Lady Pirates Were Riot Grrrl before Riot Grrrl
Deirdre Coyle talks lady pirates, punk rock, and riot grrrl inclusivity for Talk Like a Pirate Day.
“If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”
— Anne Bonny to Calico Jack
“Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world.”
— Kathleen Hanna to 13-year-old me
When I was a kid, a sidebar in one of my history textbooks talked about the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Here’s the quick version: Anne Bonny was a pirate who dressed as a man and started banging pirate captain “Calico Jack” Rackham whose ship was — for real — called Revenge. They kidnapped some peeps, including Mary Read (also dressed as a man). Anne Bonny got a crush on Mary-Read-in-drag and tried to seduce her. Mary Read revealed herself to be a woman. Calico Jack got jealous that Anne was sleeping with someone else and threatened to cut Mary-Read-in-drag’s throat. Mary showed him her tits to prove that slitting her throat was unnecessary, and he was like: “Oh, JK.” (Whoa, concepts of gender are CRAZY.) A sloop commissioned by Jamaica’s colonial British government attacked the Revenge. Anne and Mary fought the sloopy guys above deck while the dudes hung out below deck because the men suuuucked. Despite Anne’s and Mary’s act of anti-heroism, the Revenge crew got captured and taken to Jamaica to be put on trial. Calico Jack got hanged in Port Royal, but the pirate babes didn’t get the death sentence because they “pleaded their bellies” (preggers). Before hanging, Jack got to see Anne very briefly through the bars of his cell, prompting her famous line: “I am sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”
Based on this story, it should be obvious that while Anne Bonny and Mary Read may not have had punk rock, they very clearly were punk rock. Their story is more punk rock than I could ever hope to be, and definitely more punk rock than any guitar bro I have ever known.
Basically, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were riot grrrls a few centuries before riot grrrl “existed,” because “actually” riot grrrl has always existed.
If you need a riot grrrl recap, the movement started in the early 1990s in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and D.C., focused on DIY aesthetics, women in music, girl-girl intimacy, and women entering spaces traditionally deemed “masculine.” The movement also had serious issues with race, class, and inclusivity, and there are fantastic articles about that by Gabby Bess, Mimi Thi Nguyen, and Laina Dawes.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were all about entering masculine spaces, DIY, and female intimacy. (Whether or not they were lovers depends on the source.) They were ahead of their time. They were also white, which fits into that inclusivity problem — I could be writing about badass babes Ching Shih or Lo Hon-Cho, who were also, by the same definitions, piratical preemptive riot grrrls. But unsurprisingly enough, Anne Bonny and Mary Read are the white girl pirates my childhood history textbook chose to tell me about, and thus the grrrl pirates of whom I became enamored.
The slogan goes, “Every girl is a riot grrrl,” and while, by now, everyone knows that that’s not really a thing, it is true that riot grrrl is unconstrained by the boundaries of time. Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Ching Shih, Lo Hon-Cho, Sayyida al-Hurra, Mary and Elizabeth Killigrew, Teuta of Illyria, Grace O’Malley: you guys were doing it right centuries before Pussy Whipped.
Originally published on 9/19/15.