Captain Dorothy C Stratton – Don’t be a spare, be a SPAR!

Few know of SPARs, the World War II Women’s Reserve of the United States Coast Guard, and their brilliant director—Captain Dorothy C. Stratton. Dorothy ingeniously named the organization after she was selected as director by a room full of admirals.

In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned a coast guard cutter in honor of Dorothy Stratton. It was the first time in history that a Legend-class National Security Cutter was named after a woman, and the first time that a first lady sponsored a coast guard or navy ship. Today, the Cutter Stratton protects America’s shoreline.

First Lady Michelle Obama christens the USCGC Stratton

First Lady Michelle Obama christens the USCGC Stratton

Before the war, Dorothy was Purdue University’s first full-time Dean of Women. In the 1941 yearbook, Dorothy, age forty-one, was quoted, “To be interesting, do interesting things.” Dorothy lived to be 107, wholly living out her mantra.

For several nights after Dorothy was made director in 1942, she lay awake trying to think of a name for her coast guard women. Suddenly, it came to her from the motto of the coast guard—“Semper Paratus” (Latin for “Always Ready”)—SPAR.

The nautical meaning of “SPAR” means a supporting beam of a ship. That was the women’s reserve—a support. The women took over the men’s stateside military jobs, so the men were free to go overseas for combat duty. When the war ended in 1945, 11,000 SPARs had served.

115. Stratton boarding Clipper to Hawaii

Captain Stratton boarding a clipper to Hawaii


Dorothy assisted in selecting the Biltmore Hotel, known as the “Pink Palace”, in Palm Beach, Florida, as the training base for SPARs. Reputed as the most expensive building constructed in Florida, opulent features were replaced with functional, and walls were knocked out to accommodate six women per room. Graduates became storekeepers, yeomen, cooks, bakers, commissary stewards, dental or pharmacist mates, or recruiters.

The musical show Tars and Spars was performed at the training hotel featuring Sid Caesar in his first major gig as a comedian. A film version was made in 1946.

Recruitment posters displayed attractive SPARs and catchy phrases: “Your Duty Ashore . . . His Afloat”; “The Girl of the Year is a Spar”; “Make a Date with Uncle Sam”; and “Don’t Be a Spare . . . Be a SPAR.”


The black-and-white recruitment film “Coast Guard Spars” showed coast guard women filing papers, typing on Underwood typewriters, and chauffeuring high-ranking men as peppy marching-band music plays. An announcer stated, “There are many jobs the coast guard needs you for! The skills learned today could mean better jobs tomorrow. You won’t get to be an admiral, but you may be the admiral’s secretary!”

When the war ended, Dorothy became the director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund. Through the 1950s, she was the Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of America. She then served as the representative for the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) at the United Nations. Captain Dorothy C. Stratton passed away in 2006.

In Three Years Behind the Mast: The Story of the United States Coast Guard SPARS, Dorothy wrote a message titled “The Skipper Speaks”: “We shall always think of the Coast Guard with loyalty and affection. Our ‘Three Years Behind the Mast’ have been a never-to-be-forgotten experience, which we shall always cherish. A hearty wish for smooth sailing goes with our final salute and our ‘By Your Leave, Sirs’ as we bow out of your gallant company.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Angie Klink, who has written a book about Dorothy Stratton The Deans’ Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality.

Find out more….

Angie’s book featuring Dorothy is available here. You can watch a trailer for the book here and there is even an online exhibition about the five women here.

You can see an online copy of Dorothy’s book Three Years Behind the Mast…” target=”_blank”>here.

Watch the Coast Guard SPARS 1943 film in this YouTube clip:

Sheroes of History is a weekly women’s history blog, telling the stories of inspiring women from history.

Awilda, Alfhild, Sheroes of History

Alfhild – Goth Pirate Princess

Yes you read that right, this week’s post is about a Shero who was not only a princess, but also a pirate and, just for good measure, an actual goth! If you don’t love Princess Alfhild (also known as Awilda or Alvilda) already, you soon will.

