Female Lighthouse Keepers

Female Lighthouse Keepers

 The Lighthouse Establishment made use of the free labor a Lighthouse Keeper’s family could provide. Tending the lights was a 24/7 job and the average work week for a Keeper or Assistant Keeper was 84 hours with no days off. Wives and daughters frequently learned to tend the lights to buy their husbands and fathers time for other chores and/or to supplement the family income. The pay of a Keeper or Assistant Keeper was better than that of a farm laborer, building materials carrier, soldier, cowboy or fireman, but less than that of a carpenter, house painter, or plasterer. The low pay was justified by the fact the Keeper got free housing and basic food staples. Depending on the year, a Keeper earned two or three dollars a day, an Assistant Keeper $1.69 a day.

During this era, men were not expected to marry until they could properly support a wife and family, while women tended to marry younger. The average husband was 10 years older than his wife. Women statistically tend to live longer than men anyway, and this coupled with initial age disparity meant women frequently outlived their husbands by a number of years. Thus when a male Keeper fell ill, was killed on duty, or died, many of these women simply took over their husband’s or father’s duties. These women frequently received official appointment to the jobs they inherited as there was no pension system to care for them. Stephen Pleasanton, who was in charge of the Lighthouse Establishment 1820-52, established the policy that widows and daughters of Keepers were particularly worthy candidates for their positions, with no reduction in pay for being female.

Lighthouse Establishment records from 1828 to 1905 reveal the names of at least 122 women who were appointed official Keepers in their own name. Twice that number were officially appointed Assistant Keepers, generally aiding their fathers or husbands. A great many more women never received official appointments, but kept a lighthouse for a few months after a husband’s death until a new Keeper could be appointed and arrive at the station.

Officially appointed Husband (Keeper) and Wife (Assistant Keeper) teams were popular with the Establishment as it meant quarters for two families did not have to be maintained. The arrangement was popular with the couples as it meant two paychecks for the family. When the Establishment ordered the practice of husband and wife teams abolished in 1878, it was greeted with real anger by the men and women involved as it represented a 40% pay cut to the family. Combine this with the 20% pay cut of 1881 and it represented a serious threat to a family’s financial survival. Fortunately this policy did not stop the practice of allowing widows and daughters of deceased male personnel from being appointed to the job.

Last revised 08-Jan-17