Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Women and Piracy

Women as pirates? You bet. There are a few notable female pirates—Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Grace O’Malley, Ching Shih, and more. But why turn to piracy? For the same reasons as men, only many had to do so incognito.
Anne Bonny
Women’s equality has always been a topic of discussion. Whether it be in opportunity, pay, rights or freedom, the fairer sex has struggled with gender discrimination for, like, ever. You can bet, if men had few options in life, women had fewer. There were only a handful of professions a woman could fill that was morally acceptable—milliners, seamstress, laundress, confectioners, food vendors, midwives, and, of course, domestic servants. In that, it stands to reason that those jobs were not as plentiful as the women to fill them. And if a girl was lucky enough to land a job, she often faced very low wages, poor treatment, and was often the target of wanted sexual attention or abuse. A woman not born into the upper echelons might hope to marry into a wealthy, respectable family and even play a role in the family business or estate management. But she would occupy a small percentage of her demographic. Being well-off didn’t ensure a lifetime of security and most women fell into the poor or middle-class social caste. Therefore, there were more women scratching out a life of survival than their privileged sisters. From raising families to politics, no matter the era, women’s roles in society is a veritably complex subject.
When times were hard. Being a woman made them harder. Being a poor woman was worse. The same lure of a better life, adventure, earning a wage, and learning a trade that appealed to men also appealed to women—especially if she was begging for food or forced into thieving or prostitution. Going to sea, though extremely harsh, was actually a better choice than staying on land. Bonus, there were regular meals. Most of the time. It wasn’t always young women making the decision to gamble on impersonating as a seaman, either. Sometimes girls followed their lovers or wives followed their husbands to sea rather than be destitute and/or alone.
She dressed as a lad and was caught.
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Women were not accepted on pirate ships. They were considered bad luck and a distraction. (I’ve was once told this when I asked my employer to move me to a predominately male part of the company. Humph.) Remember, voyages were long. There was the danger of sexual assault and in-fighting among men over a woman. The fairer sex (along with young boys) were not allowed to sign the ship’s articles. But did that stop the few determined, intrepid ladies. Nope. They faked it, dressed and behaved like young men.
How did they get away with it? They would change their name, cut their hair, bound their breasts with cloth tightly around their bodies, and wear loose fitting clothes, all to appear more masculine. Since the crew slept in their clothes and bathing was practically nonexistent, the chance anyone would see her naked was slim. Menstruation wasn’t much of an issue. The likely reason is that low body fat and improper nutrition restricts the body’s periodic menses. How convenient.
Like with any other occupation, women, posing as new sailors, would “learn the ropes” of sailing. The unforgiving conditions and daily chores strengthened their bodies. These ladies kept up with their male counterparts while avoiding casting suspicion upon their gender. No wilting flower could survive as a seaman, living essentially a lie as a man. To be a pirate meant the woman would be extraordinary. She have to not only be tough, but daring and courageous. And that very well could be scarier than any male pirate.
About the Author

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

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