In 1856, Mary Ann Brown Patten became the first woman to command a US merchant vessel. She navigated the clipper ship Neptune’s Car safely into the port of San Francisco while 19 and pregnant, all the while caring for her bedridden husband, Captain Joshua Patten.
When Neptune’s Car left New York on a sticky July day in 1856, Mary’s husband was at the helm. The clipper ship was carrying goods to the West Coast of the United States on its second ever voyage. The ship’s twenty-nine-year-old captain, Joshua Patten, had taken command of the ship less than two years earlier. Mary, who was sixteen when she married Joshua, had also accompanied her husband on Neptune Car’ s first voyage, which took the couple from New York, to San Francisco, to Hong Kong, to London, and then back to New York. Joshua Patten had taught his wife to navigate on a previous voyage, noting in the ship’s log: “ Mrs. Patten is uncommon handy about the ship, even in weather, and would doubtless be of service if a man.”
During their second voyage, Captain Patten, accustomed to winning races, was eager to beat rival clippers departing around the same time for the port of San Francisco. When he fell ill with “brain fever” midway through the voyage, the job of navigation should have fallen to the first mate, and failing that, the second. But both were in some way incapacitated: The delinquent first mate was locked away in the ship’s jail, the second illiterate.
Personally unconvinced of Mrs. Patten’s uncommon handiness, the first mate attempted to incite rebellion against Mary. He’d been put in the ship’s jail after falling asleep on watch and attempting to navigate the ship off its intended course. After the captain got sick, the first mate sent Mary a letter, urging her to turn the ship around and head back to New York. He warned her that if the ship were to capsize, fall victim to pirates, etc., she would be held responsible. Mary chose not to heed his warning.
Fortunately for Mary, the crew rallied behind her. At one point, the Captain recovered somewhat, enough to let his first mate out of the brig, apparently unsure whether the whole mutiny thing had just been a passing phase.
That didn’t turn out to be the case. After once again trying to navigate the ship off its intended course, and possibly physically attacking Mary, the first mate went back to the brig, right before Captain Patten lost consciousness again, putting Mary back at the helm. She successfully navigated Neptune’s Car around Cape Horn and into the port of San Francisco 136 days after it set sail.
“One does not ordinarily think of a woman battling raging seas and hard-bitten crews, but Mary Patten was not an ordinary woman,” wrote Peter L. Brosnan in an article titled “‘Captain’ Mary Patten” in Oceans magazine from 1987 (subtitled “Young, Tough, and Pregnant”). In carving a clear distinction between Mary Patten and other women, Brosnan reminds his readers that Mary is the exception, not the rule. To be an exception, not the rule, means that you succeeded despite. Mary’s circumstances were indeed extraordinary, her success despite adversity admirable, but she didn’t become the first woman to command a US merchant vessel because she was the first woman capable of doing so. She was the first woman in the right place at the right time.
In theory, if not always in practice, Mary Patten not only had agency over the ship she commanded, but also over the men on it—the men who scrubbed bird shit off the decks and hoisted rain-drenched sails, the men who climbed up into the masts as icy waves swept over the sides of the ship during its passage around Cape Horn. To the ship’s crew, and likely to many of the admirers she later accumulated, Mary’s position of authority was more palatable because she didn’t actively seek it out, and accepted it only in the service of her ailing husband. When Mary wrote a letter to the insurers of Neptune’s Car after the ship’s safe return, she cautioned them against overestimating her accomplishments, writing that she had performed “the plain duty of a wife towards a good husband.”
The Captain’s Wife, a 2001 novel by Douglas Kelley, presents a Disney Princess version of Mary, albeit with more PG-13 love-making than your typical Disney Princess engages in. Mary adores and dotes upon her husband (“By sailing on his ship she was able to be with him, and she could think of no place she would rather be”). In this version of her story, Mary’s self-assurance extends only so far as her husband is there to provide oversight (“With Joshua's calculations to double-check her own, she had full confidence in her ability to take a sight and plot a course. On her own, she had much less,”). Once her husband takes ill, Mary succeeds due in large part to the role that the second mate, Timothy Hare, plays in bolstering and encouraging her (“You are my lifeline, Mr. Hare. I will be forever indebted to you,”). Moments of actual confidence or self-sufficiency are few and far between, as if to assuage the doubts of even a twenty-first-century reader—despite what it might have looked like, Mary wasn’t really on her own out there.
Once back on dry land, Mary chose not to be associated with the nascent women’s rights movement. It’s unclear whether this was because she rejected their goals, or because she had a sick husband, and then an infant, to care for.
Arthur H. Clark, a ship captain himself, wrote in his 1910 book The Clipper Ship Era that although Mary “was not active in the then newly organized women’s rights movement, she was unwillingly made to appear as the star example of a woman’s ability to compete successfully in the vocations of man.” In The Captain’s Wife, the fictional version of Mary expresses her reluctance about the women’s movement to the second mate, saying: “ They want to hold me up as proof that a woman can do anything a man can do . . . I think they are wasting their time on an intangible ideal. ”
A New York Daily Tribune article from February 1857 wrote of Mary shortly after Neptune’s Car’s return, “Her health is very much impaired from the hardships which she has undergone, and she is very near the period of maternity. Yet she does not spare herself in the least, but is most faithful and constant in her attentions to her husband.” Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1857, Mary gave birth to a son, Joshua Adams Patten. Mary’s husband, who never recovered fully from his illness, died four months later. Mary died less than four years after her husband, after contracting typhoid and tuberculosis.
