gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month - guest post by Alex Isle

My name is Alex Isle. I changed it from Sue just over a year ago because I finally had the guts to explain to everyone that I didn't like my name! I am a writer of sf/fantasy, mostly short fiction, but also a short YA novel and a children's book about wolf children. My latest claim to fame is a series of stories about an abandoned Perth, called Nightsiders. My blog is at Apocalypse With Rats.

This paragraph is added after the rest was written. I had no idea some of the things I commented on were about to become contentious. They are in the area of gender politics. I'm not trying to offend anyone. This is simply my take on history I have read.

I was trying to think who I could write about. Names of famous women scientists, doctors, judges and so on. Trailblazing achievements and worthy of admiration but difficult to relate to for somebody who was really bad at science/maths at school.

Then I thought of Mary Read (b.1691- d.1721). Mary was no role model. She was likely considered a really bad person in the view of the British Navy and/or judiciary of the early 1700s. She, with her friend and co-accused Anne Bonny, formed one of the very few female buddy pairs known to history. They helped to run a pirate ship.

They're usually spoken of as a team, but records show they only met a year before their luck was up. Unlike Anne, Mary had early practice at passing for a boy. This was an age where the roles of men and women were so rigidly defined that it was illegal for them to wear one another's clothing. Even so, quite a few women worked out that to pass as men was the only way to get what they wanted.

There is so much written about historical fashion that I'm not going to get heavily into that. Go read some. Clothing was more tied to social class and gender than it is now. You were what you wore. If you had the guts to break what must have been incredibly strong conditioning, then you were home free. People saw a person in trousers and coat and assumed male. They saw what they expected to see. A common thread in such stories of cross-dressing is that such women, for example females who fought in the American Civil War (1860-1856), maintained their ruse for years, sometimes their entire lives, without discovery. I do remember one story where the girl concerned was known to be female by her squad mates and did domestic tasks for them in exchange for help with the heavy lifting, but the officers had no idea.

It's certainly not this easy for pre-surgery transgender folk to pass today, where the boundaries are blurred and people are more used to seeing the smaller tells without realising that they're doing it. So was Mary transgender or merely practical, adopting male dress when it suited her and back to female when it did not?

Mary was disguised as a boy when a small child, by her mother who needed to present a son to get an inheritance. Mary's brother had died, so she took his place. When she was older, her mother asked whether she wanted to give up the pretence and become a normal girl in 1700s British society. Mary, who had grown used to the freedoms of males, refused. From that time she never looked back and had a varied and exciting life from her teenage years on. At one point she was married and ran an inn until her husband's death, after which it was back to passing as a male once more.

When Mary joined the crew of Captain Jack Rackham aboard the pirate ship Vanity, it was as a young man, but her secret became known when the captain's wife, Anne, became interested in "him." Perhaps the two had a relationship, perhaps not; it isn't known for sure, but I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the captain's cabin when the three of them worked out what the truth was!

When the pirates were at last apprehended by the British Navy, Mary escaped the gallows, with her fellow male-disguised pirate Anne by a very female means – they were both pregnant and a pregnant woman could not be hanged, by British law. I wonder whether this stuck in Mary's craw, to do this, to return to the severely limited life of a woman, in order to save her own life. Legend has it she died in prison, but actual information is very sketchy on this. Anne is supposed to have escaped or been ransomed by her father, but also, nobody now knows for sure.

Mary and Anne didn't achieve wonders in science or discovery; they simply lived their lives as fully as they wanted to do, holding their own in the violent world of 18th century piracy. They were not good or worthy people, perhaps – accounts suggest the male pirates on the Vanity were scared to death of them - and the word "hellcat" is mentioned in evidence. Even so, they were very cool.


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