Uppity Women: Annie Oakley

Uppity Women: Annie Oakley. Oakley was a sharp shooter who traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1889, she performed at the Paris Exposition as part of a three year tour. This tour made her America’s first international star. While this feat in and of itself would make her worthy of note as an extraordinary woman, Oakley was a person of integrity who advocated for women.

Uppity Women: Annie Oakley

Uppity Women: Annie Oakley

From Difficult and Humble Origins

Oakley, born on August 13, 1860, was christened Phoebe Ann Mosey. The log cabin of her birth was near the rural western border of Ohio about five miles east of North Star. Her parents were Quakers from Pennsylvania who had moved to a rented farm.

Oakley was the fifth out of seven surviving children. Her father died when she was six of pneumonia after suffering overexposure during a blizzard the previous year. While her mother remarried, her step-father died shortly after the birth of yet another sibling. The family plunged into extreme poverty.

While her mother tried to keep the family together, too many mouths needed food. Oakley did what she could as a young child. She began trapping animals at the age of seven. She hunted before the age of nine. At the age of nine, Oakley along with one of her sisters was admitted to the Darke County Infirmary. While in the care of the superintendent of the infirmary and his wife, she learned to sew.

Hardship and Abuse

Because of her developing domestic skills, a few months after coming to live at the Darke County Infirmary Oakley was “bound” out to a local family to help care for their infant. The family originally wanted someone who could do more hard labor around the farm. Oakley suffered two years in near slavery to this family whom she only referred to as “the wolves” in her autobiography. At one point, the wife of the family forced Oakley outside into the freezing cold without shoes because Oakley had fallen asleep while darning. With good cause, Oakley ran away.

Skill, Her Debut, and Love

Oakley made her way back to her mother and her family. Her mother had remarried once again. Oakley’s skill in hunting helped to pay the mortgage on her mother’s farm. Annie became well-known throughout the area for her marksmanship.

Frank E. Butler was a traveling show marksman. He placed a $100 bet with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost that he could beat anyone in a contest of sharpshooting. Frost arranged a match between Oakley and Butler. Butler was surprised to find himself pitted against a five foot tall, fifteen year old girl. And even more surprised when after 25 rounds, she beat him.

It was love at first site and Butler courted Oakley. A year later they were married.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Butler and Oakley, who took the name Annie Oakley as a stage name in 1885, began touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Fellow performer Sitting Bull called her “Watanya Cicilla”  which meant “Little Sure Shot”. While she toured with the show, she had a rivalry with Lillian Smith who was eleven years her junior. Oakley was often described as five to six years younger than she really was, perhaps because of the rivalry with the younger Smith.

At one point Oakley stopped touring for a few years, but then resumed in time for the Paris Exposition. Oakley was the highest paid performer in the Wild West show. While touring in Europe she performed for Queen Victoria, President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot of France, and King Umberto of Italy. It is rumored that at the request of German Kaiser Wilhelm II she shot the ashes off of his lit cigarette.

An Advocate for Women

Oakley was a strong woman. She believed women were equal to men and she promoted the service of women in combat operations in the armed forces. During the Spanish-American War she sent a letter to President William McKinley proposing a company of 50 female sharp shooters go to war as part of the United States armed services. This proposal was not enacted. However, throughout Oakley’s career it is estimated she taught 15,000 women how to use a gun.

A Woman of Integrity

In 1904, William Randolph Hearst published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to have enough money for cocaine. While there a burlesque performer was arrested for stealing who gave Chicago police the name of Annie Oakley, it was not in fact Oakley.

While the story of a cocaine abusing Oakley splashed across headlines and sold newspapers, it was false. Too late to realize the story was false, many newspapers ran with the Hearst article. Hearst trying to avoid a libel suit sent an investigator to Darke County Ohio to dig up dirt on Oakley. The investigator found nothing. Oakley went hunting to clear her reputation.

For the next six years, Oakley pursued winning 54 of 55 libel lawsuits against newspapers who had printed the Hearst story. It cost her more money than she collected in judgments. However, she felt it was important for the truth to be represented and her reputation restored.

Later Life

Oakley won marksmanship awards and set records into her sixties. She thrived beyond a train accident that forced her to change careers to become an actress and a car accident that forced her to wear a steel brace. She continued to advocate for women and was a philanthropist for women’s causes. Her health declined in 1925 and she died a legend in 1926. The famed female sharpshooter was not hemmed in by her time period despite her careful cultivation of her image as a woman with proper Victorian morals. She lived as a daredevil who pushed boundaries, did more, and fearlessly went ahead of her time. She was a true uppity woman.

