Women’s History Month Challenge, Day 17: Grace O’Malley

Grace (also Gráinne) O’Malley was an Irish chieftan and pirate who died around 1603.  She was the leader of the Ó Máille clan during the late 16th century.  She was accused of being a traitor and leading rebellions against Queen Elizabeth I, but was pardoned by the queen.  In the years following the visit there was much cooperation between the O’Malley clan and the English crown, and in part because of this O’Malley’s son became the greatest landowner in the county.  She is a major figure in 16th century Irish history and in Irish folklore, and as such she is the subject of many poems and songs.  O’Malley was a notorious woman while she was alive due to the power she commanded.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Photo source

Mary Read and Anne Bonny: Part 1, an introduction to women and piracy in the 18th century

In the eighteenth century a pan-European movement, one particularly strong in England, Germany and the Netherlands, took hold in which women would disguise themselves as men and work their way into male dominated occupations. This was not unusual or unique to the time-period; in fact, these women were carrying on a tradition of females going underground to cross-dress as the male gender. What caused a distinction between the women of the eighteenth century and the cross dressing women that came before them was the fact that these women were celebrated. They were often hailed as heroes upon their return to their normal lives after having spent part of their lives passing as men in male occupations.  At this time the women’s story was being recorded and the exploits being sold to the public, there were biographies and pamphlets detailing their lives and illustrations of the women in men’s clothing yet retaining their femininity. The eighteenth century was a time when female warrior ballads were at a peak in popularity.[1] In a time period were society offered few opportunities for women to break out of their defined positions in life, a fair amount of women decided to take control of their lives and find adventure on the seas. The popularity of these stories can be seen in the number of memoirs and stories published about these women. Some recounted the true events of real life women who cross-dressed on the seas and others were fictional renderings published to sustain the public’s interest.

            Women assumed the identity of a man and found a life on the sea for a number of reasons. While it was an individual decision made by women who found themselves unique situations, there are certain themes that can explain why a woman disguised herself in order to enter the male sphere. There are the narrative reasons, the ones to fulfill a catalyst for the woman’s journey and at the same time justify to society their choice to take on a male appearance. The more acceptable reasons were ones where the woman decided to travel with trading companies in order to join their husbands in the Caribbean or to enlist in the navy to defend the homeland or search for their husband who was missing in action.[2] These were seen as noble acts for a woman to engage in and excused their bold decision to pass as men. A common theme in the true stories of cross-dressing women was that they did it in order to escape their cruel husbands and in their own private way, the women challenged the idea of female subordination.[3] There were also common themes in the stories for the women to be born illegitimately and, due to varying circumstances, raised dressed as a boy in their youth. These women were motivated by a need to escape poverty or find adventures and love that wasn’t available to them on land.

            It was not easy of course for these women to work their way into the male dominated world of nautical occupations. There was a practice of separating the sexes on board ships, which was deeply rooted in popular superstitions of the time.[4]  Women were thought of as a hindrance to the work and social order of the ships because any reminder of sexuality would be a distraction. Women were seen as objects of fantasy and adoration and not necessarily as people who could contribute to the work on the ocean. It was actually thought that sexual repression was necessary to do the work required aboard a ship. Of course, there was also the most popular superstition that is known today, women were seen as bad luck and a source of conflict when allowed on board ships. However, these eighteenth-century ideals of separating the sexes though did not stop several women from abandoning a conventional life for one in favor of the sea whether they are pirates or sailors in the navy.

            Piracy arose in Atlantic, and in the West Indies in particular due to the turbulent times of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There were constant wars being fought between the Spanish, French, English and Dutch upon the seas. The islands of the West Indies were being colonized rapidly in the early part of the seventeenth century. The close proximity of the islands to each other caused tensions and conflicts between the battling European powers.   In the time between conflicts, many sailors found themselves out of work and without away to sustain themselves. Laws passed by European powers putting limits on trade, like the British Navigation Acts of 1650 and 1660, allowed a market for illegal activities on the seas to open up fuelled by these idle sailors.[5] Piracy became a method for men to individually enrich their own lives and use their skills that were not being used in peacetime. By the time 1720 rolled around it is estimated that there was between two thousand and three thousand pirates operating in the Atlantic.[6] The world of piracy was overly violent; pirates were responsible for rapes, massacres, and everything else beyond human decency.