The story of this awesome pirate princess was recorded by a chap called Saxo Grammaticus in his 12th Century book, ‘Gesta Danorum’ (Deeds of the Danes).

Princess Alfhild was the daughter of Siward, King of the Goths, who lived during the 5th Century in what is now Sweden. In true princess style,  her parents kept her locked in her room guarded by two vicious snakes. Any potential suitors would have to first defeat her reptilian body guards.

While many men came and failed, eventually one cunning Danish prince named Alf managed to slay the vipers (supposedly by covering himself “with a blood-stained hide” to confuse them!) Many assumed, including Alf it would seem, that this meant he would swiftly be wed to the young princess Alfhild, however things didn’t pan out quite like that.

Demonstrating the type of progressive attitude for which the Swedes are well known, Alfhild’s dad declared that if she was to marry it would have to be her own “free & decided choice”, which, as it turned out, it very much wasn’t.

Aghast at the thought of marrying the bloodied snake-slayer Alf, she instead took flight, leaving the palace disguised as a man. The obvious thing to do of course was to gather a band of disgruntled women also keen to stay single, commandeer a ship and set sail for a life of piracy; so that’s what she did. Together Alfhild & her female crew learned to weild axes and swords, quickly establishing a fearsome reputation across the Scandinavian seas.

When they came across another ship, full of male pirates whose captain had just died, she managed to convince them all to follow her as their new captain!

Word had spread of this growing band of pirates and, unsettled by the havoc she was wreaking, the Danes sent their own ships to try and capture her. By this time Alfhild commanded a large fleet, when her old flame Alf led an expedition to hunt her down, he found himself outnumbered. However, displaying the same courage & wit as he had when defeating the snakes, he managed to put ship after ship out of action until he finally made it to the lead ship where Alfhild was waiting, sword in hand.

He didn’t know that it was Alfhild he was hunting at this point, the realisation only coming when, in the midst of a swashbuckling swordfight he knocked the helmet clean off her head and recognised the girl he had risked life & limb for all those years before!

According to Saxo, “Seeing the smoothness of her chin, [Alf] saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings”.

Perhaps she was impressed by his sword skills or his willingness to stand down, perhaps she just had a change of heart or realised how perfect their names would sound together, either way she decided that Alf wasn’t too bad after all and that she would take him as her husband. In true fairy tale style they lived happily ever after as Queen & King of Denmark.

Today some historians question how much of this story is fact & how much fiction, it certainly does seem a little too perfect. We must remember that like many stories handed down to us, it wasn’t until hundreds of years after the events happened that they were actually written down. However we do know that some of the characters from this tale were real, and it’s likely that even if this wasn’t exactly how things happened, there is probably at least a grain of the truth in the story. In my opinion, which ever way you look at it, it’s a story far too good not to be told!


Find out more…..

If you like female pirates there are plenty more you can find out about. Have a look at this list and this list for many more swashbuckling sheroes! Also you can download our free factsheet about fellow girl-pirates Anne Bonny & Mary Read.

Alfhild and many other female pirates also feature in this book: She Captains: Heroines & Hellions of the Sea


Germaine de Staël – the woman Napoleon feared

Germain de Stael Sheroes of History


Germaine de Staël made her reputation in at the end of the 18th century Europe as a writer whose charisma, wit and keen intelligence attracted politicians, philosophers, poets and artists. Her life spanned the Age of Enlightenment, French Revolution, Napoleon’s reign and the dawn of the Romantic era. She was a celebrated essayist, political agitator and novelist with a passion for theatre. Her politics so threatened Napoleon that he had her exiled from Paris.

