Historically, working class women had very few choices: marriage, prostitution, life in a convent or hard labour in farms and cities. In fact, unless a woman turned to crime, the church or prostitution her path would almost always lead to marriage and children. There were some women, however, who turned away from the life that society and their parents would have chosen for them. Some women chose to become pirates!
Women who became pirates to avoid marriage
Two such women in history were Rusla (The Red Maiden) and her sister Stikla. These women of Viking heritage became pirates and were famed for raiding ships off the coasts of Iceland, Denmark and Britain.
The Red Maiden
Rusla spent many years involved in conflict with her brother, King Tesondus, because she felt it was his incompetence that led to him losing his crown to a Danish King. In revenge, she sent her fleet of pirates to attack Denmark. In her anger at her brother, she sank his ship but let him escape. However, once the King return to regain his kingdom he had his sister. Rusla beaten to death with the oars of a ship.
Of Stikla less is known; she was the sister of Rusla and Tesondus who followed her sister into piracy because she “preferred the state of war to the state of marriage”. This might seem to be a dramatic response to the suggestion of matrimony, but the truth is that, if a woman wanted freedom, marriage was not a hugely viable option because it put them at the mercy of their husbands.
There is also the story of Alwilda, a 5th century Viking women who refused her arranged marriage to Prince Alf of Denmark. Instead she sailed with the Saxons to help in their fight against the picts of Scotland, afterwards she became such a fierce and infamous pirate that Prince Alf set sail to stop her in her tracks. In an insidious twist of fate, however, she found that after he captured her she liked his bravery and skill so she agreed, finally, to marry him!
Female pirates came from all background and joined crews for many reasons, but it is true that for a great many, piracy was an escape route from the binding reality of feminine life, and the female role in marriage, in past centuries!
Daring Pirate Women, Anne Wallace Sharp, (Lerner Publications 2002)
The Complete Idiots Guide to Pirates, Gail Selinger with W.Thomas Smith Jr. (Penguin 2006)