Seafaring Women is packed with information previously unavailable to the young adult reader. Because the journals and biographies cited are not readily accessible, this collective biography brings an exciting topic to the attention of young readers. It also crosses age and gender barriers because of the adventure it portrays. Early reviewers praised it for its depth of research and breadth of topic.
Perhaps the types of sources available and the very breadth of its topic caused De Pauw to approach the chapters in different ways. The vignettes of the individual pirates are appropriate for women who were one-of-a-kind commanders who defy comparison. The warriors, mostly in the lower ranks, and often in disguise, lend themselves to lists of the many women who did not leave journals to reveal their inmost secrets. The women of leisure, the wives of the whalers and traders, can best reveal their lives by the ordered day-to-day record of the Victorian journal, punctuated with the occasional emergency need for nurse or navigator.
The last chapter, the record of the more recent accomplishments and frustrations of women at sea, may be the weakest. It differs in tone because of these frustrations, for which there were few answers at the time of the book’s writing; here, De Pauw takes a less detached stance. She quotes a midshipman at the Merchant Marine Academy, who stated that the “problem” was “‘not so much a woman’s inability to perform; women can and do perform well. Rather the problem was with men’s inability to perform around women.’”
Women of all sorts are portrayed in a balanced fashion. None are saints, yet few are totally without merit. For example, although De Pauw doubts that Grace O’Malley possessed the grace and charm attributed to her by a nineteenth century biographer, she allows the reader to judge. In another example, De Pauw presents the reader with evidence that even though Anne Bonny was accused of adultery, she was not totally promiscuous. Even pirates are accorded some virtue. De Pauw also praises the heroic act of Fanny Campbell, who disguised herself and led a mutiny in order to rescue her sweetheart from a Cuban prison. The traders’ and whalers’ wives are shown performing heroic tasks when needed, often outlasting the sailors in medical emergencies.
The book’s attempt to champion women as capable of any task at sea may have yielded mixed results. Certainly the women who successfully disguised themselves as men did, in some sense, prove their equality. Yet the necessity for disguise, as well as the willingness of the women to wear disguises, does not make a positive statement about the treatment of women. Some readers also may believe that more than gender identity was sacrificed by women who were willing to take lives—in one case, a woman killed her son for falling overboard.
Some readers may feel uneasy about the sexual references that De Pauw makes, particularly in discussing superstition and disguise, but the references are few and suitable. The very nature of seagoing prevents the modesty that a Victorian woman would have demanded ashore. In the light of progress made since 1982, some of the concluding chapter is outdated. Readers may want to investigate further developments in the role of women both in the military and in private shipping. Nevertheless, the history of these adventuring women is one that will impress a young adult audience.