Badass Feminist Poet: Qiu Jin

Badass Feminist Poet: Qiu Jin

I am going to have to circle back and write a full blog post about Qiu Jin because she was an extraordinary woman who earned the badass name “Female Knight of Mirror Lake”. For now I am going to post one of her poems titled “Capping Rhymes With Sir Shih Ching From Sun’s Root Land – Poem by Qiu Jin”.

Capping Rhymes With Sir Shih Ching From Sun’s Root Land – Poem by Qiu Jin

Don’t tell me women

are not the stuff of heroes,

I alone rode over the East Sea’s

winds for ten thousand leagues.

My poetic thoughts ever expand,

like a sail between ocean and heaven.

I dreamed of your three islands,

all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.

I grieve to think of the bronze camels,

guardians of China, lost in thorns.

Ashamed, I have done nothing;

not one victory to my name.

I simply make my war horse sweat.

Grieving over my native land

hurts my heart. So tell me;

how can I spend these days here?

A guest enjoying your spring winds?

We Sinful Women by Kishwar Naheed

We Sinful Women by Kishwar Naheed, photo of Naheed

We Sinful Women by Kishwar Naheed

Cooking, cleaning, laundry and making a little music have eaten my weekend. I am exhausted from fighting off a winter sickness and cleaning my basement. Forgive me for not presenting a researched and original written piece this day. Instead I would like to present a poem, “We Sinful Women”,  from one of the “badass” feminist poets: Kishwar Naheed.  Naheed is an Urdu poet from Pakistan. She is the founder of the Hawwa Foundation that supports women who do not have an independent source of income. A copy of this poem in English and its original can be found in We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry by Rukhsana Ahmad.

We Sinful Women

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our lives

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together.

It is we sinful women

while those who sell the harvests of our bodies

become exalted

become distinguished

become the just princes of the material world.

It is we sinful women

who come out raising the banner of truth

up against barricades of lies on the highways

who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold

who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.

Now, even if the night gives chase

these eyes shall not be put out.

For the wall which has been razed

don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our bodies

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together.

Uppity Women: The Women’s March

Uppity Women: The Women's March

Uppity Women: The Women’s March

At this moment in time, it would not be appropriate to write about any other uppity women than the women who took part in The Women’s March. Or should I say Women’s Marches because there were marches all over the globe. Women and men took part in marches to express their concerns regarding women’s rights, civil rights, climate change and other issues they fear could be under threat from Donald Trump’s presidency. There were marches in such far flung places as Cape Town, Sydney, Berlin, London, Paris, Nairobi and Antarctica. And women marched across the United States. In Washington D.C. the Women’s March turned into a rally because marchers simply could not march due to there were so many people. Meanwhile an estimated 250,000 people rallied in Chicago. In New York approximately 100,000 people marched past Mr. Trump’s home in the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

Marches also occurred in state capitals such as St. Paul where an estimated 100,000 people turned out to express their concern over a Trump presidency. Thousands gathered in Lansing. About 50,000 marchers participated in Portland, Oregon.


Pink Pussy Hats

During the marches many women wore pink, knitted hats with cat corners– the pussyhats. The homemade hats referenced a video from 2005 where Donald Trump described how he assaults women by grabbing them by the genitals. The PussyHat Project started in Los Angeles, originating from Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman. Suh has said she wanted to visually show solidarity among women in regards to Trump’s attitude towards women. Being from California, she also wanted to stay warm. What began as a knitting project among friends at the Little Knittery, spread. Soon knitting groups all across the United States began churning out the hats and craft stores reported shortages of pink yarn. Knitters in places such as Australia and Austria made hats. The goal was to knit 1.1 million hats. Many pink hats sprinkled the photos of the D.C. march.


Not only did ordinary people march to show their concerns, many prominent celebrities and politician’s spoke at the Women’s March yesterday.  Speaking first, America Ferrera energized the crowd by saying:

“We march today for the moral core of this nation, against which our new president is waging a war. Our dignity, our character, our rights have all been under attack, and a platform of hate and division assumed power yesterday. But the president is not America. … We are America, and we are here to stay.”

