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Cape Cod Girls Ain't Got No Combs, They Brush Their Hair With Codfish Bones

essietee's picture

I write this entry from the marine science laboratory at Williams-Mystic, a maritime studies program based in Mystic, CT. I spent last semester with the program, which provides an interdisciplinary academic experience for students interested in marine and maritime studies; I also remained here over the summer, where I worked with a professor from the program on an academic paper detailing Virginia Woolf and her first novel The Voyage Out. I'm back once again for Alumni Weekend, having conquered a very late SEPTA train and 4.5 hours on Amtrak with a screaming infant seated in front of me. During the block of time I spent riding up the coast, I thought a lot about what physical efforts I had to make for the weekend. Starting at my room on Merion 3rd, I walked down two flights of stairs and up to the R5. From there, I wove through 30th Street Station, stood in line for my Amtrak train for about 30 minutes, went down two escalators, and got onto my train. Once in Mystic, I had to walk approximately one mile from the train station to the Williams-Mystic campus, pitch my tent (being a poor college student, I'm not staying in a hotel), and finally met up with a friend to go sailing on the estuary.

For someone with a physical disability, completing even one of these tasks may have proved excruciatingly difficult or near (if not completely) impossible. There were so many little steps necessary to just leave my dorm, let alone travel several hundred miles north, that were personally thoughtless and simple because of my able-bodiedness. I specifically think of my younger sister, a 19-year old with multiple physical and mental disabilities, and how difficult this would be for her. However, I know that she can do things like this; such as the case with Eli Clare and hiking/climbing mountains, it just takes a little extra time. For my sister, she wouldn't complete such a journey to prove anything to anyone. In her mind, she is fully capable of whatever she sets her mind to. I think of the community on Martha's Vineyard, mentioned in the piece "Culture as Disability," and their integration of the significant deaf population into that of the hearing. "That one person could do [a job] faster or better than another was likely less important than that the jobs got done. In such a world, it was not important to sort out the deaf institutionally from the hearing."

Going off of the mention of Cape Cod and bringing gender into the equation: maritime culture is a place where one's gender truly is not limiting. Sure, men are traditionally the ones who go to sea and have these so-called "grand adventures," leaving women at home to care for children and keep vigilance at the Widow's Walk every evening. There were some women, however, who cross-dressed and obtained masculine identities in order to gain passage aboard vessels in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These women, called Handsome Sailors, have been described as "a gender-confounding ideal of womanly behavior who defies simplelinded explanations of human sexuality and gender identity" (Margaret S. Creighton, and Lisa Norling. Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996), 35 )

My own experiences in the last eight months have challenged gender norms: I have learned how to furl sails, climb rigging, sail a whale boat, and complete rescue drills, all while remaining firm in my identity as a woman. At sea, a person is not limited as to what they can and cannot do based upon their gender. As long as you are physically able to complete a task, the gender you identify as or your sexual preference is not an inhibitor. This is one reason why I personally hope to see a greater LGBTQ presence in the military; they way in which one chooses to live his or her life and the person they select as their partner does not affect their physical ability to defend their country, nor does it change the love that they have for their country. Below is an interesting piece from the September 4th edition of the New York Times, detailing how many gays and lesbians who were discharged because of their sexuality want to go back to their former military positions now that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been lifted:

To conclude this long-winded entry: the seafaring culture that I have been brought up in (the men on my father's side of the family have been whaling/fishing out of New Bedford, MA for the last 200 years) has been one that has allowed me to explore myself and my interests without being disabled by my gender. Like Clare, it may take me a little bit longer to climb my personal mountains; the fact remains, though, that I will eventually reach the summit.