Pirate Women by Laura Sook Duncombe

Laura Sook Duncombe’s book, “Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas,” is an extensively researched collection of stories about fierce stereotype-shattering badass women throughout history. As Duncombe puts it:

Pirate women hardly fit any mold or exist in any easily classifiable role. They are violent, they are sexually liberated, they are women of color, they are queer women, they don’t follow rules, they don’t apologize, and they do not often get happy endings.”

Reading about these warriors who led armies, captained ships, fought side-by-side with their crews and created their own moral codes was more empowering than I expected. Where I believed I’d find entertainment—perhaps even fun feminist rallying—what I found instead was a rich legacy. Women who overcome adversity all feel connected—they’re all our mothers, worth remembering and honoring. I interviewed Duncombe about her book, in particular about this feminist legacy. 

Catch Duncombe reading at Women and Children First Bookstore on Friday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m.

JB: One of the points you make throughout the book is that historically women’s stories were often not recorded because they weren’t considered important. The women whose stories you found were either fictitious to begin with or became almost mythical. I loved the line about the two women of buccaneer fame:

“Whether Anne or Jacquotte really existed, their stories are emblematic of the kind of adventurous women who did live during this period and whom history has forgotten.”

To you, do the stories you’ve gathered pay tribute to the many forgotten brave and strong women whose own stories were never told? What does that kind of tribute mean to you?

LD: I really hope these stories do pay tribute to them! My desire in writing this book was to put these stories out there in order to stretch the definition of what it means to be a woman—to broaden the typical gender roles. I think it’s important to pay tribute to these women by remembering them as they were: good, bad, warts and all. Women aren’t angels, and these women exemplify that truth. This tribute makes me feel, as a woman, that the things I feel and want—even the “unfeminine” things—are OK. And that’s a great feeling! I hope my readers feel that legitimacy as well.

Pirates were notorious for being more loyal to their own crew or communities than to a country—women pirates were no different. Do you see a gender difference in the role of patriotism in the stories you’ve found of male and female pirates?

Honestly, no. The more I learn, the more I don’t see differences in any fashion between male and female pirates. Pirate to pirate, sure—some were really violent, some were known to be genteel—but both male and female pirates run the gamut of every trait you can think of. I like to think that life at sea, like any “extreme” experience, is a pretty good equalizer. If you survive, a lot of superficial differences are stripped away and you’re left with the essence of who you really are. At heart, male and female pirates are very much the same.

The ending of the tales of so many women seemed “off” to you — not fitting with the character displayed throughout their lives. “The ‘bad girl goes good’ archetypal plot, in which a wild woman is tamed and surrenders to her destined gender role … is perennially popular with male historians as a way of diminishing the power of a warrior woman’s legend.”

You reclaimed these stories simply by questioning the way they’d been passed down. Explain how feminists can start to be more critical of the stories that we read. What should we look for?

This is a great question! I would say, trust yourself. In all things, but especially in content absorption. Ask yourself when you watch TV or read a book or listen to music—what does this make me feel? Why am I feeling that way? Often, misogyny is so internalized (in me, for sure) that I just take whatever crap is shoveled at me and accept it. It took experiencing some really powerful, feminist art to realize “Wow, I don’t feel gross at all after that!” The absence of gross really clued me in to how bad mainstream media can sometimes make me feel. Listen to your feelings! They are important. There is a voice inside of you, maybe a quiet one, but it’s there, who is saying “you deserve better than what’s being peddled to you.”

If you were going to give a Feminist Award to one of the women in your book, who would it be and what would the award say?

They all deserve one, but the one that immediately jumps to mind is Grace O’Malley. It would say, “To Grace, who, the day after giving birth, won a battle at sea.” As a new mother, I have a profound appreciation for that feat!

What can these women teach us about being positively rebellious?

Everything!! I mean, they took their frustration and anger at life and channeled that rage into assembling fleets, planning missions, and ultimately building empires. Think of all the time women would have if, for example, they stopped putting on makeup. Or stopped thinking negative things about their body (with the attendant time-draws of dieting, thinking about dieting, being guilty about not dieting well enough, etc.)  What sort of things could we accomplish if we diverted that time, energy, and emotional capital elsewhere? We could totally smash the patriarchy much faster if we used the time we spend catering to it and instead focused on destroying it.

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...

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