Mary’s short life, and the accomplishment for which she was reluctant to accept credit, raises the question of what it means for a woman who doesn’t want to outshine her husband to do so anyway. One century later, the life of writer Shirley Jackson asks an updated version of this query: What does it mean for a woman to want to outshine her husband, and to succeed?
Shirley Jackson, the subject of Ruth Franklin’s recent literary biography A Rather Haunted Life, is best known for her New Yorker short story “The Lottery,” the “Cat Person” of the 1940s. In “The Lottery,” villagers participate in an annual ritual stoning. As with many other deeply ingrained traditions, no one can sufficiently explain exactly why it’s still happening. In this story, Franklin recognizes elements of a feminism that Jackson, like Mary Patten, was reluctant to claim. “If ‘The Lottery’ can be read as a general comment on man’s inhumanity to man, on another level it works as a parable of the ways in which women are forced to sacrifice themselves: if not their lives, then their energy and their ambitions,” Franklin writes.
Neither Jackson nor Patten was a stranger to sacrifice. The end of Patten’s life, which lasted less than a quarter of a century in total, was devoted to caring for her husband and then her son. Jackson, like so many female artists before and since, struggled to balance her domestic obligations with her devotion to her craft. What is remarkable about each of their sacrifices is not how unusual or rare they were, but how quotidian. It’s what these women managed to achieve on top of their sacrifices as wives and mothers that allowed them to leave their marks, however overlooked, in the annals of nautical and literary history—what they managed to do, despite .
Aside from “The Lottery,” Jackson is known for her psychological horror novels, the most famous of which is The Haunting of Hill House, and for her domestic humor. The dualism of Jackson’s writing persona, as Franklin and others have noted, echoes the dualism of the two identities that Jackson felt torn between, that of housewife and of writer.
Over the course of her life, Jackson fought a number of varied and persistent demons. As one fell away, another would pop up. She struggled with her controlling mother; her philandering, controlling husband; bouts of anxiety and agoraphobia; heavy smoking and drinking; and an obsession with her weight instilled in her by her mother and by a society that seemingly valued thinness above all else. The obituary that ran in the New York Times following Jackson’s death in 1965 (she didn’t, at least, have to wait until 2018 ) described her as “5 feet 6 inches tall and inclined to pudginess.”
Jackson’s husband, the literary scholar and professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, never attained the level of commercial or critical success that his wife did. He seems to have both held this against her and admired her for it. Hyman was initially drawn to Jackson’s talent; he read a story of hers while they were both attending Syracuse University and declared that he was going to marry the girl who wrote it. The couple later had four children, and a fairly tumultuous relationship. Against Shirley’s wishes, Hyman insisted on an open relationship and later an open marriage, and he regularly hounded his wife about money, despite the fact that she earned most of it.
Just as Jackson sometimes scribbled defensive replies to her mother’s cruel letters and never sent them, she thought and wrote about divorcing Hyman, but never did. “The cycle of infidelity, fury, and forgiveness would repeat over and over,” writes Franklin, “each time resolving with Shirley’s restoration of Stanley to the role in which he mattered most to her: her creative sounding board and the arbiter of her talent.”
Both women were at risk of sexual violence, perhaps because they posed a threat to the power or ego of men, or perhaps simply because they were women. According to Brosnan, Patten didn’t undress for fifty days while onboard Neptune’s Car because “the threat of rape had never been far from her mind.” In Fred Humiston’s book Blue Water Men—and Women, Humiston offers a vague accounting of the first mate making “advances” towards Mary when he was briefly released from the brig, which resulted in his getting whacked on the head. Stanley Hyman was reported to have said that he didn’t think women could be raped, and Jackson once wrote of him in her diary, “He forced me God help me and for so long I didn’t dare say anything and only get out of it when I could and now I’m so afraid to have him touch me.”
With the passage of decades, and the broadening of the legal definition of marriage to encompass love that isn’t heteronormative, some of these norms and expectations for a wife’s success have fallen away. Others persist, stubborn as a baby tooth.
Jackson and Patten, both white, both from moneyed families, possessed as much privilege as was possible during their respective time periods. Yet both were expected to fit within a constricting mold, a corset of sorts—not to be too ambitious, or too successful, or too threatening. In the 1850s, or the 1950s, or even the 2010s, a woman who succeeded in a “man’s profession” was a curiosity—regarded with suspicion, or begrudging admiration, or fierce hope. According to the prevailing narrative, she did so not because she was a woman, but despite.
In one of The Haunting of Hill House’s most hopeful moments, the novel’s protagonist, Eleanor, is newly escaped from her oppressive family. In a diner, she notices a young girl refusing to drink her milk. The girl wants the cup she uses at home, one with stars on the bottom. The girl’s mother encourages her daughter to drink out of the only cup that’s available to her. Eleanor, watching silently, hopes the girl won’t listen.
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.