The hidden history of women in Monterey Bay fisheries

May 9, 2019

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Women were never invisible, rather it was the men who were invisible. They were out on the water and it was women who were running things on shore.”
— Carol Lynn McKibben, Beyond Cannery Row

When putting a face to the history of Monterey Bay fisheries, it’s all-too-often that of an image arises of an old salty man barking orders to his all-male crew as they haul in nets swollen with sardines or traps loaded with Dungeness crab.

This, in many ways, is true: The norms of generations past kept women off fishing boats regardless of their ability and skill.

“Back in the sardine days, women were bad juju on boats,” says Guiseppe “Joe” Pennisi, 54, who now relies on the skill and experience of a woman, Joleen Lambert, as the deck boss on his boat the F/V Pioneer which fishes for groundfish.

Times have changed, and for the past few decades more and more women have found work on fishing boats, proving that one’s gender in no way dictates their capacity for a life at sea.

But looking at fisheries as an economy, women have always played a large role, whether working as biologists, fish cutters, cannery workers or as business managers who were rarely recognized with a professional title because they were the wives of fishermen.

“Women were never invisible, rather it was the men who were invisible. They were out on the water and it was women who were running things on shore,” says Carol Lynn McKibben, a Stanford University professor and Monterey-based historian who has written extensively on race, gender and immigration in Monterey County.

McKibben’s 2006 book, “Beyond Cannery Row,” investigated the role Sicilian women played in creating community, identity and economy in Monterey from 1915 to 1999. While Sicilian men toiled on the water, women not only took care of the households but worked in canneries, managed the books, and diversified their families’ businesses beyond the docks and into real estate and other entrepreneurial pursuits.

“Fishing environments are, and were, overwhelmingly female spaces,” McKibben wrote, as she referenced the work of marine anthropologist James McGoodwin who studied the role of women in fishing communities across the globe.

On the science end of things, Ed Ricketts might be the most famous marine biologist in Monterey’s history, largely due to his friendship with Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, but it was his contemporary, Dr. Frances Clark, who was the most influential in developing marine science on the bay. This pioneering woman was one of the first California Fish and Game employees to hold a doctorate. Read more about Dr. Clark below!

With that said, let’s dive into how women have shaped Monterey Bay fisheries over the past century and how women will continue to do so for decades to come.

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Cannery workers, fish cutters and union organizers

If there is an image of women working in the fishing economy it’s often that of Sicilian women working in Monterey sardine canneries in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, one third of cannery workers during that time were Sicilian women who ranged in age from teens to middle-aged—many with children.

“Sicilian women really cared whether or not the sardines would ‘go soft’ and felt their labor was integral to the labor of fishermen,” McKibben wrote in “Beyond Cannery Row.” “They did not see themselves as separate, but as a crucial part of the fishing enterprise.”

While Sicilian women made up one of the largest segments of the workforce in the sardine boom years, women from many ethnicities also worked in the canneries. Going back a generation to the turn of of the 20th century, Chinese and Japanese women made up a large portion of fish cutters and shore-based processors.

Cannery work was difficult: long hours, cold and damp conditions, loud machines, irregular hours and not great pay. It should come to no surprise, given a gender pay gap that persists today, women were given a lower wage and less hours than men.

In the 1930s and into the 1940s women and men cannery workers organized their workplaces and pushed for labor unions. While men were often given leadership roles, women were active participants. Monterey at that time was often divided along ethnic lines. Sicilian women, while not anti-union, largely abstained from organizing. Mexican, Spanish, Portuguese and Dust Bowl migrants known as Okies were responsible for the union push and the better wages that ensued.

“A group of us could see that we weren’t getting ahead. We wanted to better ourselves. It was a powerful feeling, but we were scared, too,” said Dorothy Wheeler, a Dust Bowl migrant, about organizing cannery workers, as quoted by McKibben.“We went to a lot of meetings, and the men led, of course. But there were a few women who spoke their piece.”

In the 1940s, wages went up for cannery workers, although the pay gap remained. Unions also blocked canneries from automatically firing pregnant women, according to McKibben, and provided onsite childcare for women who needed it.

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Business managers in the guise of homemakers

Work is often broken down into two kinds: productive and reproductive labor. The first leads to a paycheck, the second does not. Reproductive labor can be considered domestic work, work of managing a household, that typically falls on women regardless of whether or not they’re also earning a wage outside the home.

In fishing families, wives didn’t only keep the household running, but often times the family business as well. This both happened among Sicilian women looking to diversify their family business beyond fishing, and for fishing families, regardless of ethnicity, where husbands on the water needed a steady business partner on land to keep the operation running.

“Women were given much, if not all, of the credit for managing money wisely and investing mostly in real estate,” McKibben wrote in “Beyond Cannery Row.” “They supported the fishing industry with investment, to be sure, but they did so with an eye to long-term settlement in Monterey.”

