In the early 20th century, transatlantic journeys aboard ocean liners offered women travelers of all social classes the ability to reinvent themselves. These ships offered "hope, opportunity, romance," explains Siân Evans in "Maiden Voyages." Women's travel experiences would "change their lives forever."
On the ships' upper decks, wealthy women and celebrities spent their days eating breakfast in bed, taking swimming lessons, dining at the captain's table and dancing to the ship's orchestra while wearing bejeweled ballgowns.
Occupying less expensive rooms were female executives and buyers — a new class of travelers — seeking to build international connections in the fashion industry and other fields. A few middle-class women traveled with hopes of becoming Broadway or Hollywood starlets.
The least expensive rooms on the lower levels of the ship were filled by refugees — people displaced by war, fleeing poverty or facing persecution — who sought to build new lives in America.
Despite the fact that the wealthy, the middle class and the poor all traveled on the same ships, passengers on the upper decks had little contact with passengers on the decks below.
Evans' book is strongest when she discusses the women hired to work aboard the ocean liners. Before World War I, most women who applied for such jobs were widows financially responsible for families. With their children being cared for by extended family members at home, ship stewardesses drew paychecks to support them — while women on land faced more limited employment opportunities.
Stewardesses brought meals to wealthy passengers, helped them dress, tidied their rooms and nursed them through bouts of seasickness. Having female employees aboard ensured that gendered "proprieties could be observed."
All was not smooth sailing in the years ahead. World War I interrupted vacation cruising and temporarily made jobs aboard commercial ocean liners all but unnecessary. Stewardesses frequently retrained as nurses, whose shipboard skills were useful on floating military hospitals.
Following the war, commercial ocean liners sailed once more, and women returned as both passengers and employees. War widows immigrated to find financial opportunities, ensuring that female attendants stayed in demand.
Over the next few decades, women's experiences 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 of another war. Eventually, airplanes replaced ocean liners as the primary means of transatlantic travel.
"Maiden Voyages" is engaging and accessible. The author's "celebration of the diverse journeys made by a number of intrepid heroines" is put within the historical context of shifts in gender roles during the first half of the 20th century. Evans' decision to investigate stories of enormous personal transformation is a fruitful way to explore the impact of broader social changes.
Her claim that transatlantic travel was life- altering does seem overdrawn 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, making their way to new opportunities in a changing world.
Hannah Joyner is an independent historian and a freelance book critic in Washington, D.C. She talks about books and reading on her YouTube channel, Hannah's Books.
By: Sian Evans.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 368 pages, $28.99.