In “Maiden Voyages”, women take a “step into the unknown” | Culture & Leisure
“First Travels” by Sian Evans. (St. Martin’s Press, 368 pages, $ 28.99.)
At the start of the 20th century, transatlantic voyages on ocean liners offered female travelers of all social classes the opportunity to reinvent themselves. These ships offered “hope, opportunities, romance”, explains Siân Evans in “Maiden Voyages”. Women’s travel experiences would “change their lives forever.”
On the upper decks of ships, wealthy women and celebrities spent their days having breakfast in bed, taking swimming lessons, dining at the captain’s table, and dancing to the sound of the ship’s orchestra. while wearing prom dresses adorned with jewels.
The cheapest rooms were occupied by female executives and buyers – a new class of travelers – seeking to establish international connections in the fashion industry and other fields. A few middle-class women traveled in hopes of becoming Broadway or Hollywood starlets.
The cheaper rooms on the lower floors of the ship were occupied by refugees – people displaced by war, fleeing poverty or facing persecution – who were looking to build a new life in America.
Despite the fact that the rich, middle class, and poor all traveled on the same ships, the passengers on the upper decks had little contact with the passengers on the lower decks.
Evans’ book is strongest when it talks about women hired to work on ocean liners. Before World War I, most of the women who applied for such jobs were widows who were financially responsible for the family. With their children being cared for by extended family members at home, flight attendants drew paychecks to support them – while women ashore had more limited employment opportunities.
Flight attendants brought meals to wealthy passengers, helped them get dressed, tidied their rooms, and nursed them during bouts of seasickness. Having female employees on board ensured that gender “conveniences” were met. could be respected.
All has not been smooth in the years to come. World War I interrupted vacation cruises and temporarily rendered jobs aboard commercial liners unnecessary. Flight attendants frequently retrained as nurses, whose on-board skills were useful in floating military hospitals.
After the war, commercial liners sailed again and women returned as passengers and employees. War widows immigrated to find financial opportunities, ensuring that women in service remained in demand.
Over the following decades, the experiences of women aboard ocean liners evolved as countries on both sides of the Atlantic experienced national financial depressions, women’s suffrage, the growth of commercial culture and the outbreak. from another war. Eventually, airplanes replaced liners as the primary means of transatlantic travel.
“Maiden Voyages” is engaging and accessible. The author’s “celebration of the various journeys made by a number of intrepid heroines” is placed in the historical context of the evolution of gender roles in the first half of the 20th century.
Evans’ decision to investigate stories of huge personal transformation is a fruitful way to explore the impact of broader social changes.
Her claim that transatlantic travel was life-changing seems overblown when applied to wealthy women taking lavish vacations – but for non-elite women, travel was much more likely to be that ‘step into the unknown. That Evans celebrates.
These were women on the move, heading to new opportunities in a changing world.