Continuing the rally, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem spoke and said,

“We have people power and we will use it.”

In addition, other speakers included Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, Madonna, actresses Ashley Judd and Scarlett Johansson and director Michael Moore among others. At one point a group of senators and house representatives took the stage together. This group included Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Maxine Waters, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Cory Booker.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While the Women’s Marches yesterday demonstrated the power of people acting and speaking together, we aren’t done. Continuing, we have more work to do. Activities, such as watching our elected officials, writing to them, and making sure they act in our best interests. Each of us needs to stay informed — including critically evaluating news sources and not allowing “alternative facts” from Trump’s administration to gaslight us into tyranny. Further, we need to identify people we can run for local, state and national elected positions.

We also need to caucus and create a list of positive goals– goals such as equal rights and equal pay for women, funding of Planned Parenthood, funding of research and initiatives for women’s health, funding and continued protection for parental leave, an examination and reform of our tax structure to more equally distribute wealth, protection for our National Parks, creating legislation to address climate change, protection for immigrants from xenophobia, addressing civil rights concerns regarding police actions, raising minimum wage, funding education, …

In conclusion, let’s keep the momentum going!




Uppity Women: Wangari Maathai

Uppity Women: Wangari Maathai

Uppity Women: Wangari Maathai

We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk! –Wangari Maathai

Maathai, A Champion of Peace and the Environment

Wangari Maathai was a woman of renown. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. In 2009 the United Nations Secretary-General named Wangari Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on the environment and climate change because of her deep commitment to the environment. In 2010 Maathai was appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group. That same year Professor Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust, which was established to safeguard the public land for whose protection she had fought for almost twenty years and, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.

Early Life, A Seed is Planted

Maathai was born in the Nyeri District in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya on April 1, 1940. When she was still a small child, her family moved to the Rift Valley. Her father worked on a farm owned by white land owners. During her childhood, the Mau Mau uprising occurred in which native Kenyans sought independence from the British. Maathai was safe from the violence because she had been sent to a Catholic boarding school at the age of 11 called St. Cecilia’s. Her family members were forced to move from their home to an emergency village in Ihithe.

While Maathai was at St. Cecilia’s she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism. She also a member of the Legion of Mary. The group’s members vowed “to serve God by serving fellow human beings.”

Education First

Maathai was the first East African woman to receive a Ph.D. As colonialism came to an end in East Africa, Kenyan politicians looked for ways to make education available to promising students as an investment in the country’s future. They understood that education was necessary to build peace and prosperity. Senator John F. Kennedy agreed to work with Tom Mboya’s proposals and agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Airlift Africa was born.

An exemplary student, in 1960 Maathai was given a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in the US through Airlift Africa. She earned her masters of science degree at the University of Pittsburgh in biological sciences. While in Pittsburgh she learned about environmental restoration when local environmentalists advocated to reduce the levels of air pollution in the city.

Returning to Nairobi

Initially, after her masters degree Maathai returned to Nairobi to work as a research assistant to a professor of zoology at the University College of Nairobi. Upon her arrival in Nairobi she discovered her promised position had been given to someone else. Maathai speculated in her memoir titled “Unbowed” that this was due to her gender and tribal affiliations. Rather than beginning work in Nairobi, Maathai went to Munich where she worked as a research assistant in the microanatomy section in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Giessen in Germany. Maathai also continued her studies and obtained her Ph.D in 1971 in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi after studying at the University of Munich.

Because of her academic achievements, Maathai was appointed to several positions of seniority at Nairobi University. Maathai served as the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976. She also taught at the university and held the position of associate professor. During this time period Maathai campaigned for equal benefits for women who worked for the University. She tried to change the academic staff association into a union to negotiate better benefits, but this effort was squashed.

She speaks for the Trees and People

During this time, Maathai noticed that environmental degradation negatively impacted the economic and social fortunes of Kenya. Not only was the deforestation responsible for landslips and droughts, the poor harvests and lack of rainwater in deforested areas created inter-tribal conflict as people fought for meager resources. She became convinced that protecting the environment would promote peace and solve economic problems. Wangari Maathai proposed creating a foundation to plant trees.

Maathai’s ideas led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved planting trees by ordinary people to conserve the environment. Her first tree nursery, Karura Forest, was created. Unfortunately Envirocare ran into funding problems. While her first attempt to create such a foundation was unsuccessful, Maathai’s efforts paid off in that she gained admittance to the 1976 UN conference on human settlements. At the conference, she advocated planting more trees to improve environmental, social and economic conditions.

