By Felicia LaLomia and Erika Peters
“Heroines at the Helm,” an exhibit that honors the wives of Long Island whalers, will run through the rest of Women’s History Month until the end of September at The Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum.
The exhibit, which on March 10 was conducted by three museum educators, highlights the accomplishments of these women by showcasing artifacts from the whaling era of the 1800s and offering Victorian era crafts.
“The exhibit is supposed to show the whaling wives, the women in whaling….what they did, and how they survived when the men went out,” Maria Fischetti, museum educator, said. “I think it is a part of history that nobody really talks about. It’s always the men, in any field, any industry. And I think [the women] were really strong.”
One of the women highlighted at the event was Charity Randall, the wife of Captain John Oliver Norton, who stopped her husband from flogging six of his crew members.
“It wasn’t like women at that time,” Fusco said. “They were considered subservient, submissive to their husbands. So for somebody to speak up against their husband was pretty radical at the time.”
The Heroines at the Helm exhibit opened last September to underscore the importance of local women whose stories may otherwise go untold., Liz Fusco, education manager at the museum, said.
“They made some real contributions to whaling, to the industry,” Liz Fusco, education manager at the museum, said. “And we had a lot of women in the town of Cold Spring Harbor who were suffragettes. Rosalie Gardiner Jones was a real rebel. She was one of the big women of Cold Spring Harbor that started a suffrage movement. ”
New York State has plans to dedicate a statue of Gardiner Jones inside Cold Spring Harbor State Park in the Town of Huntington, announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in November 2017.
“The American economy took off exponentially when whaling started,” Fusco said. “So if it weren’t for a lot of these women that were supporting their husbands and their families or women that went with their husbands….I believe that behind every man is a stronger woman.”
The exhibit is one that helps to spread awareness of women’s history, Karyn O’Beirne, president of the Mid-Suffolk Chapter of the National Organization for Women, said.
“When it’s visual and physical and palpable, it really brings it to life,” O’Beirne said. “When museums participate, there’s a real connection that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s a connection and it’s sensory and engages the senses.”
Bringing that connection and empowering young women is one goal of the exhibit, and visitor James Swain said that he believes exposing his daughters to the strong women like the whaling wives is important.
“It was fascinating to learn more about women’s roles on these whaling ships,” Swain, who brought his two daughters to the museum for the day, said. “I am always struck about those times – some of the hardships and challenges – and ways the people, particularly women, coped. I do think that my daughters benefitted – explicitly to some degree to see the exhibits as well as implicitly with the fun stuff and the implicit importance we all place on museums just by going there.”
These women were ahead of their time, often taking over the home and business affairs when the men went off to whale for years at a time, Fischetti said.
“For them to run business and keep family and survive without these guys, I think it’s really important for young women today to see that,” Fischetti said. “It’s really empowering”
For a few women, the captains’ wives, the ability to go on voyages with their husbands was allowed, but the trips were less than ideal, Joan Lowenthal, gift shop manager and interpreter, said.
“Think about being on that ship. It’s all men, except for you,” Lowenthal said. “You are the only woman. You are not allowed to mingle with the crew members, You’re alone and are stuck in the stern of the boat. [These women] were brave.”
The Heroines at the Helm exhibit, sponsored by the New York State Council for the Arts, the National Maritime Heritage Foundation, Humanities NY and the Suffolk County Office of Cultural Affairs, will be open at the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum until September 2019.
“Really we didn’t discuss women or what they did in school years ago,” Fischetti said. “It’s important that other young women hear this so they know they can do what they want… they have a dream and they can follow it.”