The only child of the Swiss banker, Jacques Necker, and his Calvinist wife, Suzanne Curchod, Anne Louise Germaine Necker was born in Paris on April 22, 1766. Young Germaine spent her childhood in the company of her mother’s brilliant guests who included the Enlightenment philosopher and editor, Denis Diderot, and the British historian and Member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon. As a five year-old, Germaine was taken to meet Voltaire on his deathbed.

Germaine was – by the most generous accounts – plain. She was, however, a gifted and witty conversationalist whose quick mind and acute intellect made her a charismatic friend and seductive woman. Her writing was marked by a precocious intelligence and avid curiosity. Her first published essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written when she was 22 years old, established her as a voice to be reckoned with. She became an insightful social commentator and a passionate proponent of the need to educate the public in values of compassion and mutual assistance.

Germaine’s marriage to the Swedish diplomat Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein in 1786 was not a love match. Soon she had lovers – men of influence whom she attempted to infuse with her ideals of democratic monarchy and liberalism. Perhaps predictably, her impetuous nature and lifelong search to exert political influence through her husbands and lovers led her into a series of unhappy relationships. Most famous among them was her long-term and stormy affair with the Swiss political thinker and writer, Benjamin Constant.

Germaine survived the French Revolution by taking refuge in Switzerland. When peace was established, she returned to her beloved Paris and became an early and enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte. She believed him to have the power to enforce the ideals of the revolution – democracy and equality – but she was soon disenchanted.

Through her circles of intellectual and politically well-connected friends, she used her gifts of rhetoric and mockery against the self-styled Emperor to such effect that Napoleon famously declared he was afraid of her and had her banished from Paris.

Her exile to the family estate in Coppet caused her enormous distress. She bombarded Napoleon and his entourage with pleas for clemency so that she could return to the capital, even enlisting French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, and Napoleon’s brother Joseph, but to no avail.

Her exile lasted ten years from 1804 to1814. During this period she wrote some of her most famous works including an influential book of essays on Germany that introduced that country’s thinkers and artists to France just as the German Romantic era was beginning to emerge. Her novel, Delphine, is considered to be the first Romantic style novel written in French.

While in exile in Coppet, Germaine was visited by famous friends and supporters including Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. But it is her long-running dispute with Napoleon that marks her legacy. She was strong and articulate in her open opposition to his totalitarianism. She had believed him capable of transforming France into a progressive nation based on tolerance and moderation and reacted with vigour and hyperbole when her hopes were betrayed. Napoleon could not stand outspoken, literate women, especially women who were physically unattractive! He had the entire print run of 10,000 copies of her book on Germany destroyed and kept Germaine away from Paris until he was sent into his first exile on Elba.

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s final exile to the remote island of St. Helena where he was to spend the rest of his days under British guard. It is said he took a copy of Germaine de Staël’s novel, Corinne, with him in his personal library. A late life conversion? A refusal to let go of the long-simmering battle of wills? We will never know. But this passionate and brilliant woman had marked one of the strongest leaders of European history to the end of his life.

When Germaine at last met a man who seemed able to offer her the peace of mind she sought, she resisted his advances. Albert Jean Michel “John” Rocca was 21 years younger than she. She finally relented and they were married in secret in 1816. She died in Paris on July 14, 1817, predeceasing Rocca by six months.

Written for Sheroes of History by Kristine Greenaway

Find out more…

You can still read many of Germaine’s works today. Corrine is available as an ebook for free here. You can read several of her other works online, also for free, here.


Sheroes of History is a weekly women’s history blog, telling the stories of inspiring women from history.


Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi

Gracia Mendes Nasi was one of the most influential and wealthy Jewish women of Europe in the 1500s. Her family was originally from Spain but was expelled from the country as all Jewish people were at the time. They fled to Portugal but were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition.

She married a wealthy trader, Francisco Mendes Benveniste, whom she was connected to through her mother’s side of the family. While they had a public and lavish Catholic wedding, they also had a private Jewish ceremony and rituals. Francisco died soon after, leaving Gracia a young widow with an infant daughter. He also left Gracia in charge of half of his business, leaving the other half to his brother Diogo. This was a very unique situation, as most women did not hold positions of any power.