Green Belt Movement

Upon returning to Kenya, Maathai led a movement to plant trees throughout Kenya which was at first known as the “Save the Land Harambee”. This movement became known as the Green Belt movement. Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow native trees. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere. The Green Belt movement has become a prominent environmental organization supporting the planting and conservation of trees. In her book, “Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World” Maathai wrote about, “the importance of communities taking responsibility for their actions and mobilizing to address their local needs.” She further added,

“We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change.”


In January 1992, Maathai and other pro-democracy activists in Kenya learned they were on a list and targeted to be assassinated. A government sponsored coup was possible. Frightened, but undaunted, the pro-democracy group Maathai belonged to, which was known as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, took the information they had to the international media and called for a general election. As a result one of the members of the group was immediately arrested. Maathai barricaded herself in her house and was besieged for three days. At the end of the three days, the police cut through the bars on Maathai’s windows and arrested her. She and the other pro-democracy advocates were charged with spreading malicious rumors, sedition and treason. They were brought to “trial” and then released on bail.

While on bail, Maathai, along with other protesters, went on hunger strike to protest the government building on Uhuru Park. After a few days the protesters were violently removed. Maathai was hospitalized. The attack on the protesters drew international criticism. The protest grew and continued. Moving to the All Saints Cathedral across from Uhuru Park, the protest continued until the original protesters were all released in early 1993. In her memoir titled “Unbowed” Maathai wrote:

“It is often difficult to describe to those who live in a free society what life is like in an authoritarian regime. You don’t know who to trust. You worry that you, your family, or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassinations or targeted “accidents”, is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s.

Praise for Her Activism

While Kenya was still in turmoil, the country was not ignore and neither were Maathai’s efforts. From 1991 through 1992, Maathai received international praise for her activism in Kenya. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize and the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership in 1991. In June 1992, during the protests at Uhuru Park, Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro despite the Kenyan government’s accusation that Maathai incited women and encouraged them to strip. The Kenyan government wanted her silenced.

Free, Multi-Party Elections

Throughout the 1990s, Wangari Maathai and others protested for peace. Maathai opposed more than once the seizure of public lands by the government who wished to give the lands to private, corporate interests. Once, she and her followers were attacked during such a protest as they planted a tree on public land that the government wished to give to private interests to develop a golf course. While the police refused to arrest the individuals who attacked Maathai and her group, the attack had been filmed and was released to the international press.

During these troubles, Maathai recognized the importance of environmentalism and democracy. Unrelenting and holding on to her vision, Maathai continued on. She planted trees. And she was beaten and arrested. And she planted more trees.

As a result of her efforts, democracy in Kenya grew. Wangari Maathai served first as a vice president for the Movement for Free and Fair Elections and then campaigned for the Kenyan parliament in the 2002 elections as a candidate for the National Rainbow Coalition. Her party won, defeating the Kenyan African National Union.  Maathai was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.

2004 Nobel Peace Prize

After so many years of conflict and perseverance, Wangari Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.


In conclusion, Wangari Maathai died on September 25, 2011. In her lifetime she spearheaded the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign. She was a founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Ever planting trees, she planted a tree in Uhuru Park with President Obama as he called for the freedom of the press to be respected. She was a peace hero.

Comets and Uppity Women

woodcut comet image, Comets and Uppity Women

Comets and Uppity Women

Comets and Uppity Women. The thought might arise these two things have little in common, but Bathsua Makin said,

“A learned woman is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief whenever it appears.”

Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism?

I recently read an article in The Guardian about a study of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies conducted by anthropologists at University College London. I still need to track down the paper the article was based on. The Guardian quoted one of the authors of the study as saying, “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

Anthropologists for a long time have puzzled over why while people in hunter-gatherer societies show strong preferences for living with family members, in practice few closely related individuals make up the groups they live in. The study focused on computer simulations based on the assumption people would chose to populate an empty camp with their close kin– siblings, parents and children. When the choice was male dominated, the simulation showed a pattern closer to male-dominated pastoral or horticultural societies. When the choice was more sexually egalitarian, a pattern closely resembling the observed pattern of the contemporary hunter-gatherers emerged. And each hunter-gatherer group has far flung connections with many different hunter-gatherer groups.

