Women of the High Seas

By Katrina Webster '21, April 12, 2019
Senior Naomi Hanson’s research focuses on the power of female pirates.

The word ‘pirate’ probably conjures a specific image in your head of a swearing, drinking, boisterous individual. And most likely, that individual is a male. But Naomi Hanson ’19 has spent her time on South Hill challenging that vision.  

For the past four years, Hanson has conducted research challenging the prevailing myth that piracy was a boys' club, focusing instead on the strong women who ruled the sea. “These women drank like pirates. They sang like pirates. They gambled like pirates. They were violent like pirates. All of these things initiated them into the community,” she said. “Despite piracy appearing to be the manifestation of hyper-masculinity, its foundational elements do not include gender discrimination.”

Instead, Hanson believes that female pirates have been deliberately eliminated from the timeline of historical piracy — something that presented difficulties when she was doing her research. “It’s always a challenge when you’re writing about women’s history,” she said. “Because the pirates I’m studying were women, you have this extra step to go through because they were ignored.”

Hanson’s research began during her freshman year on campus, when she began working closely with Vivian Bruce Conger, professor in the Department of History. Her work focused on the roles several female pirates had on their ships, including Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate from the early 19th century, who she described as “history’s most successful pirate.” That summer, she continued her research in the college's Summer Scholars program, and followed that up with a Dana Internship in 2017.

And while the legacy of female pirates isn’t well documented, Hanson is positive that these women were just as respected and feared as their male counterparts. “Female pirates fit into this big subcategory of women’s history in a way that’s really loud and visible. They challenge the common male myths of piracy,” she said. “They did not need to hide the fact that they were women.”

During her time at Ithaca, Hanson has presented her research not only at the annual Whalen Symposium on campus, but at more than a dozen conferences across the country. And it may take her to Spain for another conference soon after graduation. Many of these opportunities came about with the help of faculty in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “[They made] it really easy. They helped me apply and take care of financial logistics,” she said. “I even received grants that covered the cost of entire trips.”

Through her work Hanson believes she has become an advocate for overlooked women of history. “If we keep excluding women who were survivalists and did what they needed to gain more agency, then that’s who we are going to demonize today,” she said.