She moved with her daughter and younger sister, Brianda, to Antwerp where Diogo had settled to better run the business. Gracia arranged a marriage between Diogo and Brianda while there. Together, Gracia and Diogo made the business as strong as it had ever been and even developed a secret escape network for Jews (or fellow conversos) flee from Portugal and Spain. First they escaped via Gracia’s company’s spice ships and were brought to Gracia’s own home. She and her staff gave them money and instructions on how to travel through the Alps to make their way to Venice, where they would be shipped to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, where Jews were welcomed. Despite being carefully choreographed, many died on this journey to freedom.

Not many years after moving to Antwerp, Diogo also died, leaving Gracia’s sister Brianda a young widow with an infant daughter as well. However, Diogo left control of his businesses to Gracia rather than Brianda, causing a huge rift in the family. With this newfound and even greater power, she was able to use her influence with kings and popes and helped to protect the interests of her people, the Conversos, and to finance her escape network. She was even able to delay the commencement of the Portuguese Inquisition by making large donations to the pope.

Gracia also had to fend off amorous advances from kings and other powerful entities that wished to marry her daughter to gain control of her business empire and wealth. Discouraging these suitors and alliances put her in personal peril.

She herself eventually had to flee to Venice to safety. Once there, her sister Brianda took her to court for control of her husband’s half of the business that she felt should have been left to her. The courts seemed likely to vote in Brianda’s favor, for splintering the business would weaken Gracia’s empire. She made a deal with the leader of Ferrara, who agreed that if she moved there, the court would rule in her favor.

Finally, she moved to Istanbul just as the Pope condemned a group of conversos to death for secretly practicing Jewish rites. In response, she began a trade embargo on the region. She began building synagogues and temples and was able to live for the first time as an openly Jewish person. She was granted the rights to start a settlement outside Tiberias and made the towns available for Jewish refugees, making it one of the earliest attempts of Zionism.

Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Wirsansky who is a WWII history buff and Theatre/Creative Writing student at Florida State University.

Find out more…

There is a book called The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes which is all about Gracia’s fascinating life.

The Dona Gracia Project has lots more information, resources & useful links to find out more about her life.


Sheroes of History is a weekly women’s history blog, telling the stories of inspiring women from history.


Althea Gibson – Grand Slam Shero

Althea Gibson Sheroes of History
Althea Gibson overcame racial barriers to become one of the world’s greatest tennis players ever!

Althea Gibson was born in August 1927 in South Carolina where her parents worked on a cotton farm. When the Great Depression struck, Althea’s family, like many others across the country, were hit hard. In 1930 they packed up and moved north to Harlem. Once there her family weren’t wealthy and relied on benefits to get by.

Sport became an outlet for Althea and she learned to play paddle tennis. By the time she was 12 she was New York City’s women’s paddle tennis champion. Seeing how good she was her close knit community got together and raised enough money to pay for her membership at a local tennis club where she would receive professional tennis lessons. That was in 1940; by 1941 she had entered and won her first tournament; a New York Championship put on by the American Tennis Association (ATA). The ATA was set up for black tennis players, who at that time were not allowed to compete in ‘mainstream’ tennis championships because of segregation.

After her first win Althea just kept on going. In 1944 she won the ATA’s National Championships; then again in 1945 and after a slight blip in 1946 she went on to win ten times in a row from 1947-1956!

Throughout this time things changed a lot for Althea; she gained a name for herself as a serious tennis player and was able to access much better training. In 1949 she became the first black woman (and only the second person of colour ever) to compete in the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) National Indoor Championships.

