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Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail Hardcover – April, 1996

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 205 pages
  • Publisher: US Naval Institute Press; First Edition, 2nd PRINTING edition (April 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1557507384
  • ISBN-13: 978-1557507389
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #909,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Though officially ignored by the Admiralty, women on the vessels of the British Royal Navy, according to this myth-puncturing study, exerted a surprisingly strong presence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, during both peace and war. Stark, an editor at American Neptune magazine, distinguishes three primary sorts of women aboard ship: prostitutes; the wives of warrant officers; and women in male disguise serving as members of the crew. When ships were in port, women in skirts contributed to the atmosphere of pandemonium aboard ship, where the decks were filled with people "drinking, dancing and fornicating." At sea, women endured considerable hardship. Pregnancy was common, with childbirth often taking place in the heat of battle, just as surgical crews were preoccupied with tending the wounded. The "women seamen" who impersonated their male counterparts, meanwhile, lived in constant fear of being discovered, although unmasking rarely resulted in anything worse than being booted off the crew. Stark explores women's reasons for going to sea, and provides evidence that women have served ably in warfare?but that mingling of the sexes on board ship can bring chaos. This admirable study will garner attention both for its groundbreaking social history and for its contributions to both sides of the women-in-combat debate. Illustrations.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.


The presence of women on board the ships of the British Royal Navy in the "Age of Sail" has been disregarded by historians and ignored and even hidden by the navy. Suzanne Stark is the first to seriously address the issue of female "tars", and here she presents an in-depth study of the women who lived and worked on British warships of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Stark thoroughly investigates the custom of allowing prostitutes to live with the crews of warships in port. She provides some judicious answers to questions bout what led so many women to such an appalling fate, and why the Royal Navy unofficially condoned the practice. She also offers some revealing firsthand accounts of the wives of warrant officers and seamen who spent years at sea living (and fighting) beside their men without pay or even food rations, and of the women in male disguise who actually served as seamen or marines. These women's stories have long intrigued the public as the popularity of the often richly embellished accounts of their exploits has proved. Stark disentangles fact from myth and offers some well-founded explanations for such perplexing phenomena as the willingness of women to join the navy when most of the men had to be forced on board by press gangs. Female Tars is a lively history draws on primary sources and so gives an authentic view of life on board the ships of Britain's old sailing navy and the social context of the period that served to limit roles open to lower-class women. The final chapter is devoted to the autobiography of one redoubtable sea-going woman: Mary Lacy, who served as a seaman and shipwright in the Royal Navy for twelve years. Female Tars is absolutely fascinating reading, an original, absorbing, informative, exceptionally well researched and superlatively written book! -- Midwest Book Review

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3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Patricia on September 5, 1998
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is quite a fascinating look at the roles women have played in the British Navy before this century. However, there does seem to be a lack of in-depth study of the women profiled. I found myself wanting to know much more than the author was willing to offer me. I felt too much time was taken re-iterating the social and economic standpoint of prostitutes in this era rather than focusing on the women's contributions to the Royal British Navy. I was mildly insulted when Ms. Stark suggested the reason these women were willing to be "transvestites," or dress as men to serve onboard naval vessels, was basically Freud's "penis envy" theory. This book did sharpen my appetite to find more books on the subject of Women in the Maritime Military.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Lisa J. Steele on January 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book would be well read in combination with Joan Druett's Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail. Stark's book focuses on the lives of prostitutes in English port towns, on sailor's wives and widows ashore, and those who sailed with their husbands, and briefly on the experiences of women who sailed disguised as men.

The author does a good job of portraying the limited options available to English women during the Napoleonic era, and explains why women might find it necessary to engage in prostitution, follow their husbands to sea, or serve disguised as men. The author takes pain to debunk the then-popular myth of disguised women sailors searching for lost husbands or brothers.

The book was, in some respects, too brief a discussion of the topic. A more in-depth analysis would be welcome.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By lscollison on July 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"Offically, the women living on the lower deck did not exist," Stark writes of the prostitutes and seagoing wives aboard British Naval warships in the Age of Sail. "Even when a woman died at sea, the fact was seldom recorded. Their names were not listed in ship's muster books, and since only those people who were mustered had any official existence, women were not paid and not victualed"(Stark, 49).

The image of a nameless, faceless woman dying at sea (perhaps in childbirth?) and her death not even appearing in the official log was so vividly shocking to me that I wrote about it in SURGEON'S MATE: Book Two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series. Stark's book, one of the few serious studies of women aboard ships during the Age of Sail, was important to my research and completely changed my perceptions of life aboard British Naval warships in former centuries -- especially the eighteenth century, when Britain ruled the seas.

Published by Naval Institute Press, this "seminal" (irony intended) work contains illustrations, an index, and is heavily footnoted. The author has relied on first-hand accounts such as naval hospital musters, sailors' narratives and diaries, captain's logs, letters, Admiralty records and numerous respected secondary sources. This is an important book for anyone interested in naval and maritime history as well as social history and women's studies. It is appropriate for most high school students and should be included in libraries and high school reading lists.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Brian F. Hair on January 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Opens your eyes to the status of women prior to the mid 20th century.
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