Captain Ahab Had a Wife

New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870

By Lisa Norling

Captain Ahab Had a Wife

392 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 32 illus., 3 maps , appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4870-8
    Published: October 2000

Gender and American Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2001 Frederick Jackson Turner Award, Organization of American Historians

2000 John Lyman Book Award in U. S. Naval and Maritime History, North American Society for Oceanic History

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the whaling industry in New England sent hundreds of ships and thousands of men to distant seas on voyages lasting up to five years. In Captain Ahab Had a Wife, Lisa Norling taps a rich vein of sources--including women's and men's letters and diaries, shipowners' records, Quaker meeting minutes and other church records, newspapers and magazines, censuses, and city directories--to reconstruct the lives of the "Cape Horn widows" left behind onshore.

Norling begins with the emergence of colonial whalefishery on the island of Nantucket and then follows the industry to mainland New Bedford in the nineteenth century, tracking the parallel shift from a patriarchal world to a more ambiguous Victorian culture of domesticity. Through the sea-wives' compelling and often poignant stories, Norling exposes the painful discrepancies between gender ideals and the reality of maritime life and documents the power of gender to shape both economic development and individual experience.

About the Author

Lisa Norling, associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, is coeditor of Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920.

For more information about Lisa Norling, visit the Author Page.


"From its provocative title to its rich bibliography, Lisa Norling's Captain Ahab Had a Wife does not disappoint. This is an ambitious book, one that tackles important questions and analyzes them over an inconvenient span of time that few historians are brave enough to attempt at all, let alone in a first book. . . . A signal achievement in American women's and gender history, but anyone interested in the interplay between culture and economics in any period of American history would do well to read this book. Her thesis is provocative, but it is also thoroughly researched and cogently and engagingly argued. Scholars will ignore her at their peril."--Journal of American History

"This book is required reading, not only for whaling experts but also for anyone interested in maritime gender systems. . . . Norling's argument is an eye-opener for maritime gender studies, and it will be seminal for the study of maritime women. . . . Norling's beautifully-written, nicely-illustrated and elegantly-executed study on the wives of Captain Ahab serves as a show-piece of how to do research eminently well."--International Journal of Maritime History

"[Norling] succeeds admirably, in an engaging style bolstered with evidence that she reads with skill and imagination . . . . [This book] gives a larger, more nuanced picture of whaling behind the scenes than anywhere else I know of."--American Studies

"A subtle and nuanced account of changing ideals and behavior, of the mutual dependencies of women and men united and separated by economic endeavor."--American Historical Review

"Nicely written, skillfully researched, and richly intriguing. Captain Ahab Had a Wife will prompt academic and public historians to rethink their approach to the industry and society of early Yankee whaling."--New England Quarterly

"The details of whaling and women's crucial role in this industry are here and well worth the read."--Journal of the Early Republic