However access to USTA ‘Grand Slam‘ games was still blocked to African-Americans. In 1950 a fellow shero tennis player called Alice Marble wrote a letter that was published in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine demanding that someone of such obvious talent as Althea be allowed to play:

“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”

In response Althea was allowed to enter the US National Championships, becoming the first African-American player, male or female, to enter a Grand Slam event! More firsts quickly followed; in 1951 Althea became the first black competitor at Wimbledon and a few years later in 1956 she won the French Open making her the first black person to win a Grand Slam event.

She was by this time playing full-time in matches all around the world. In 1957 she returned to Wimbledon, this time winning the tournament – the first black champion in it’s entire history! She was presented her trophy by none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Reflecting on this moment Althea said  “Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”

By 1958, it’s no surprise that she was ranked the number one female tennis player in the world! The same year notched up another first when she appeared on the front covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine – the first black woman to appear on either.

Despite all these firsts and the sheer inspiration she was to huge numbers of people who saw her breaking through entrenched racial barriers, Althea herself never claimed to be doing it for that reason:

“I have never regarded myself as a crusader, I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States.”

Never-the-less her actions spoke volumes and the obstacles she overcame to reach success paved the way for others to follow.

Her tennis career continued to be successful, but while at times she did win prize money, in the long term it wasn’t enough to sustain her. Alongside tennis she also proved herself a talented musician. In 1959 she recorded an album of jazz standards and even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform hits from her record. She also acted alongside John Wayne in the film The Horse Soldiers. However when it came to tennis things were faltering. She said,

“When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations. Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barrier once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped. Or if I did destroy them, they had been erected behind me again.”

Perhaps it was this that led her in 1964 to diversify her sporting prowess, putting down her tennis racket and picking up a golf club! Once again breaking new ground she became the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. Sadly the world of golfing proved to be even less progressive than that of tennis, with segregation still a brutal reality. Some hotels refused to accomodate people of colour, clubs would refuse to let her play, and at those who did sometimes the clubhouses would refuse to let Althea enter, meaning she had to change for the games in her car!

As her sporting career dwindled Althea found a place in coaching and in local politics, managing the Department of Recreation in New Jersey amongst other positions.

Towards the end of her life Althea suffered a stroke. Despite the many accolades and successes she had achieved throughout her life she didn’t have enough money to pay for her treatment, or even for her rent. The tennis community which she had once been part of stepped in, led by her old doubles partner Angela Buxton, and raised the money which was needed. A few years later, in 2003 at the age of 76 this great shero of firsts passed away.

Despite her own reluctance to become a figurehead for a social movement she greatly inspired those fighting for civil rights both on and off the court. She inspired not only the black community as she smashed through barriers taking ‘first’ after ‘first’, but also other female players like Billie Jean King who said,

“I saw Althea Gibson play for the first time when I was 13. Because she was already one of my ‘she-roes’ I was very excited”

Today two of the most famous female tennis players, Serena and Venus Williams, happen to be black. They are also the first female black players since Althea to win at the US Open & Wimbledon (respectively). When Serena Williams won the US Open in 1999 she said,

“One of her friends told me she [Althea] wanted to see another African American win a Slam before her time is up, I’m so excited that I had a chance to accomplish that while she’s still alive.”

The sisters have often acknowledged the path that was paved for them by Althea;

“I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea,” Venus Williams said. “Just trying to follow in her footsteps.”

Althea has been honoured in all sorts of ways for her contribution. She was admitted to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, has appeared on a US postage stamp and on a Google doodle!

Find out more…

There has recently been a documentary made about Althea’s life. Find out more and watch the trailer here.

Althea wrote two autobiographies about her experiences, I Always Wanted To Be Somebody and So Much to Live For You can also find out more about her life in the book Nothing But Trouble.

You can see Althea playing her first US National Championships match at Forest Hills in this video (p.s. there are loads more videos of and about Althea on YouTube if you have a look!)



Lesya Ukrainka

Lesya Ukrainka Sheroes of History

In Ukraine, the foremost woman poet and playwright is Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka, but she is much better known by the pen name her mother gave her: Lesya Ukrainka (Lesya of Ukraine)—a name as highly recognizable as her famous braided hair. Lesya Ukrainka is seen everywhere on statutes, postage stamps, paintings, films, and certainly in books by and about her.