The world of Atlantic piracy is predominantly thought of as being occupied by tough swashbuckling men who only thought of women as a source of sexual pleasure. Women were not welcome aboard pirate ships just as they were not welcome aboard any working ship in the navy or in trade. Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most famous pirates, explained to his crew that “ No boy or women to be allowed among them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.”[7] Even with these restrictions, a few remarkable women made their name in the illegal activity on the seas. The two most infamous of all the female pirates in the Atlantic world were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They were two women who gripped the attention of the Atlantic world and while they were not the only females to roam in the world of piracy they certainly became the most well known.

Most of what we know about Mary Read and Anne Bonny comes from the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. The author’s name Charles Johnson is most likely a pseudonym with the real author of the biographies being Daniel Defoe[8], an English writer most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Published in London, Pyrates contains biographies of many contemporary pirates including some of the most famous pirate captains like Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard and Calico Jack. The biographies are considered to be highly accurate and have played a major role in shaping the popular conception of pirates today. Johnson admits that the lives of the two female pirates seem extraordinary but they were publicly tried and therefore their stories can be conformed. Transcripts of the trials have been preserved along as other contemporary documents that give evidence to support the adventures of Read and Bonny.[9] Most notably the trials of Read and Bonny can be found in the pamphlet, The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and other Pirates, (published in Jamaica, 1721). As Johnson wrote, “Truth of it [Read and Bonny] can be no more contested than that were such men as in the world, as Roberts and Blackbeard, who were pyrates”[10]. Johnson’s book also contains an abstract of the Statute and Civil Law, in relation to the acts of piracy. The book was a huge success and was published four times and two years (A newspaper in Philadelphia was already advertising a second edition of Johnson’s book in December of 1724[11]) and was translated in French, German and Dutch and sold all around the world with Read and Bonny being a central interest for the readers.

            The book itself reflects how interested the public was in learning about Read and Bonny, as it used the biographies of the women as a selling point for the book. Underneath the title reads the following caption, “With the remarkable Action and Adventures of the two Female Pyrates Mary Read and Anne Bonny”.[12] Placing the caption underneath the title draws attention to the fact that the book contains information on the two women. Using the names as an obvious selling point because it would not needed to be placed there unless there was already a high demand of interest in Read or Bonny. Otherwise, Pyrates would have been published with the names of Bonny and Read’s male counterparts on the cover.

[1][1] Marcus Rediker, “When Women Pirates Sailed the Seas,” The Wilson Quarterly, 17, no. 4 (1993): 106

[2] Rudolf M. Dekker, and Lotte van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), 29

[3] Theresa Braunschneider, “Acting the Lover: Gender and Desire in Narratives of Passing Women,” Eighteenth-Century Theory and Interpretation, 212

[4] Rudolf M. Dekker, and Lotte van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989): 29.

[5] Violet Barbour, “Privateers and Pirates of the West Indies,” The American Historical Review, 16, no. 3 (1911): 543

[6] David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History, (Westminster: Random House Adult Trade Group, 2001), 82.

[7] David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History, (Westminster: Random House Adult Trade Group, 2001), 80.

[8] Marcus Rediker, “When Women Pirates Sailed the Seas,” The Wilson Quarterly, 17, no. 4 (1993): 104.

[9] David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History, (Westminster: Random House Adult Trade Group, 2001), 79.

[10] Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, (London: 1724): 157.

[11] The American Weekly Mercury, (Philadelphia: December 29, 1724): 2.

[12] Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, (London: 1724).