The authors of the paper make a case for sexual equality as an evolutionary advantage for humans because then early humans would have had wider networks to interact with. With the advent of agriculture, our species skewed towards male dominance.  Agriculture brought with it the opportunity to accumulate possessions and wealth. It also meant groupings with men living with their brothers. The men’s wives were at the fringes of the group. A man’s children and relatives would be more numerous than the relatives within the group of any adult female member. And women lost their voices.

Losing Our Voices

Women lost their voices and many were forgotten through history. How many other Boudica lead armies? What female leaders and advisors’ names have been lost? What tales of adventuresome women are no longer told? How many inventive women’s engineering accomplishments were ascribed to men? How many women writers’ works have been lost? Can we continue with only a portion of the story? Can we survive with only a portion of humanity’s possible contributions?

Women in History and Feminism

I don’t have time or space in this one post to write a history of feminism. There have been powerful women, strong feminine voices, and human females all through out history. And not all of them are famous like Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt before Egypt became a Roman province. Or Queen Elizabeth I who was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Most of the women in history who were accomplished, outspoken, adventuresome, powerful or extraordinary in other ways are not routinely mentioned in history books. I have written posts about several of them in the past on this blog. Women such as Ching Shih, Ada Lovelace, Grandy Nanny, and Queen Nzinga Mbande.

Further, there is a tradition of female intellectual resistance to oppression and repressive cultural norms that goes back centuries and includes women such as Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and many others. I opened this post with a quote from Bathsua Makin.

Bathsua Makin

Bathsua Makin was the daughter of a schoolmaster named Henry Reginald. Bathsua’s father was enlightened in an age when it was considered that girls should only learn “feminine” arts such as dancing, singing and needle crafts. He trained his daughter in classical and modern languages. Bathsua Makin wrote a book of poetry at the age of sixteen that included passages in Greek, Latin and French.

During the seventeenth century in English culture, women were subject to men. Family, education and religion were all male dominated institutions. Queen Elizabeth’s reign shook things up and women had enjoyed more freedoms during her lifetime, but with the ascendancy to the throne of James I previous societal patterns returned. With one exception, Protestantism encouraged everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, including women. More women were taught to read. While women were relegated to the private, domestic sphere where they were under the governance of the men of the household, there was an undercurrent to challenge norms. While it was lauded for a man to publish his writings and take on a public voice, women were scorned for such an action. And still women such as Makin published.

Makin’s life was never easy. While she was considered “England’s most learned lady”, she struggled financially. Her husband, Richard Makin, was a minor court servant. When he lost his position, Bathsua petitioned for a position and was successful. She was a tutor to Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Charles I, and taught the girl mathematics, reading, writing and languages. After the death of the princess, Makin tutored Lucy Hastings, Dowager Countess of Huntingdon.

The Whole Nation Advantage

Makin understood the power of educating women. For ten years she ran a school at Tottenham High Cross. She advocated for teaching women a broad range of subjects including mathematics, history, science and languages. Dying at the age of 75, her life may have influenced many others in small and important ways. It’s hard to know what the impact of her work was in its totality. She wrote that educating women would give “the whole nation advantage”.

Comets and Uppity Women

It has been a while since I wrote about women through history who did unexpected, extraordinary, revolutionary things. Everybody needs role models. I feel society has taken steps backwards towards less egalitarianism and moved towards being more male dominated. In my opinion this development hurts our species. The challenges of our current time period require all the talent, hearts and minds available to us. As women we need to know women before us pushed boundaries, spoke out, and contributed. If writing about these women is mischief, then I will strive to be a maker of such. Look for another post next Sunday.

Uppity Woman: Ruth Stout

Spring brings gardening. After a very long winter of too much snow, temperatures driven by the polar vortex, and ice that seeps into my bones, being out in the garden under the sun is glorious. Digging through the soil is meditative, uplifting, and grounding. I imagine the weeds of my garden as cartoon villains, the rose as an abuse loving damsel, the Stella d’oros as good citizens. My garden is an ongoing science experiment. I don’t expect much from it anymore. I am learning to do what I like in it, with it. If it gives me some strawberries, basil and a few tomatoes– that is a grand thing.

I read a fair amount. Study. I need to keep learning– so I have many subjects I delve into. Sustainable gardening is one of these.

