Thea Foss had a mind of her own, and the pioneer Norwegian immigrant became the model for dozens of women who work on the Tacoma waterway that bears her name.
Thea, born in 1857, arrived first in Minnesota, where she and Andrew married. By 1889 both had moved to Tacoma, where Andrew worked as a carpenter.
While Andrew was out of town on a job, Thea changed her life. She bought a boat for $5 from a disgruntled fisherman, repainted it and sold it for a profit. That was the start of her waterfront fleet of more than 200 rowboats and the genesis of Foss Launch and Tug, now known as Foss Maritime, one of the largest maritime enterprises in the Western United States.
Clare Petrich descended from a family of boatbuilders and marine enthusiasts in the Adriatic. In Tacoma, her father started Petrich Marine on the Thea Foss Waterway. Was Clare, the daughter of the family, invited to participate in the business? Not a chance.
When her father died, Clare returned to Tacoma from living in India, West Africa and Asia to help her mother.
“I knew nothing about the business,” she explained. “It was off-limits to girls.” But Clare had been a Sea Scout on the “Curtis,” and she was a determined learner. She met people on the waterfront, learned to work with the fishermen and got involved.
She wasn’t appointed to a vacancy on the port commission because she was a woman, and “that made me mad!” She ran for a spot on the commission in 1995 and was elected the first woman to serve in the position.
Julia Berg, Director of Education and Community Engagement for the Foss Waterway Seaport museum, came from a sailing family in Seattle, racing sailboats as a child—and usually the only female in the race. She always wanted to be a marine biologist and learned even with a master’s degree that creativity is a major factor in the job. She has lived, studied, and worked around the world and has found supportive women in the marine community as she fosters innovative marine science education at the museum.
Monique Valenzuela: Being first is a similar story theme for other women who work on the Waterway. In its 96 years of existence, Monique Valenzuela is the first woman director of the Tacoma Youth Marine Foundation on the Waterway. She didn’t grow up in a boating family but looked out on Commencement Bay and wondered how she could have access.
“The maritime industry was not a pathway open to me, not something I thought possible to a young woman—let alone one who is less than 5 ft. 4 in. tall!” she exclaimed. Now she serves up to 900 students a year—half young women—and delights in empowering the girls and watching them “find their own voice” as they work on the “Curtis” and the “Odyssey.”
These professionals in the marine industry offer encouragement to young women:
“Never give up. Find mentors. Make connections with people who are doing what you want to do. Volunteer.”Julia Berg
“You don’t have to be tall and muscular. Use what you got! Women can use their smaller bodies as an advantage. On the sea we are all equal. The sea recognizes hard work, responsibility and dedication.”Monique Valenzuela
“Get involved. Lots of opportunities exist in marketing, logistics, shipping. Want a good-paying job and variety? Take the challenging road to be part of the maritime industry.”Clare Petrich
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