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From the depths of maritime history; 'Women have always gone to sea'

''On November 15, 1856, the clipper Neptune's Car arrived in San Francisco with a captain's wife in command. Mary Patten had commanded for 52 days, successfully navigated the difficult passage westward around the Horn, and dealt with serious problems of discipline as well as a dying husband. When she took command she was 19 years old and four months pregnantm.

- Linda Grant De Pauw, ''Seafaring Women''

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''When the Navy first began thinking they may have to put women in sea boats in 1972, they had it on the nightly news,'' says Linda Grant De Pauw, a dark-haired, strong-voiced history professor at George Washington University. ''And, since I don't live in the 20th century - I live in the 18th century,'' teases the professor - ''I said to my husband: 'What's the big deal? Women have always gone to sea.' ''

Her husband, echoing what she found to be the most pervasive myth about seafaring women, told her she was wrong - that men would not allow her gender at sea, because it was considered bad luck to have a woman on board ship.

Ten years later, with a closet full of ships' logs, memoirs, and journals, she crammed a book, ''Seafaring Women'' (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), full of the tales of these flesh-and-blood women, and labeled the idea of them being bad luck at sea as ''the most persistent myth respecting seafaring women.''

''Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of maritime literature knows that women have gone to sea since Noah took his wife and daughters-in-law with him in the ark,'' she says.

An ''armchair sailor'' whose seagoing expeditions have been limited to ferryboats and the small craft of friends, Professor De Pauw enjoyed reading the accounts of women at sea, particularly those of Victorian ladies who went with their whaling-ship-captain husbands, their parlor organs, and their stained-glass windows.

Such women - or so it was believed by fellow sailors - had a softening effect on the hard life of the whalers. One - Charity Norton - had to go with her husband, they say, to keep the crew from murdering the captain.

Following their husbands gave these women a chance to maintain family life; whalers were often gone for years, and communication in those days was erratic at best. But being on board ship isolated these wives, who were often the only females on board.

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Meeting up with other whaling ships gave them a cherished opportunity for gamming, or visiting. Pets - including unusual finds like kangaroos - also eased the boredom and loneliness, Professor De Pauw found, and children, the women's main responsibility, also helped. Giving birth to a ''bowhead'' (a child born aboard ship) was not uncommon, but Professor De Pauw says these babies often chose the worst times to be born, during gales or while the ship was going around the harrowing Horn.

Women also had experiences with guns - helping to man them, carrying gunpowder, and tending the wounded. One, a soon-to-be-married Mary Skinner, sacrificed her silk wedding gown for bandages when the ship she was crossing in was attacked by a French privateer.

Women also took the job of privateer, the book records, acting as pirates for their countries. One, Fanny Campbell from Lynn, Mass., captained a privateering vessel after successfully leading a mutiny against its original captain. At her command, the crew captured a British sloop of war during the American Revolution.

''Pirates are not very nice people,'' Professor De Pauw says with classic understatement. ''But I have to say that Madame Ching (a Chinese pirate) was something else - to have started as a slave and worked her way up to command a whole fleet of pirates, which she actually administered with justice. Now, that's admirable.''

Although there is much to be admired about the women whose stories Professor De Pauw tells, she admits that ''there's no female John Paul Jones in this book, '' because women ''were never allowed to compete for command.'' Women - sometimes disguised as men - distinguished themselves in nearly every job available at sea, as her book details, but they played no major role in history.

But bringing their stories to light is necessary to ''integrate history,'' says the professor. ''To discuss things like war without including women is like discussing childbirth without including men,'' she says.

Discovering what role women played in war and at sea can be very tricky, the professor has found. ''We know what the rules were - who was allowed to bring their wives along and what jobs a woman could hold - but we don't know how often those rules were broken,'' she says.

Women tend to turn up in records only when something unusual happens, she found. ''I have a friend who works at the National Archives, and as she was doing some research in the maritime records, she happened to run across one sentence in a captain's log saying that he'd discovered that day that one of his sailors was a woman.''

How often such disguises were used on other ships, Professor De Pauw has no way of telling. ''Women didn't talk about these things afterward, or they'd risk losing their pensions or status, and their children weren't anxious to talk about mamma's exploits,'' she explains.

But such exploits are worth recording, says the professor. ''There are some people who, simply by surviving, become an inspiration,'' she says. ''And if this book does nothing more than raise the morale of the woman pioneers now in the Navy and Coast Guard, then it's been worth it.''

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