I was introduced to a video of Ruth Stout a couple years ago at a permaculture design certification class offered at the Midwest Permaculture Institute

Ruth Stout gardened in a traditional manner for the first fifteen years of her gardening career. She was frustrated with having to wait to have her garden ploughed. In 1944, she decided to not plough and just plant her seeds. The “no-work” method of gardening was born. Ms. Stout lived to an old age and died in 1980. From 1955 through the 1970s Stout wrote several books on gardening and spoke throughout the US. Her method of gardening involves mulching with hay and not rototilling to simultaneously build the fertility of the soil, hold in moisture, and maintain fertility. The attached video is in English and translated into another language through subtitles. Ms. Stout was a free thinking, strong woman who was gardening and providing vegetables for herself and another through her old age. Uppity woman: Ruth Stout– she is an inspiration.

Ruth Stout’s Garden

Dangerous Women: Ching Shih


When we think of pirates, we might think of such men as Edward Teach, Black Bart, or Henry Morgan. Edward Teach, Blackbeard, commanded a fleet of four ships and over 300 pirates. Black Bart seized over 400 ships. Henry Morgan was the terror of the Caribbean in the 1600s. Their “accomplishments” pale in comparison to the most successful pirate of all—a woman named Ching Shih. Ching Shih is known to have commanded more then 300 junks manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates. Her Red Flag fleet, which was a coalition of pirate fleets, may have included upwards of 1800 ships manned by over 80,000 people. From 1807 until 1810 she dominated the South China Sea and a merchant ship could not sail anywhere from Korea to Malaysia without purchasing a license ensuring safe passage from her. She also “retired” from pirating, was allowed to keep her wealth, and lived to the ripe age of 69.


Ching Shih’s early life is mostly unknown. She was born in 1775 in Guangdong province. Her birth name may have been Shil Xiang Gu. Ching Shih means the “wife of Zheng Yi”. As a young woman she enters history as a Cantonese prostitute on one of the renowned floating brothels. In 1801, at the age of 26, she was captured by the notorious pirate Zheng Yi. He had fallen in love with her and set his pirates to raid the brothel and bring her back as his portion of the loot. Zheng Yi was from a lineage of pirates that extended back to the mid-seventeenth century. He commanded a fleet of several ships called the Red Flag Fleet. When she appeared before him, it is rumored that she scratched his face and refused to marry him unless he allowed her to co-command with him and to receive a share of the loot equal to his. Zheng Yi agreed.


With Ching Shih beside him, Zheng Yi’s fleet grew. By 1807, because of alliances that they made with the Cantonese Pirate Coalition and with another pirate named Wu Shi’er, 1700-1800 ships were at their command. And because of their successes, more and more pirate ships joined them. Then tragedy struck. Zheng Yi’s ship was caught in a typhoon and all aboard perished. Ching Shih, did not step aside. She offered to co-command with Zheng Yi’s second in command, a 21 year old man named Chang Pao who Zheng Yi had adopted as his son.


Ching Shih set up an ad hoc government to rule her pirates. She established a businesslike framework, which included taxes. Ching Shih set in place an absolute code of conduct that made the pirate code of the Spanish Main look tame. Disobeying an order would result in a pirate being beheaded. Stealing from the common plunder before it was accounted for and divided properly would result in being beheaded. Ugly women were set free. Beautiful women could be purchased for marriage and were expected to be treated appropriately. If a pirate ill-treated his wife he would be punished. Raping a woman meant death. Consensual sex while on duty meant beheading for the male pirate and the woman would be dropped into the ocean with cannon balls to weigh her down to the ocean floor. If a pirate or a pirate ship harassed a town, merchant, farmer or anyone that the Red Flag Fleet had an agreement with or received support from, the pirate or pirates would be beheaded. If a pirate tried to desert, their ears were chopped off to announce their humiliation as a coward.


Thinking beyond the norms, Ching Shih did not limit the raiding by her ships to the open sea. She used numerous shallow bottom boats to traverse up China’s rivers to raid towns inland. Two towns banded together to form a small fleet to try to defeat the Red Flag Fleet. They were annihilated.


For the Chinese Emperor this was a humiliation. He raised a naval fleet to attack Ching Shih’s fleet. Ching Shih met his fleet head on rather than run. She routed the Emperor’s navy. She captured 63 large ships and impressed thousands of recruits from his sailors by offering them the choice of joining with her or having their feet nailed to the deck and being beaten with clubs.


The Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was at a loss. He turned to the aid of the British and Portugese navies. He offered large sums of money to Dutch mercenary ships to defeat the Red Flag Fleet. These combined forces engaged with Ching Shih’s ships repeatedly. And were repeatedly defeated. No one sailed in the ocean waters where her fleet held sway without her permission and she was ruthless to those who tried.


In 1810, the Emperor offered her amnesty if she was willing to kneel before him as his subject. She refused these terms. The official who had performed her marriage ceremony when she became Zheng Yi’s wife offered a solution. He proposed that Ching Shih kneel before the Emperor not in subjugation but rather in thanks for allowing her to maintain her wealth and for the offer of amnesty. Ching Shih agreed and negotiated a peace with the Emperor. Her fleet was to disband, her ships were to be given up, and amnesty was extended to all pirates under her command except 376 individuals who were brought up on various other crimes. Ching Shih also negotiated for herself that she was to be given an aristocratic title, “Lady by Imperial Decree”, which entitled her to various legal protections.


Ching Shih retired at the age of 35. She settled down at first with Chang Pao and they had a son. When he died unexpectedly, she moved to the countryside and opened a gambling house and brothel. She lived to the age of 69 and had a grandson. Ching Shih made her way in a dangerous world. She seized every opportunity, went beyond anyone’s expectations of what was possible, and lived well.

Dangerous Women: Ada Lovelace


Dangerous Women: Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was 26 years old when she wrote what would later be described as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine and earning her the title of being the world’s first computer programmer. Lovelace described herself as an “Analyst and Metaphysician” and her approach as being “poetical science”.

Lovelace was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella “Annabella” Byron, nee Milbanke. All of Lord Byron’s other children were scandalously born out of wedlock. Lord Byron had wanted a boy and was disappointed that Lovelace was a girl. At his encouragement, Lovelace’s mother moved herself and the baby to her parents’ home while Ada was only one month old. Lord Byron signed separation papers shortly after; never attempted to gain custody of little Ada; and left England for good a few months later. Lovelace’s mother was bitter. She spoke frequently about Lord Byron’s depravity and immoral behavior. Lovelace’s mother encouraged her daughter’s mathematical interests in order to prevent Lovelace from developing the poetical insanity of her father. The sensational nature of the relationship between Lovelace’s mother and father made Ada famous in Victorian circles. Lovelace’s mother constantly feared that Lord Byron might try to obtain custody of Ada. While Annabella Milbanke had little interest in raising her daughter and left Ada to the care of her grandmother, Annabella did not want Lord Byron to have custody of the child. She wrote letters feigning interest in Ada. And told her mother to keep the letters in case they needed to argue for custody of Ada. Lady Annabella Milbanke’s stories about Lord Byron and “concerns” that her daughter might develop to be as depraved led to several of Lady Milbanke’s friends watching Ada closely as she became teenager for any signs of immoral behavior. Ada named these people “the Furies.”

In the midst of these emotionally difficult circumstances, Ada Lovelace grew up in her grandparents’ home. As a young child she was frequently ill. Despite her illnesses, Lovelace pursued her studies. She was privately tutored in mathematics and science by such Victorian intellectuals as: William Frend, Augustus De Morgan, and Mary Somerville. Frend was a radical social reformer. De Morgan was a reknowned British mathematician and logician. Somerville was a noted researcher and scientific author. When Lovelace was twelve, she decided she wanted to fly. She went about the project methodically—she studied the anatomy of birds; considered the length of their wingspan in proportion to their bodies, investigated different materials such as paper, wires and feathers; and she decided what equipment would be necessary for flight which included steam. She wrote a book, complete with illustration plates, about her investigation to create a flying machine. When Lovelace was seventeen, De Morgan wrote a letter to her mother stating that in his opinion Lovelace could become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

Lovelace was first introduced to Charles Babbage when she was seventeen years old. Lovelace’s prodigious mathematical abilities lead to her working with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Machine. He called her “The Enchantress of Numbers.”

Lovelace believed that intuition and imagination were important to use when employing mathematical and scientific concepts. Her creativity combined with intellectual ability allowed her to imagine creating a mathematical model of how the brain works. She could conceptualize leaps with mathematics, using mathematics to discern the unseen and test theories, creating diverse with mathematics.

