Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Boskone Panel: Pirates in Petticoats: Women Pirates in Fact and Fiction

Work got hectic, so I've not had time to sit down with panel notes until now. Here's the second-most-demanded panel report. Because my Palm keyboard's batteries died, my notes are handwritten and a bit cryptic in places. I'll do my best to untangle them and welcome corrections or amplifications; in particular, I didn't stop and ask people to spell names, so while I think I have all the women pirates identified properly, I don't guarantee it.


Why are some girls pirates? Because they just AARRRR! Or perhaps they're fleeing abusive male companions, or even more oppressive social conditions. How rare are they? Are they perforce smarter or more violent than male marauders? Is it any life for a lady?

Darlene Marshall, Jane Yolen, Victoria McManus

Preliminary notes:

Marshall is a good moderator, firmly and politely shutting down the person in the front row who very desperately wanted to interject at every opportunity.

The panelists made frequent mention of three particularly famous women pirates, with little context because of their fame. For those unfamiliar with these women (as I was), Wikipedia links: Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Grace O'Malley.

Before-panel chatter: "walking the plank"? The panelists said there was only recorded instance in history, and really, why bother when you could either throw the person overboard directly (perhaps stabbing or shooting them if they were one of the few who could swim) or keelhaul them? It was suggested that walking the plank is easily filmable (unlike keelhauling) and gives the person on the plank a chance to escape (unlike being tossed overboard).


Marshall has written a number of romance novels set on the sea. Her first novel, Pirate's Price, featured a cross-dressing woman pirate.

Yolen's very first book was called Pirates in Petticoats, a long out-of-print nonfiction work. Next year she's publishing a nonfiction work called Sea Queens, Bad Girls with her daughter. She's probably written more about women pirates than anyone.

McManus: researched subject for an erotica story, the name and anthology of which I failed to write down. Also on jury for Norton Award and has read a series called The Wave Walkers, translated from the German (which the Internet tells me is by Kai Meyer), about pirate kids.

Marshall: gave a lecture that week called "Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go to Sea." "Captain Johnson"'s account (online text) pretty much sets the tone for all our thoughts about pirates (woodcuts of bare-breasted women pirates, etc.), but there are at least 10-12 historically-documented women pirates, starting with the "Admiral Queen" (I think this was a reference to Artemisia I of Caria).

Yolen: O'Malley and Madame Ching are the best-documented. O'Malley met Elizabeth I and they spoke in Latin together! And her second husband was known as Iron Dick (much amusement toward and from McManus). Ching was 19th c. and there are photographs of her; she also met with the local ruler, in this case the Chinese Emperor. Marshall: both were great businesswomen, who the local governments thought it best to try to deal with, and died at ripe old ages.

Yolen: Ching is an example of becoming a pirate because of association with men: she built up the fleet after she inherited it from her husband.

Yolen: another fascinating woman, about whom we have some information so it's probably true, is Lady Mary Killigrew (scroll down). She ran a protection racket in 16th c. Cornwall with her children, including some sea-faring activities. It was quite a lawless time and there was no strong navy.

Marshall: a navy's all well and good, but you really want a strong coast guard to deal with pirates. Also, there's often a very symbiotic economic relationship between pirates and their home bases—not to mention the fine line between privateering and piracy. McManus: there's one theory that Captain Kidd was privateering under legitimate letters of marque but was set up at his trial.

Yolen: also, conditions in legitimate navies, especially the British, were really bad at the time, so people were flocking to privateers and pirates: the living conditions were better and the ships were run more democratically (as in, if the captain was bad, toss him or her overboard and vote on a new one). Marshall: and most of them didn't expect to live long anyway.

Marshall: Jo Stanley has a book on women pirates (apparently Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages) in which she points out that women pirates are transgressive. They were often called whores at the time, but they were attractive too: living their own lives on their own terms.

Marshall: note that it was very easy for women to go to sea. (Including the Navy. There's a famous sodomy trial at which the hanging testimony was given by a woman sailor (no names given that I heard).) In She Captains, Joan Druett points out that sailors wore long hair and loose-fitting clothes, and usually removed clothes only to be treated for wounds—and there are a number of stories of women being revealed during battles for just that reason. Using the toilet was harder, but could be managed. And often when women were revealed, the other sailors didn't care as long as they kept cross-dressing and stuck to their roles (which is one transgression canceling out another, really).

McManus: Read joined the army and navy as a man, until she fell in love with a shipmate and revealed her sex. (She turned pirate after her husband died.) Marshall: it sounds like a bad plot, but it really happened!

Marshall: were women pirates more bloodthirsty? Well, sometimes. An 18th c. woman pirate named Maria Cobham reportedly came aboard dressing as a woman with her husband, found herself in the heat of battle unexpectedly, liked it, and started dressed like a man and fighting regularly. Her husband apparently wanted to retire, but she was reluctant, until (as legend has it) he finally convinced her to settle down and run an inn. (Wikipedia claims the pair is likely fictional, for what it's worth.) McManus: Read is apparently said to have said that if her lover had "fought like a man," they wouldn't have been captured.

Marshall: first book about women pirates was a novel (first published 1845, revised 1847) called Fanny Campbell, or, the Female Pirate Captain, by Maturin Murray Ballou, which was a bestseller about a Revolutionary-War era woman who goes to sea to save her lover from a Cuban jail. When she rescues him and reveals herself, he says, "Fanny, I never saw you look more interesting!" Clearly part of the appeal is that women pirates aren't the kind of girls you would meet at home.

Yolen: vision of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie: Johnny Depp's character is revealed to be a woman! Applause from audience. Comment by someone that Elizabeth cross-dresses in the second movie (no-one lamented lack of Anamaria out loud).

McManus to panel: what about ancient world pirates? Marshall: Chinese pirates did coastal raiding essentially for millenia.

Yolen: look at the Great Depression. People loved Bonnie & Clyde; if they'd been on the coast, they would've been pirates. It's all of a piece.

Marshall: some of our fascination with pirates can be explained by geography: Great Britain is an island, and for a long time the U.S. was a coastal nation. Also, culture: piracy is a way to be upwardly mobile.

Yolen: present-day pirating has taken a leap up, but not going after shipping, after pleasure boats. Will Shetterly's father has been attacked. Marshall: she lives in Florida and no-one goes out on the water without being well-armed. In particular, drug dealers will hijack a boat, kill the occupants, use the boat to run drugs, and then sink it.

An audience member asked an off-topic question, which led to this comment about women's contributions still being uncovered: Marshall: Joan Druett writes about women sailors generally, and writes that it was a recent discovery that the pilot of the Flying Cloud, and thus the person most responsible for the ship's speed records around Cape Horn, was a woman (the captain's wife).

Audience question: any women pirates who started as young "seamen" and worked their way up?

Marshall: O'Malley started as crew on her father's ship and given authority after she proved herself. A reference to Alfhild that I can't decipher. Lots of women from fishing or trading families went to sea.

Audience question: if cross-dressing women were accepted, where did the tradition of women being bad luck come from?

Panel: umm, from wherever irrational place all superstitions come from. Though buccaneer contracts did prohibit women, the content indicated that the prohibition was on private doxies. Historical documents indicate that women pirates, except those in (quasi-)marital relationships, weren't seen as sexually available. Also it seemed to be more a matter of choice for the women. Point was whether it was disruptive to working of ship.

And that was the end. A fun time was had by all, except maybe the person in the front row.

Tags: boskone, boskone 2007, cons

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