While the rich wilderness and abundant marine life was very appealing to Florida’s early male settlers, it presented many challenges for their female kinfolk. Often relocating from communities with established social, educational and religious structures, these women were faced with re-creating their societal comforts from scratch, in addition to making a home and raising children without many familiar amenities.
The women of Cortez (and other fishing communities throughout the state) also had to contend with the occupational absence of their male counterparts. The women, therefore, tended to have stronger social, political and cultural influence than women in other communities. They were relied upon to keep the home, community
and financial structures in order while their husbands were at sea.
There are multiple articles that could be written on this topic, but for now we will focus on women as secondary bread winners. Since fishing was often an inconsistent source of income, women were relied upon to bring in a steady paycheck.
Though not as potentially lucrative as fishing, many women took outside work to subsidize the lean times.
One way that Cortez women earned extra income was to “take in” laundry. The lack of indoor plumbing and electricity, coupled with the inevitable abundance of fishy-smelling work clothes, meant that doing laundry was very labor and time intensive.
Wash day was indeed an entire day that involved several washtubs, a fire, a large pole for agitating, a wash board, and various soaps, starches and bluing agents.
Those who could afford to would often pay to have their wash done rather than face the process themselves.
Some Cortez women, particularly those widowed and left with children to raise, also took in boarders. Mamie Fulford was widowed in 1918 after her husband Clyde died in the influenza epidemic. In a 1993 oral history interview, her son Grey Fulford recalls his mother taking in six or seven boarders at a time, “sleeping on the cots in the old house we rented out.”
“(She) charged about five dollars a week and another fifty cents a week to do their laundry,” he said. Marvin Carver remembered his mother taking in boarders, too, but noted that “many of them died owing her money.”
As Cortez developed, women had more opportunities to make money outside the home. Many worked for the Albion Inn as housekeepers, cooks and waitresses, while others worked at the commercial laundry facility run out of a residence in Cortez. Over time, the female economy began to stretch beyond the boundaries of housework.
Shortly after World War II, Cortez women began commuting to Bradenton to work at Rossi Fruit Industries.
They were hired as citrus peelers, sectionizers and packers, and they served as some of the first staff at what would eventually grow into the empire we now know as Tropicana. They made a mere 10 to 25 cents an hour, but at least it was a reliable income.
Though many women sought alternate income streams, some involved themselves more directly in the many aspects of the commercial fishing industry.
They often collected scallops, with or without their husbands, and played important roles working in the fish houses or as support crew onshore.
Contemporary Cortez has seen many women in leadership roles in the fishing industry, as “fishermen,” tour boat captains, and owners of fish houses and restaurants.
If you would like to learn more about the women of Cortez, both past and present, you can visit the Florida Maritime Museum. It is free and open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
For more information, call 941-708-6120 or visit FloridaMaritimeMuseum.org. While you’re there, try visiting the new Cortez Cultural Center, opened by the Cortez Village Historical Society, focused on the families who founded the village.
Amara C. Nash, supervisor of the Florida Maritime Museum, loves museums, art, music, culture and history, and splits her time between her two favorite villages: Cortez Fishing Village and Village of the Arts. Contact her at email@example.com or 941-708-6121.