Guest Commentary: Women were more than just pirates in maritime history


Devon Filicicchia is the lead historical interpreter at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.

Women within maritime history have often been relegated to the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730) as stereotypes of disguised women joining ship crews and seeking adventure. Women, however, have always been present on ships and active participants in maritime-related fields. By limiting our view of women in maritime history to only incognito sailors or pirates, we do a disservice to the larger impact women have had, and continue to have, within the maritime world.

I was leading a program about the HMS deBraak last year when I realized how limited my own view was. The deBraak sank off the coast of Delaware in 1798, and thousands of artifacts were salvaged. One set of items — a comb, toothbrush and cup — stood out from the rest because it was more feminine. There are theories about whom the items belonged to and how they were used. They could have been a gift for a sailor’s sweetheart, used by one of the wealthier men onboard or even suggest that a woman, a sailor’s wife perhaps, was onboard the ship.

Someone attending this presentation commented that the theory of a woman onboard couldn’t be true because women were not allowed to sail on ships during the 18th century. I was shocked, not at the comment but at myself. As I sought to provide a real-world example of a woman sailing with her husband, the first that came to mind was the fictional Adm. Croft’s wife, Sophia Croft, from Jane Austen’s novel, “Persuasion.”

I’ve reflected upon that moment many times. It identified a gap in my knowledge of maritime history. I knew about famous pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read. But what about the women who came after them? What other roles did women play? I set my sails on broadening my horizons and learning more about all the ways women have, and continue to, take part in maritime history.

“Women on Ships” is a presentation born from that research and will be presented at the Zwaanendael Museum for Women’s History Month on Thursday. As the title suggests, I discuss women who were present on ships from the 17th to the 20th century. I also wanted to highlight the diverse experiences women have had with the sea over the course of 400 years. From port town prostitution to competitive sailing, you can read some of the presentation highlights below.

Sex workers

The largest number of women who stepped onto the decks of British ships were not wives or adventurous ladies in disguise but prostitutes. From the mid-1600s to the 1850s, it was not uncommon for dozens or sometimes hundreds of these women to be brought aboard British warships when they came into port. Sailors were not granted shore leave often, out of the British navy’s fear of desertion. To keep mutinies down and the men’s spirits up, sex workers from the port towns entertained the men below deck. These women struggled to support themselves and live in a society that continuously villainized their work but found it necessary at the same time.

Wives on the sea and shore

Married women faced their own hardships. Wives of Nantucket whalers lived like widows because their husbands were gone for so long. They took care of their families and homes, and managed the business.

Allowing British naval officers to bring their wives with them to sea was a common practice by the 18th century. The women were usually ignored by the men onboard, and most were not listed on the ship’s register. Sailors’ wives were dependent upon their husbands. His rank determined how much food she ate, where she slept and how much privacy she had.

Lighthouse keepers

Mary Clifford and J. Candace Clifford, authors of “Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers,” have documented over 100 women who served as principal lighthouse keepers in the U.S. between 1776 and 1947. Most of these women inherited the position after the death of their husband or father. They were tasked with arduous daily chores required at the light stations. Ida Lewis, the keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse, reached national fame after her heroic rescues of shipwrecked sailors. Mary Ryan, who kept the Calumet Harbor Lighthouse, detested her inherited role. “This has been the most trying month of my keeping a light house,” she wrote in 1890.“The most important question, can anything worse come?”

The 21st century

Women are still making waves. Since 2014, Amye Sinclair has been striving to make sailing more diverse and accessible by encouraging women of color to get involved. Charlotte Kaufman founded Women Who Sail in 2011 to create a supportive community for women interested in sailing and a place for them to share their knowledge.

Maritime history is predominantly White and male, so I have enjoyed re-educating myself and learning about the subject through a diverse and female-focused lens. This has reminded me how important it is to raise up the voices of women, people of color and other disenfranchised groups, so we can understand a more complete history.

“Women on Ships” begins at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. Reservations are required by today by calling 302-645-1148 or emailing

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