In a paper she translated from the work of an Italian engineer on the Analytical Machine, Lovelace included her own elaborate set of notes, simply titled “Notes”. These notes included the algorithm– which was a complete method for using the Analytical Engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. If the algorithm had been run, it would have worked. Lovelace was a visionary. She could see applications of computers far beyond simply calculating numbers. She pondered heady questions such as how individuals and society relate to technology. She wrote


The Analytical Engine “might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…

“Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”


Lovelace died of uterine cancer when she was 36 years old. She was brilliant and far ahead of her time.


Dangerous Women: Grandy Nanny

While there is little clear physical evidence about Grandy Nanny and she is only mentioned four times in historical texts, Grandy Nanny is a Jamaican cultural hero who lived in the eighteenth century. She is revered in Jamaica for her role in Jamaican independence. Her image adorns the $500 bill. Much of what is known about Grandy Nanny has come down through oral tradition passed along by her descendants and she is as much a myth as a historical figure.

Grandy Nanny began her life as a royal member of the Ashanti tribe. She was trained in the religion of Obeah to be a priestess and medicine woman. Kidnapped in western Africa in an intertribal conflict, she and her brothers were sold into slavery. Once they were in Jamaica, they quickly escaped and went into the hills. Grandy Nanny created a community of free men, women, and children in what would become Nanny Town. Her brothers created other settlements and her brother Captain Cudjoe was the leader of the Leeward Maroons and founded Cudjoe Town.

As the leader of the Windward Maroons, Grandy Nanny was only one leader of several groups of escaped slaves who formed independent tribal groups around the Caribbean and ran their communities in a similar way to tribal villages in Africa. Many of the the members of the Maroons were from the Akan region of Western Africa, but slaves from other areas also joined their ranks. The former slaves also inter-married with the indigenous Arawaks. Archeological evidence of some of these various communities suggests that the different Maroon groups traded with Spanish and later British plantations or settlements, exchanging produce and livestock for cloth, weapons, and other items. In addition the Maroons obtained necessities by leading raids against the plantations and settlements to free more slaves and to drive the British out of Jamaica.

Around 1720, Nanny and her husband settled in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. Between 1728 and 1734, the Maroon communities were frequently attacked by the British who saw the settlements of escaped slaves as lost wealth and property. Grandy Nanny chose her location for its strategic importance. It overlooked the Stony River from atop a 900 foot ridge, making a surprise attack by the British practically impossible. The Windward Maroons also organized look-outs to watch for an attack and used a horn called an abeng to call their warriors to battle if the British turned up.

Several times Grandy Nanny personally lead attacks on the British. The British were flabbergasted that an old sorcerer woman had organized and was leading the attacks. It was rumored that Grandy Nanny’s spiritual powers assisted her in resisting the British. They began a manhunt specifically for Grandy Nanny to stop the rebellion. She retreated into the highest mountains of Jamaica and continued her strategy of guerilla warfare against the Redcoats who she called “red ants.” Over the course of 30 years, Grandy Nanny freed more than 800 slaves in her raids on plantations.

In March 1733, there is a written citation in the Journal for the Assembly of Jamaica that notes Grandy Nanny’s death. It reads:

“for ‘resolution, bravery and fidelity’ awarded to ‘loyal slaves . . . under the command of Captain Sambo’, namely William Cuffee, who was rewarded for having fought the Maroons in the First Maroon War and who is called ‘a very good party Negro, having killed Nanny, the rebels old obeah woman.'”

Most likely Cuffee was a type of hired soldier known as a “Black Shot” and he was motivated by a reward to fight against the Maroons. The use of these “Black Shots” was a common practice by plantation owners to discourage slaves from escaping. Grandy Nanny is buried at “Bump Grave” in Moore Town which is another settlement that was established by the Windward Maroons.

In 1739 the British governor in Jamaica signed a peace treaty with the Windward and Leeward Maroons. A land grant promising 2500 acres in two locations was issued. The Maroons were to remain in their five main towns, namely Accompong, Trelawny Town, Mountain Top, Scots Hall, and Nanny Town. It was negotiated that they would live under their own chief, with a British supervisor. In exchange, the Maroons agreed not to liberate or hide new runaway slaves. Further, they would help to help catch the runaways and be paid for any runaway slaves that were caught. In addition, the fierce Maroons would be paid to fight for the British in the case of an attack from the French or Spanish.

Grandy Nanny was a very dangerous woman.