Her very name “Lesya Ukrainka” was itself a brave and radical act for identifying as a Ukrainian during the oppressive regime of Imperial Russia which considered Ukrainian nationalism and the language as subversive and treasonous.

Lesya Ukrainka was born on February 13, 1871, in Novhorod-Volynsky, Russian Empire (now Ukraine), in a family of intellectuals, political activists, and writers. Her mother, a feminist, wrote short stories for children and poetry in Ukrainian.

Lesya was a brilliant child who learned to read at four, and easily learned several languages including German, Russian , Polish, Greek, Latin, and English, but she spoke and wrote in the forbidden Ukrainian language at home.

At eight years old, she wrote her first poem, “Hope” for her Aunt Olena who was arrested for her anti-Tsarist politics.

At twelve she contracted tuberculosis of the bone.  She studied to be a concert pianist, but was unable to practice for long periods and turned her full attention to writing and translating. She published her first poem the following year. At seventeen, she and her brother translated Dickens, Shakespeare and other classic writers into Ukrainian and gave private readings—another subversive act.

In 1893 at age eighteen she published her first book of poems in Ukrainian, On the Wings of Songs. She was not allowed to publish it in the Russian Empire, and instead had it published in Western Ukraine which was then under the Austo-Hungarian Empire. Risking her life, she had the book smuggled into Kyiv.

Lesya’s illness prompted her parents to seek cures in Western European countries, in the Caucasus, and Egypt where she keenly observed the different cultures, especially how women were treated—all of which heightened her political awareness towards issues of social alienation, feminism, loneliness, and in particular, national liberation.

In 1902, while at a sanatorium, she fell in love with a young man who was also afflicted with tuberculosis. At his deathbed, she wrote a masterful poem in one sitting, “The Possessed.” The following year, she translated “The Communist Manifesto” into Ukrainian, which led to her arrest and imprisonment in 1907.

Inspired by Biblical and other ancient texts, Lesya wrote several plays that reflected the Ukrainian struggle, but is best known for directly including Ukrainian history, folk legends, and songs in the play, Forest Song (1912), followed by The Noblewoman (1914). She was also instrumental in preserving Ukrainian folk songs along with her husband, Klyment Kvitka.

Lesya died in Surami, Russian Empire (now Georgia) on August 1, 1913 at the age of 42 as Ukraine’s foremost woman writer and global shero.

Written for Sheroes of History by Irene Zabytko. She is the author of the Chernobyl novel, The Sky Unwashed, and the short story collection, When Luba Leaves Home (both by Algonquin Books) and is filming a documentary about Chernobyl ( Her one-act play about Lesya Ukrainka is part of the 365 Women a Year project, which is an international playwriting project involving over 200 playwrights who have signed on to write one or more one-acts about extraordinary women in both past and present history.

Find out more….

You can hear Lesya’s actual voice singing here.

The best way to get to know a writer is to read their works. You can read a few of Lesya’s poems here and here.


Grace O'Malley statue Sheroes of History

Gráinne Ní Máille (Grace O’Malley) – “A notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland”

Born in 1530 in the far west of Ireland, Gráinne Ní Máille (anglicized as Grace O’Malley) was the only child of Margaret & Owen O’Malley. Her father was chieftain of the O’Malley clan and made his money through seafaring, fishing, international trade and exacting tolls on shipping in the O’Malley waters off Mayo. As a child Grace’s determination and indomitable spirit was apparent, legend has it that on being told she couldn’t sail with her father’s fleet because her long hair would get caught in the ships rigging, she cut her hair and was subsequently nicknamed Gráinne Mhaol – bald Grace.

