Remembering Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, Maritime Trailblazer

Courtesy Library of Congress

Published Dec 5, 2021 11:44 PM by Denise Krepp

Last week, Rep. Jolene Unsoeld died at the age of 89. She served in Congress from 1989-1995, and she authored bipartisan legislation requiring masters of documented ships to report sexual offenses to the Coast Guard. 

On March 22,1989, the House Subcommittee on Merchant Marine held a routine hearing on the Maritime Administration's yearly budget. Rep. Unsoeld was a member of the Subcommittee, and she brought up numerous questions about sexual assault in the merchant marine.

Rep. Unsoeld’s line of questioning focused on the Sexual Abuse Act of 1986 - which Congress wrote to ensure that sexual assaults on the high seas were covered by US law - and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in 1988. The report had been requested by Congressman Mike Lowry, who wanted to know the number of shipboard sexual assaults reported to government agencies and whether changes were needed in laws and regulations. GAO determined that neither the Coast Guard nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation compiled nationwide statistics.

At the hearing, Rep. Unsoeld asked MARAD's then-Deputy Administrator William Creelman if he had a grasp on the numbers and types of assaults that had been occurring at sea. Deputy Administrator Creelman told Unsoeld that he was unaware of the numbers, adding that the problem was "probably a Coast Guard matter." Nonplussed, Rep. Unsoeld responded the assaults were “something we all need to be educated about.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Unsoeld asked similar questions of witnesses from the state maritime academies. "Because the Maritime Administration had so little awareness of the Sexual Abuse Act, I am a little apprehensive to ask this question,” she began. Unsoeld asked whether or not the state schools knew about the 1986 law, and none of the witnesses responded that they had.

To improve reporting, Rep. Unsoeld wrote an amendment to the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1989 that would require masters of documented vessels to report sexual offenses to the U.S. Coast Guard. The language was included in the final bill and became law at the end of that year. Rep. Unsoeld hoped that the provision would “serve to increase the willingness of victims to come forward." 

Rep. Unsoeld didn’t come from a sea-going family, and she wasn’t a merchant mariner by training. She was a mountaineer and an activist before she became a politician, and she told folks that she was simply a “citizen meddler” who fought against injustice. In 1989, the injustice Rep. Unsoeld was determined to stop was the sexual abuse of women serving aboard US flag vessels. 

Thank you Rep. Unsoeld for your dedication to serve others, for your determination to right wrongs, and for your moral courage to act while others sit.  You will be missed.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former Maritime Administration Chief Counsel.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.