“The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women. If it’s educating its girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward. But if women are oppressed and abused and illiterate, then they’re going to fall behind.”
– Barack Obama
IT IS a lazy misnomer and misread of world and Bahamian history to repeat the cliché that women were “granted” the right to vote. It was not a grant or gift. Women fought ceaselessly, organised, were jailed, ostracised, went on hunger strikes, were mocked – and sometimes died in demanding and seizing the right to vote.
The struggle took centuries. Into the second decade of the 21st century, women are struggling still for equality!
The fight for equality is about more than certain constitutional or legislative changes, though these are vital. The broader struggle is moral, cultural, about values and core democratic principles.
In his 1857 “West Indian Emancipation Speech”, Frederick Douglass famously declared: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle...
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.
“The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
At the forefront of the movements for gender equality have been mostly female but also male activists who lent their values, intellect, imagination, willpower, anger, frustration, joy, hopes and dreams in securing certain human rights.
These activists have had to demand, demonstrate and mobilise to secure their freedoms in the face of entrenched male power that resists change in every generation.
Though the issues cover a range of social, economic and political rights and power, a core mission has been an unwavering insistence on the full equality and participation of women and girls codified in numerous international agreements and conventions but often breached in practice in many countries.
In The Bahamas, generations of women activists have been at the vanguard of the enduring struggle for equality, and the recognition of the innate dignity of women as human beings and as full citizens and not as appendages of male supremacy and domination.
The 2022 Person of the Year title winners are the women activists who are today at the forefront of the relentless work for equal rights in The Bahamas, including on marital rape, constitutional equality, gender-based violence, greater representation in parliament, LGBTQ+ rights, public safety and other areas of national life.
The opposition to legislation to criminalise marital rape is yet another example of such resistance that will only be overcome by ceaseless activism, including education and conversion of hearts, minds and consciences.
Activists and change agents appear in diverse forms. The brilliant American activist and political theorist Saul Alinsky suggested: “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits, and infiltrate the system from within.”
Alinsky, ever the radical, was being clever. Often, radicals are forced to engage in militant nonviolent direct action, such as those political activists fighting for majority rule.
Activists today might draw inspiration from the legacy of the former National Committee for Positive Action (NCPA), which included men such as Sir Arthur Foulkes, as well as the late Warren Levarity, Jeffrey Thompson and Dr Eugene Newry.
The NCPA was an advocacy and activist group which helped to radicalise the PLP, providing the party with ideas, strategy and a program of nonviolent direct action.
Still, the women who fought for equality in The Bahamas have included: women in the struggle for majority rule; women who sat in parliament and around the Cabinet table, and pioneers like psychologist and human rights activist Dr Sandra Dean Patterson who has done groundbreaking work on domestic and sexual violence.
They included activists in community organisations and nonprofits; female senior advisors in government; women journalists like Athena Damianos; writers, thinkers and activists such as Marion Bethel, Jeanne I Thompson, Helen Klonaris, various educators and others.
Today, women, including: Dr Dean Patterson; Prodesta Moore, the founder of Women United; Alicia Wallace, columnist and founder of Equality Bahamas; poet and public intellectual Patricia Glinton Meicholas; the Bahamas executives of the Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership; educator Dr Jacinta Higgs. A new generation of female artists are also advocates for equality.
History offers lessons and guideposts for activism in a 21st century Bahamas. When Bahamian women were petitioning, marching and arguing for the right to vote, they were confronted with the baseless arguments that stymied progress for women in areas such as educational advancement, economic opportunity and a other pathways of equality.
It was said by many men and women, that women did not have the intelligence or education to understand certain issues. Many said women should listen to and follow the lead and advice of their husbands and domestic partners in all matters including political issues and current affairs.
In her January 19, 1959, philippic and plea for female enfranchisement Dame Dr Doris Johnson understood how difficult the road ahead was in the face of male intransigence and stupidity.
She drummed in 1959: “This mobilisation of our energies was called forth by the challenging statement issued by the Right Honourable Secretary of State, Mr Lennox-Boyd on 13th April 1958 that there was not sufficient interest on the part of Bahamian Women for him to recommend the enfranchisement of women at that time.
“This statement by the Secretary was issued despite the fact that a petition signed by more than 3,000 women had been presented to Mr Lennox- Boyd by a delegation of women from the Suffrage Movement.
“To add insult to injury, Mr Lennox-Boyd at the same time recommended the extension of the franchise to all males who have reached the age of 21. May we remind you that there has never been any demand from our husbands and sons to secure their rights, but these are freely recommended...”
A senior Bahamian statesman involved in the struggle for majority rule and equal access to voting regardless of race, gender and class, noted: “In 1962 after years of valiant struggle and much sacrifice on the part of men and women of my generation who valued the right to vote, universal adult suffrage was achieved with every adult citizen having the right to cast a ballot in general elections.”
Women secured the vote in time to participate in the 1962 general election. But they would not secure a seat in the House for another two decades. It was not until 1982, two and a half centuries after the establishment of the House of Assembly that a woman, Dame Janet Bostwick, was elected to that chamber.
From the inception of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in 1953, and most certainly from the 1956 general election until 1987 – over 31 years – a Bahamian woman was never afforded nomination for a safe or winnable seat in the House by the party.
By royal mandate, the House of Assembly was established in the Bahama Islands in 1729 during the governorship of Woodes Rogers.
The institution was intended for white men of means. Slaves, their descendants and women did not legally qualify to sit in the House. White men of lesser means were unable to sit by virtue of their lower economic standing.
The institution evolved over the centuries, becoming the centrepiece of Bahamian democracy representing the relative advancement and equality of various segments of society.
Near the end of November 2012, a joint session of Parliament was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bahamian women attaining the right to vote.
A joint resolution was passed promising an end to constitutional discrimination against women, “so as to fully and irrevocably engage and utilize the indomitable spirit of Bahamian womanhood in nation-building”.
Last year, ten years later, another joint sitting of Parliament was held to mark the 60th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in The Bahamas. Thankfully, there are once again more women in the current PLP cabinet and in parliament near akin to the years of previous FNM administrations.
These commemorations are important, though insufficient. The ritual encomiums to the suffragettes were grandiloquently delivered. But juxtaposed to legislative inaction on marital rape, and other issues of gender-based violence, the rhetoric is sometimes cloying, frustrating, meaningless.
Senate president LaShell Adderley, who in the spirit of Alinsky, was well-suited and dressed in the regalia of her office, has “infiltrate[d] the system from within.” Her words on the occasion were a plea for change.
“Our long walk to freedom has not yet ended when the marital bed has become a violent mattress. Rape is rape, notwithstanding the context. The Bible reminds us that men ought to love their wives in the way that Christ loves the church and died for it.
“This love is defined in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 as being patient, kind and not delighting in evil. Freedom and justice demand legislation which outlaw rape.”
She spoke in the clarion language and tone of past and current activists, demanding action in the struggle for equality: “Freedom, justice and equality demands a Gender-Based Violence Act now.”
More next week
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