At the age of 16 Grace married in to the O’Flaherty clan. Her husband Donal was heir to the chieftain . As a noble woman Grace retained control of the property she brought to the marriage as dowry which included both galleys and men. Over the next five years she gave birth to three children Owen, Murrough and Margaret.

O’Flaherty spent his time feuding and engaging in territorial disputes and was killed by the Joyce’s when he seized Cock’s Castle in Lough Corrib. Grace assumed leadership of the O’Flaherty’s and avenged Donal’s death after which the castle became known as Hen’s Castle. Widowed, she returned to the O’Malley stronghold of Clare Island in Clew Bay and it was here that her reputation as ‘Pirate Queen’ was forged. Commanding 200 men and her father’s fleet Grace set about her maritime activities, trading and raiding, plundering and pirating shipping up and down the coast.

A second marriage to Richard–an-Iarainn Bourke, elected successor to the Mac William the foremost chiefdom in Mayo, took place in 1566. They married for a period of one year under Brehon law, which allowed them to part after this time. Having set up home and moved her ships and army to Richard’s strategically located  castle at Rockfleet in the north of Clew Bay, Grace then divorced him.  Myth suggests that on returning home Richard was locked out as Grace shouted ‘I dismiss you’ from the ramparts, indicating that the marriage was over and the castle now hers. However, they remained together and the following year Grace gave birth to their son Tibbot-na-long. Tibbot was born on board his mother’s ship which was attacked by Turkish pirates the very next day with Grace appearing on deck to rally her men.

Grace’s exploits continued until she was captured by the Earl of Desmond after looting his land. Jailed in Limerick, she was handed to the English Governor who moved her to the dungeon in Dublin Castle. Her husband rebelled and Grace was released from prison in order to bring him in to line.

However over a short period of time her fortunes changed; her husband died in 1583 and soon after Sir Richard Bingham was appointed by Queen Elizabeth 1 as provincial president of Connaught. Whilst Grace consolidated her power at Rockfleet castle and its environs ignoring English law, widespread unrest began throughout Mayo as the clan chiefs rebelled. Bingham’s suppression was swift; he confiscated over 1,000 of Grace’s cattle and horses and ordered seizure of her son Owen O’Flaherty’s land, leading to Owen’s death. Continuing rebellion resulted in Grace being captured and once more her property was seized, she was released after her son in law pleaded her case.  Bingham later looted Grace’s land while she was at sea and persuaded Grace’s son Murrough to side with him. Enraged, Grace set fire to Murrough’s town and his cattle, refusing to speak to him ever again.

Worse was to come, in 1593 after Tibbot led another rising against Bingham he took his revenge against Grace by impounding her fleet and taking her land. Tibbot was imprisoned and charged with treason. Having lost her ships and land, her son facing a death penalty Grace petitioned Elizabeth 1, citing her old age  (she was 63) and poverty and asked for return of her property in exchange for her allegiance. Knowing  that Tibbot may be executed she left for London in 1595 to plead her case in person.

Sailing up the Thames to Greenwich the two women met and she stayed at court for 3 months. A shrewd negotiator, Grace secured Tibbot’s release and a pension from her son’s estates in return for her loyalty to the crown with Elizabeth agreeing to remove Bingham from Ireland. Unfortunately Grace’s land and herds were not restored and Bingham returned to Connaught .  Grace died at Rockfleet in 1603 and is buried at Clare Island Abbey.

Today the O’Malley clan meets every two years and at each gathering they remember Grace, the pirate queen. A formidable woman, she embodied the O’Malley clan motto: ‘ Terra Marique Potens’ – powerful by land and sea.

Written for Sheroes of History by Geraldine O’Malley

Find out more…

Anne Chambers scholarly  book  ’Granuaile. The life and times of Grace O‘Malley’ was published in 1979 and an updated 7th edition was released in 2009. Anne also has a website where you can find out more.

Find out about 9 more female pirates here!

This short video is one in a series about Warrior Women and brings to life Grace’s story: