and she has memories of apprenticing with her own father, standing on milk crates just to reach the traps on the rail.”
“What you see here is Sadie, who is beginning at the season and she’s putting her new traps and gear on the boat,” she said. “This is her boat. Her dad is also a lobsterman and she went on lobstering with him since she was a child. With each painting I tried to depict an aspect of lobstering.”
“She’s skewering fish on a baiting iron and is the wife of a lobster fisherman,” said White. “I love that image. Someone at the show asked me if she was barbecuing on board.”
White plans on continuing this series, painting more female lobstermen and sternmen as they work and is considering making a coffee table book out of her paintings and their stories.
“My hope is not just to put the spotlight on women in the industry but to put more attention on all of the issues the industry is currently facing now.”
To see White’s work visit: https://penobscotmarinemuseum.org/2019-exhibits/
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org