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BBFH: Ching Shih

Y’all. I heard “female pirate” and basically I was sold on this badass bitch, but after doing research I honestly feel like she may be the badassest bitch I’ve covered here and I can’t wait for you to meet her. Let’s go!

Wikipedia claims she was born as Shi Yang, but other, scholarly sources claim we do not know her birth name (2). Today she is known primarily by Ching Shih or Zheng Yi Sao, or sometimes Ching I Sao, which translates to Cheng I’s Wife or Cheng I’s Widow.

Full disclosure, I have tried to figure out which is the most correct translation of her name into English and I cannot find a source which discusses the variations so I do not know if one is more accurate/respectful than the other or if all are equally acceptable. If you happen to know, do please drop me a comment (and hopefully a source!) and I will edit this essay and all social media posts because accurate and culturally respectful histories are of utmost importance to me.

In any case she seems to have been born around 1775 and worked as a sex worker in a floating brothel in Canton. She was known for her shrewd business sense (2). It was apparently this talent that made Cheng I seek her out (1). Cheng already had considerable forces under his command when he married Ching Shih, but together they were able to unify several smaller gangs into a fleet that ultimately was made up of 1,800 ships and as many as 80,000 men (2). For comparison, the famous pirate Blackbeard commanded only four ships and 300 men (1). For yet even more impressive comparison, this badass and her husband had more than twice as many men in their service as the Spanish Armada (2). Fucking wild.

Meanwhile her husband was apparently bi and wanted his lover/protégé to inherit his legacy so he adopted him which is less uncomfortable than it sounds to our modern, Western ears as it was the primary means of “establishing kinship” for inheritances (1). Women were limited in the rights they were granted (2) and I presume this was also true of inheritances.

In any case, Cheng I died unexpectedly, leaving his “son” Chang Pao to inherit the fleets. Almost immediately, Ching Shih took Chang Pao as her lover as well, soon marrying him (2). And thus she retained her power in the fleet with even her new husband subordinate to her.

To continue to maintain her position, she instituted a severe code of laws which included the following:

  • Disobey a superior? Immediate beheading.
  • Stealing from treasury? Also gets you dead.
  • Desertion or AWOL? Lose your ears and everyone makes fun of you.
  • Have sex with a captive? Again with the beheadings. Even if the sex was consensual. (2)

  • But it wasn’t all threats. She also provided for her crews by guaranteeing 20% of all captured goods for those doing the capturing (2). It’s almost like a union. Or something.

    Y’all. This whole operation was so massive and so well-run that nobody could stop them. They were able to move their operations onto land and into cities, getting involved in the salt trade and eventually all but ceasing the opium trade (2). People do not like not getting their opium, it turns out.

    Eventually the Chinese government realized that even with the help of the Portuguese navy and England’s East India Trading Company, they could not make a dent in Ching Shih’s forces. They offered a generalized amnesty to all the pirates if they’d just stop pirating (3).

    So Ching Shih recognized the power she held here and, in theory, could have continued on as they were, but she also knew that tensions were rising among the leaders of the various fleets she commanded. She realized the power she held and the chance for this total amnesty would ultimately not last. She decided to negotiate the best terms she could for herself and her crews (2).

    Y’all. This may be the most badass part of all of this. She did not budge during negotiations which went on over a couple of months and multiple attempts. Eventually she showed up at the home of the highest official in the land with only women and children to accompany her. She would not agree to any terms until it was guaranteed that her second husband Chang Pao would be allowed 80 ships to continue working in the salt trade, legitimately (2). Not only did none of her pirates receive punishment, but many went on to do the same work they were already doing, and many others went on to join the actual military (2). But really. Can you imagine?

    As noted earlier, women were limited in various ways in how they could hold power. Ching Shih had achieved her status through illegitimate means thus far. Now that she and her crews were going straight, she wanted to maintain status. Normally remarried widows could not hold the title of Wife of an Official, but this badass bitch petitioned and won that right despite the social barriers (2). Absolute fucking queen, y’all.

    She spent the remainder of her years in peace, running a gambling house, until her death in 1844.