The Women of Richmond’s Standard Oil Refinery

During WWII, close to 400 women worked at the refinery. The refinery produced aviation gasoline at the request of the government at the time. Today, Standard Oil Refinery is called Chevron Richmond Refinery. 

Photo 1: Richmond, CA December 1943 - Rita Daly dunks her cigarette in a jar of water as E. J. Sandretto gets matches. Workers were only allowed to smoke in these specially-equipped parts of the plan. (Keith Dennison / Oakland Tribune Staff Archives)

Photo 2: Richmond, CA October 1944 - Mrs. Dorothy Kirkpatrick draws a gasoline sample. Dorothy worked at the refinery while her husband Otis, a Shipfitter 2c, was overseas with the United States Navy. (Oakland Tribune Staff Archives)

Photo 3: Richmond, CA October 1944 - Miss Fontaine Silver (left) and Mrs. Jessie Carpenter performing maintenance at the gasoline plant. (Oakland Tribune Staff Archives)

Women’s History Month Challenge, Day 8: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), a child of the Age of Enlightenment, was a proto-feminist who wrote extensively on human rights.  As a young woman she founded a school among a community of Dissenters, a progressive group who sought egalitarianism, reconciliation of religion and reason, and a just future.  After the school failed, she worked as a governess.  In 1790 she published Vindication of the Rights of Men and two years later Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  She advocated equal education for women, and also wrote on other topics like sexual desire and the merits of motherhood.  In 1794 she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, the child of Gilbert Imlay.  In 1797, she married William Godwin and died giving birth to their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, (later Shelley, author of Frankenstein).

Source 1

Source 2

Day 4: Loretta Ross

          Loretta Ross co-founded the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in 1997, creating a “network of women of color and allied organizations that organize women of color in the reproductive justice movement.”  From 2005 to 2012 she served as is National Coordinator.  She is a member of the Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices, and has appeared on CNN, BET, and other news shows and stations.  In the 1970s, Loretta was one of the first African American women to direct a rape crisis center, thus skyrocketing her career as a pioneer working on violence against women, and in the 1980s she launched the Women of Color Program for the National Organization of Women (NOW).

          Loretta Ross has written and co-authored several books, and has also written extensively on this history of African American women and reproductive justice activism. Her work focuses on "the intersectionality of social justice issues and how this affects social change and service delivery in all movements."  For more information, visit her website at http://www.lorettaross.com/default.html

March 31: The Rest

Today, the final day of Women’s History Month and last day of our WHM Challenge, we honor the rest of the women.  The trans* women, the women of color, the single mother, the woman working two jobs to make ends meet, the female athletes, the adolescent queer women struggling to find their place, the women breaking through the glass ceiling, the women beyond the West, the women of every generation, race, class, sex, sexuality, and otherwise whose lives and stories are shaping our world in quieter though no less important ways.  We deserve to be recognized.

Day 21: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree.  She did so in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College.  She was also one of the first African Americans to publish a medical book, which she did in 1883 with her Book of Medical Discourses.  In her work with the Freedmen’s Bureau and beyond, she worked towards providing medical care to free slaves who would otherwise not have had access to any care.  She also cared for women and children, especially through nutrition and preventative medicine.  In Book of Medical Discourses, for example, she “offered women a reference on how to provide medical care for themselves and their children.”  Little is known about Dr. Crumpler, other than what is written in the introduction of her book, but she serves still to this day as a model for “breaking barriers and dedicating oneself to improving the lives of others,” among much else.

Day 19: Alice Walker

Alice Walker is a Pullitzer Prize winning author, poet, and activist.  She has written seven novels, four collections of short stories, four kids books, as well as volumes of essays and poetry.  She is perhaps best known for The Color Purple, for which she won the Pullitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  The book also served as inspiration for a Spielberg film and later Broadway adaptation. She has been involved in activist work during the Civil Rights movement and anti-war protesting, among others, in addition to her work advocating on behalf of women nationally and internationally.  For more information on Alice Walker, her books, her blog, and the like, follow the link to her website at alicewalkersgarden.com