An interview with University of Washington anthropologist Margaret Willson about her new book on women, Iceland, and life at sea

February 3, 2017

photo of Margaret Willson Margaret Willson

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Willson, who will visit Alaska next week, spent her early years working on fishing boats in Oregon and in the South Pacific. Lately she has turned her attention to Iceland and its women who work at sea. Willson has a new book, Survival on the Edge: Seawomen of Iceland. Willson told Alaska Sea Grant, who is helping to sponsor her trip to Alaska, that Icelandic women have worked at sea for centuries, sometimes alongside men and sometimes alone. Women have commanded boats and have been lauded for their abilities in the past, but these days, Icelandic seawomen are almost invisible. In her book, published by University of Washington Press, Willson explores the vivid lives of Icelandic women, past and present, and the fascinating society from which they hail. Willson took some time recently to speak with Alaska Sea Grant’s Paula Dobbyn about the origin of the book and also about her own former life at sea.

How did you get interested in writing this book on Icelandic seawomen?

I was visiting an Icelandic friend some years ago, and we came across a plaque about a historic local seawoman. When I asked my friend about seawomen working in Iceland today, she said she did not know any. As a woman who had worked at sea myself, I found this strange considering the famed gender equality of Iceland. That curiosity began the research.

What parallels, if any, do you see between Alaska and Iceland as far as "sea culture" or anything else?

At this point, I know little of Alaska sea culture. I hope I will understand more after this visit and talking with people. Both areas are northern societies, of course, and I know women work at sea in both places. I look forward to learning more while I am there.

How did you go about researching and writing the book?

With Icelandic research assistants (including seawomen), I spent a great deal of time doing fieldwork and historical and archival research in Iceland, as well as scholarly research related to fisheries, sustainable communities, gender, women working at sea in other societies, fishing communities, etcetera. I met and spoke with people who worked at sea, both men and women, in all parts of Iceland. Many Icelanders were very generous in sharing their knowledge and insights with me. I have tried to reflect their understanding, strength, and knowledge in my writing.

Are you a first-time author?

I have been writing for many years. Previous volume-length works include a catalog of ethnographic film, an edited book on anthropologists and sexuality in the field (co-edited), and a book—based completely on ethnographic material, but written to read like a novel—on the realities of learning about, starting and developing a nongovernmental organization (NGO). It’s called Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond. It was published by University of Washington Press in 2010.

I understand you have experience in commercial fishing/diving. Would you provide a bit of history on that?

I spent much of my youth in an Oregon coastal community. As a teen, I worked as a deckhand for anglers fishing for salmon. At 18, I worked my way across the Pacific, on boats and otherwise. In Tasmania, I worked as a deckhand first on a gillnet boat for sharks, and then fishing with pots for rock lobster. Later I worked as a deckhand on an abalone skiff, in time doing that diving myself. Then I returned, eventually, to the States and began (later than many) to attend university. This early sea experience is much of what made the research with the Icelandic seawomen possible.

How did you make the transition from fishing overseas to being an anthropologist?

I returned to the States and began university. From the first anthropology course, I knew I loved anthropology. I have stuck with it ever since.

You ran an international NGO for many years. Could you speak about that experience? What was the organization's name and mission? And what did it accomplish?

The NGO was called Bahia Street and it worked to provide educational opportunities for women and girls in Brazil. I think anyone interested in knowing more about it could read the book I wrote about it. [Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond]

What are you teaching or working on now?

I am preparing to go to Iceland at the beginning of March to begin fieldwork for my next book.

Where do you see your career headed next?

I have never thought of myself as having a career that progresses in a linear fashion. I am an anthropologist. I still love the discipline and think it holds very valuable insights and perspectives. I have been lucky in my life to have been able to explore many things, both before I became an anthropologist and in these years since. I have a couple of books planned that I am excited about.

Anything else you would like to add?

I am looking forward very much to talking with Alaskans about various aspects of life there, about the fisheries, about the communities, about women—and men—working in the fisheries. I look forward to sharing ideas, experiences, and knowledge.

Willson is scheduled to give readings in Homer, Kodiak, and Anchorage next week. A listing of times, dates and locations is available at her website.

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.