    So many women who achieve power in situations where it is typically withheld from them come from some sort of privilege, either an established family, or financial means, or a privileged community, or educational background. But Ching Shih seems to have had none of these. She rose from a brothel to become more powerful than China, Portugal, and England combined using only her wits and her shrewd business sense. I am in utter awe of this badass bitch.

    SOURCES

    1. Banerji, Urvija. “The Chinese Female Pirate Who Commanded 80,000 Outlaws.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 6 Apr. 2016, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-chinese-female-pirate-who-commanded-80000-outlaws
    2. Murray, Dian. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 8, no. 3, 1981, pp. 147–61, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41298765
    3. “Ching Shih Pirate Biography and Facts.” Anne Bonny Pirate, http://www.annebonnypirate.com/famous-female-pirates/ching-shih/

    Categories: Badass Bitches From History, My Own Ramblings, News
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    The Fallacy of the BMI

    Every day our lives are shaped by this simple calculations. This may not be obvious to you if your calculations happen to land you in a socially acceptable place, approved of by authorities. But for many of us whose BMIs are outside of that window, we are denied healthcare, charged more for it, or punished otherwise. The whole story is much bigger than just the BMI and at some point I will get into fatphobia itself and its vast implications in the world. But for now let’s look at the BMI specifically because it is used ubiquitously in healthcare and not only is it inaccurate but it was never meant to be used for individuals.

    This little article is just a quick fact sheet. For more complete information and history I suggest checking out the articles The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI by Your Fat Friend (Aubrey Gordon), and The Racist and Problematic History of the Body Mass Index by Adele Jackson-Gibson.

    But for a quick overview, here are some fast facts:

  • Originally created in 1835 by Adolphe Quetelet
  • Quetelet was not a doctor, nor trained in medicine. He was a statistician.
  • His goal was to find the “ideal” man.
  • His formula was designed and intended to measure populations, not individuals.
  • His formula was derived based on statistics of European people only.
  • Numerous studies have found it is not accurate for folx of other ethnicities.
  • It cannot tell you how much fat a person has; according to the BMI, Arnold Schwarzenegger is obese. It literally just measures mass and different bone or muscle densities among individuals can skew it.
  • It’s totally arbitrary. In 1998 the guidelines were changed and “millions of Americans became ‘fat’ [overnight] — even if they did not gain a pound.”
  • Keith Devlin of NPR called the BMI “mathematical snake oil.”

  • To get a more visual idea of what various BMIs look like on real people, you can check out my new Instagram project (you can submit your pics, too!). This project is based on Kate Harding’s BMI Project which this page has historically linked to. She’s given me her blessing to bring this new version to life to update it and hopefully continue spreading the word about the fallacy of the BMI.

    Look, I know it’s nice to have a simple formula we can all agree on. But the fact is that it doesn’t work and the more we rely on it, the more we harm folx. I’ve been charged more for insurance because of my BMI. I’ve been denied medical care because of my BMI. People whose bodies are smaller than, or larger than the “healthy” range of the BMI are not allowed to donate their bodies to science (and then that means that doctors in training do not get to learn from fat bodies which perpetuates the cycle). Again, we will get into these details in a future post when we examine fatphobia, but it’s important to see ways in which BMI specifically limits people.

    It’s way past time to throw the BMI in the garbage where it belongs.

    And while we’re at it – throw out your scale, too.

    SOURCES

    1. Devlin, Keith. “Top 10 Reasons Why the BMI Is Bogus.” NPR, NPR, 4 July 2009, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106268439
    2. Quetelet, Adolphe. A Treatise on Man and the Development of His Faculties. 1835. https://archive.org/details/treatiseonmandev00quet/mode/2up
    3. Gordon, Aubrey. “The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI.” Elemental, Medium, 18 Oct. 2019, https://elemental.medium.com/the-bizarre-and-racist-history-of-the-bmi-7d8dc2aa33bb
    4. Jackson-Gibson, Adele. “The Racist and Problematic Origins of the Body Mass Index.” Good Housekeeping, Good Housekeeping, 1 Nov. 2021, https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a35047103/bmi-racist-history/
    5. Cohen, Elizabeth, and Anne McDermott. “Who’s Fat? New Definition Adopted.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 June 1998, http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9806/17/weight.guidelines/
    6. “The National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Program: Health Implications of Obesity.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 1985, https://consensus.nih.gov/1985/1985Obesity049html.htm
    7. “Illustrated BMI Categories.” Curated by Kate Harding, Flickr, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/77367764@N00/albums/72157602199008819/

    Categories: education
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    BBFH: Rosalind Franklin

    Y’all, this badass bitch, tho. Rosalind Franklin was a gifted and driven English scientist in the middle of the 20th Century. And because she was a woman, she faced a fucking lot of misogyny. Yay, Women’s History Month.

