3.1 Female Sea Dogs

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Female Crew Straddling the First World War

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, maritime work was regulated by the Political and Navigation Edict issued by Empress Maria Theresa in 1774. In addition to two further orders issued in 1870 by the Ministry of Commerce on service booklets and by the Central Maritime Government – Seebehörde – regarding layoffs, the Edict of Maria Theresa remained the main legal framework regarding the rights and duties of the crew until the dissolution of the Empire in 1918. Thus, it is clear that much of the treatment reserved for this particular type of worker depended on the captains and shipowners.

The transition from sailing to steam navigation represented an important turning point for women as well: in fact, maritime work on board was opened up to women when passenger sea transport by steamships was established.

In the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War, numerous women from every corner of the Empire came to Trieste, registered with the port authorities and took to the sea. They ironed, they were maids, washerwomen, manicurists and nurses. They were young and old, married and single, educated and illiterate.
Not even the upheavals of the First World War could tear these women away from the sea. Many of them continued to sail even afterwards, continuing to be “sea dogs”.

Erica Mezzoli
WeCanIt – University of Ljubljana


A Girl and the Sea

Fig. 3.1.a – An employee of the Port Authority portrays one of our “female sea dogs” on the back of an office folder.
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste, 312)


Amalia Reisenhofer

Fig. 3.1.b – Austro-Hungarian merchant marine navigation booklet of Amalia Reisenhofer (no. 14712). Amalia was born in Prague, lived in Wien and worked on board as a waitress.
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 295)


Maria Sommer

certificati vaccinazione primi 900
Fig. 3.1.c – Maria Sommer’s Italian merchant marine navigation booklet (no. 13925) with two vaccination certificates. Maria also worked as a waitress.
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 279)


Transit Journey

Transitions are like sea-crossings. Sometimes changes are tumultuous, other times they are only partial and occur gradually. This is the case with our sea women. In the majority of cases, the navigation documents issued by the previous regime were simply renewed by the new one.

libretti di navigazione
Fig. 3.1.d.1 – The two navigation booklets, the first of the Austro-Hungarian merchant marine and the second of the Italian one, of Caterina Zorco (no. 2885) from Kašćerga (Croatia).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 58)
Riconoscimento della cittadinanza italiana1922
Fig. 3.1.d.2 – Recognition of Italian citizenship to Eleonora Gergely (no. 5400) in execution of the peace treaties in the new territories (Royal Decree no. 1890, 30 December 1920).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 108)


Anna Ladinig

certificato battesimo 1861
Fig. 3.1.e – Baptism certificate of Anna Ladinig (no. 4029).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 81)


Giustina Flego

diploma infermiera 1922
Fig. 3.1.f – Nurse diploma of Giustina Flego (no. 7959).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 160)


Romilda Pauschler

Certificato medico di idoneità fisica 1927
Fig. 3.1.g – Medical certificate of physical fitness and navigation booklet of Romilda Pauschler (no. 12096). Aboard, Romilda worked as a laundress.
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 242)


Eleonora Gergely

certificato morte 1921
Fig. 3.1.h – Sometimes, in order to obtain navigation documents, it was necessary to provide information about one’s family. Eleonora Gergely (no. 5400) had to produce her mother’s death certificate.
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 108)


Gender Relations

We do not know the reasons that led these women to embark. Perhaps they were the same as men’s or perhaps it was strictly feminine needs. We do not know if, in some cases, once on board they were subjected to violence. We can imagine so. We can also imagine that they were not regarded as fellow [wo]men by the other seafarers.

certificato richiesta di immatricolazione primi novecento
Fig. 3.1.i.1 – It is likely that Amalia Avon (no. 12260) chose to take to the sea because her husband left her and she never heard from him again. In the image, the certificate attests to this.
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 246)
certificato capitaneria di porto trieste primi novecento
Fig. 3.1.i.2 – To be a sailor it is necessary to demonstrate that you can swim and row. A man could have the duties of a waiter but, if suitable, he was a fully fledged sailor. However, if a woman passed all the physical tests, she was still “only” a waitress. In the image, the document which certifies that Eleonora Gergely successfully passed the swimming and rowing tests. The word “sailor” was replaced with “waitress” (underlined in pink).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 108)


Giuseppina Skerlavai

lettera richiesta matricola imbarcazione primi 900
Fig. 3.1.l – Sometimes it was the shipping companies that solicited the maritime authorities to issue the navigation documents. In fact, the Cosulich Company requested the documents allowing Giuseppina Skerlavai to embark (no. 12272).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, 246)


Elena Elisabetta Mahr Grifi

libretto navigazione primi novecento
Fig. 3.1.m – Neither time nor the long journeys could affect the pride of Elena Elisabetta (no. 16740).
(ASTs, Capitaneria di Porto di Trieste – Gente di Mare, reg. 16147-16749)