Herstory of Discovery

Cape Cod Life  /  April/May 2022 /

Writer: Chris White

Falmouth Enterprise article provided by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Until the mid-20th Century, the world of ships and the oceans was a boys’ club that barred women from virtually any involvement beyond simply traveling as passengers or serving in the hospitality industry aboard vessels. Sailors, ever a superstitious lot, considered women bad luck, and created a kind of canvas curtain that prevented women from hoisting sails or piloting ships. Thus, the only way that women could work at sea was to stowaway and pretend to be men. The classic folk song, “Jack-a-Roe”—first popularized in England and Scotland in the 19th century and later raised to international fame by Joan Baez in the 1960s and later the Grateful Dead in the ‘70s and ‘80s—tells the tale of a woman who, seeking her love, “went down to a tailor’s shop and dressed in men’s array, she climbed aboard a vessel to convey herself away.” It’s a good thing that she did, too, because “among the dead and wounded her darling boy she found.” She was able to rescue him, find him medical treatment, and finally marry him. While Jack-a-Roe became a famous folk character for her devotion to her true love, here on Cape Cod, a young woman named Roberta Eike helped dismantle the gender barrier at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) by stowing away to pursue her love of science. By the 1950s, the organization had permitted the occasional woman to accompany her husband on voyages, but, according to WHOI’s website, “not as a science equal.” In fact, women who studied oceanography could only do so in theory, for they were prohibited from joining research voyages. However, the website notes that, “Today, there are many high profile WHOI projects led by women,” and the organization “continues to honor the contributions of…

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Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.