    Watson and Crick are the men generally credited with the discovery of DNA, but there is huge debate even to this day as to whether they did, whether Rosalind Franklin did, or whether they stole her work and succeeded unethically. After doing my research, I feel like the answer is this: they absolutely profited off of her work without her knowledge or credit and anyone who says otherwise is, usually, a man.

    Here’s how it went down.

    Rosalind was an English chemist and X-Ray crystallographer and, after doing work on coal that was vitally important to WWII and to the world we live in today, she took a fellowship at King’s College in London where she wound up working on DNA structures. There was some miscommunication, or perhaps some chaotic reassignments within their department when she joined and this, in addition to apparent personality differences, caused some friction between herself and fellow researcher Maurice Wilkins (1). “Her friend Norma Sutherland recalled: ‘Her manner was brusque and at times confrontational – she aroused quite a lot of hostility among the people she talked to, and she seemed quite insensitive to this (1).'” Girl, SAME.

    Meanwhile, at Cambridge, Francis Crick and James Watson were doing the same work, but struggling to find the correct answers. “Watson and Crick’s first foray into trying to crack the structure of DNA took place in 1952. It was a disaster. Their three-stranded, inside-out model was hopelessly wrong and was dismissed at a glance by Franklin (1).” Badass.

    Meanwhile over at King’s College, Wilkins had been working with graduate student Raymond Gosling on attempting to get pictures of DNA with some success. But once Franklin arrived, she, working with Gosling, who had been transferred to her leadership, used her expertise in Chemistry to make some adjustments to the camera and tools Wilkins had been using. In this way she was able to capture the first clear picture of DNA.

    Image shows a shape roughly like a circle with a chromosome shaped like an X at the center., the outer part of the circle is blackened. To the right shows some cursive handwriting that is frankly hard to read but, among other things, does mention the names Franklin and Gosling. The background is like yellowed paper and a mark from a paper clip can be seen in the upper left corner.

    Photo 51 by Franklin and Gosling

    Now there’s a lot of politics and bureaucratic nonsense going on here and it’s not unreasonable for Wilkins to have felt slighted with his tools and grad student being used to achieve superior work without his input or involvement. Based on everything else I’ve read on this case and also my experience as a woman in our society, I think it’s reasonable to say that the fact that the superior work was being done by a woman must have stung even more.

    But what’s not reasonable – and what’s strangely up for debate to this day – is what he did next.

    He fucking showed the photo to Watson. Without Rosalind’s permission.

    This is particularly important because this photo changed the game. Immediately, Watson understood that he was looking at a double helix. He later said, “my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race (qtd in 1).”

    Here’s where the “debate” comes in. Did he “steal” the photo? Technically, no, nothing illegal occurred. But was it unethical? FUCK YES, JESUS CHRIST, YES IT WAS UNETHICAL FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Matthew Cobb, at the Guardian, wrote that, “Their behaviour was cavalier, to say the least, but there is no evidence that it was driven by sexist disdain: [they] would have undoubtedly behaved the same way had the data been produced by Maurice Wilkins (1).” To which I, a woman, say, “mhrm, okay bro” but even if he’s right about that, I daresay we would not still be debating whether it was stolen work had it been stolen from a man.

    But even this groundbreaking photo was not quite enough. More of Rosalind’s work was taken – again, not illegally, but not with permission or acknowledgement. Watson and Crick needed, not just the photo, but the detailed observations from it to make their calculations. This was made available to them by another man, Max Perutz, who showed them an informal report Rosalind had made (1).

    Even Cobb admits that “The report was not confidential, and there is no question that the Cambridge duo acquired the data dishonestly. However, they did not tell anyone at King’s what they were doing, and they did not ask Franklin for permission to interpret her data (something she was particularly prickly about) (1).”