To look into recent and present examples of the wives of fishermen who both run the household and run the family business, we don’t have to look much further than two Monterey Peninsula residents, Elaine Pennisi and Kathy Fosmark.

Pennisi, 75, married into a fishing family. On top of raising eight children she also helped run the family business, Royal Seafoods, connecting the family’s catch to suppliers around the state.

Fosmark, 68, was born to a Portuguese fishing family on the Monterey Peninsula. She married a young deckhand from Oregon she met while he was fishing out of Monterey. The two worked on the water together before she stayed on land to raise a family and run the business.

“Most (fishing) wives didn’t work. They stayed home cared for the kids, did bookwork for their husbands, did payroll, taxes and everything else as they caught fish and kept the boat running,” Fosmark says. “You have to have somebody who can sit behind the phone, order parts...someone who’s effective and can run the business when you’re not there.”

Women on the water

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that women began to find work on fishing boats, after earlier periods when women were mostly excluded from harvesting fish. In the 1920s and 1930s only a few Asian women, likely from Chinese or Japanese families, were known to have worked on fishing boats, according to sociologist John Walton’s book “Storied Land: Community and Memory in Monterey.”

Mike Ricketts, no relation to Ed Ricketts, is a longtime Monterey fisherman who still fishes well into his 80s. He says it was around the 1970s when he first noticed women joining the fleet.

De Santis book cover.jpg

“It didn’t seem momentous at the time” Ricketts says about the first women he encountered on boats. “They were just part of the gang.”

One woman who stands out most in his memory is Marie De Santis. Her book “Neptune’s Apprentice: Adventures of a Commercial Fisherwoman” has remained in his personal library for more than 30 years.

De Santis, who was a part of the Berkeley counterculture movement in the late 1960’s decided to try her hand at commercial fishing in the early 1970s. She was hooked and started running her own boat within a year and became a regular fixture in fishing communities up and down the California coast, including Monterey and Moss Landing.

Her books “Neptune’s Apprentice” and “California Currents,” both published in 1985, are both overlooked gems. The former directly addresses gender in fisheries as it is a memoir of woman entering what, until that time, was a man’s world. The latter is a collection of thought provoking essays on culture, ecology and politics, but never directly addresses gender.

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Photo credit: Monterey Public Library/California History Room

Women on boats is no longer a rarity, but little research has been done from a historical, anthropological or sociological standpoint on women breaking barriers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s by becoming deckhands and captains of commercial fishing vessels.

Even as the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust has highlighted the work of women in fisheries over the past fews years, and will continue to do so, more work can be done for gender equality at sea.

But one thing’s for certain, the best way to promote women on the water is to continue working toward great economic vitality of Monterey Bay fisheries. If deckhands and captains struggle to earn a good living harvesting fish, the less attractive it is to get new blood on the water, regardless of gender.


Photo credit: J.B. Phillips Collection, Monterey Public Library/California History Room

While challenges continue to exist for women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), with the career-family balance remaining much more of an obstacle than it is for men, a lot has changed since Dr. Frances Clark was unique as a woman in marine science during the early half of the 20th century.

“Ed Rickets is credited as answering the question ‘where did all the sardines go’ by saying ‘in the can,’ but it was actually Frances Clark who said it 10 years before,” says Tim Thomas, a Monterey Bay fisheries historian.

Born to a farming family in Nebraska in 1894, Clark received a bachelor’s in zoology from Stanford University in 1918 and a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1925. She was hired by the California Department of Fish and Game in 1926 and was the said to be the only person working for the agency at the time with a doctorate.

During the peak of the sardine years, in the 1930s and 1940s, when Monterey was one of the largest fishing ports in the world, Clark was one of few voices calling for catch limits, understanding the annual volume of the sardine harvest was well beyond a sustainable scale.

“The future of the California sardine fishery remains in doubt,” she said in 1937 after a record sardine haul in the 1936-37 season. “Present indications are that the demand exceeds the supply.”

At the height of the sardine fishery, Clark implemented an aggressive tagging program that kept “her boys,” as she called the men who worked under her, busy studying sardine populations. Thomas says her efforts marked one of the first times ecological view of the fishery.

While Clark was in a man’s world of science, trying to reign in men who owned canneries and men on the water harvesting sardines, she was known for her patience and goodwill on top of her acumen and skill. She was promoted to director of the California State Fisheries Laboratory at Terminal Island, outside of Los Angeles, where she stayed until her retirement in 1956.

“My personal experience is not that people didn’t ‘want’ to employ women, they just never ‘thought’ of doing so,” Clark said in answer to a question she was asked in 1981 about discrimination she faced as a woman in science.

Since Clark’s time, women have taken a leading role in marine biology and fisheries science in the Monterey Bay area and beyond.

Roger Burleigh