    How the fuck can they claim that the work wasn’t stolen? A scientist and scholar of Franklin’s notes that “you do not hand unpublished data to a competitor. Period. I don’t care if the MRC report was not marked confidential (2).” And I mean, I’m just a lowly literature and Women’s Studies scholar, but it was made patently clear in every single class from middle school through university that plagiarism is unconscionable and this smacks of plagiarism. *shrug*

    Furthermore, the arguments against wrongdoing by Watson and Crick (which tend to be made my men) generally go like this:

  • She was mean and didn’t want to work with anyone else.
  • But she wasn’t discriminated against for her sex (ummm okay reread the line before this one and just try to tell me anyone would have used this excuse about a man).
  • The information was publicly available previously (I will get into this in a mo). (2)

  • and my personal favorite:

  • She never found out the extent to which they’d used her work to beat her to the finish line so she therefore wasn’t harmed by it (2).

  • What. Like. Really though. What? How is this an argument made by an adult professional? It feels like kids fighting on an elementary school playground.

    black and white photo featuring a woman with short brown hair, parted at the side, leaning over a microscope

    As for the information that was publicly available previously? Watson had attended a seminar in 1951 where Rosalind presented “virtually identical” data as was in the later-acquired report. “Had Watson bothered to take notes during her talk, instead of idly musing about her dress sense and her looks, he would have provided Crick with the vital numerical evidence 15 months before the breakthrough finally came (1).”

    Yeah. Still not seeing how his refusal to take her seriously enough at the time makes it acceptable for him to use her work, retrieved illicitly, to earn a Nobel prize. I feel like any one of my professors would shrug and say “too bad, so sad” to me if I tried to use that as an argument. I certainly feel like, again, had she been a man presenting this information, Watson may have taken her seriously enough in the first place so that he would never have had to twist and bend ethics in an attempt to wash his conscience clean.

    *feminist grumbles*

    In an interview from PBS Newshour, Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian was asked if Watson and Crick would have arrived at their world-changing discovery without Rosalind’s work. “They absolutely would not. It would have been very hard for them,” before conceding that “They might have, eventually (3).”

    He goes on to acknowledge that “I think they never thought of Rosalind as a serious competitor of their level. I think it was chauvinism to the nth degree and was very common in academic science on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at that time (3).”

    That, friends, is how you ally.

    Would they have, eventually, gotten there? Yes, maybe, but still not before our girl Rosalind. “The progress she made on her own, increasingly isolated and without the benefit of anyone to exchange ideas with, was simply remarkable (1).” She was speedrunning what had taken them years and stolen data to achieve. Markel notes, “Francis Crick said: Of course, Rosalind would have figured it out in a few weeks. It’s just that we figured it out faster (3).” (With stolen work.)

    Rosalind lived only five more years, dying in 1958 of ovarian cancer, possibly due to her work with X-Ray technology, and four years before Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel prize for “their” discovery. It is often argued that Rosalind would not have been eligible for the Nobel prize, anyway, because they did not award them posthumously. But to me that sounds like more bullshit because a) why they fuck not? and b) we will never truly know if she would have been considered for it.

    Rosalind was an absolute powerhouse and her work changed the world not only through the vital understanding of DNA, or even her earlier work with the structures of coal, but because she worked with viruses as well and her work laid the foundations that shaped scientific response to the pandemic we are currently living through. Fucking hero. Badass bitch. Rosalind Franklin.

    Sources:

    1. Cobb, Matthew. “Sexism in Science: Did Watson and Crick Really Steal Rosalind Franklin’s Data?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 June 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/sexism-in-science-did-watson-and-crick-really-steal-rosalind-franklins-data
    2. Lloyd, Robin. “Rosalind Franklin and DNA: How Wronged Was She?” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 3 Nov. 2010, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/rosalind-franklin-and-dna-how-wronged-was-she/
    3. Brangham, William, et al. “Why Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix Was Based on ‘Rip-off’ of Female Scientist’s Data.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 30 Sept. 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/watson-cricks-breakthrough-dna-discovery-was-based-on-rosalind-franklins-work

    Further basic information found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalind_Franklin

    Categories: Badass Bitches From History, My Own Ramblings, News
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