Women's struggles in the Bahamas

By JANET BOSTWICK IN THE general elections in the Colony of The Bahama Islands in 1949, Mr Rufus Ingraham, the Member of Parliament for Inagua for two years, lost his bid to be re-elected. His wife, Mrs Mary Ingraham, thought that his chances of winning would have been greatly enhanced if women of property were permitted to vote as men were allowed. She, together with Mrs Mabel Walker, the wife of Dr CR Walker, a Member of Parliament for the Southern District in New Providence, actively began to agitate for women to have the right to vote on the same terms as men. Mrs Ingraham was a business woman. She owned properties and she was a storekeeper. Mrs Walker, an American, a university graduate, was a school teacher. They were good friends, both were members of The Elks Lodge and both lived on Hospital Lane in New Providence. Mrs Walker was chair of the Civil Liberties Committee of the Curfew Elks Lodge, Mrs Ingraham was a past Daughter Ruler and was also a leader in the Star of The East Lodge of Samaritans. They used their contacts and influence in the Lodges to further their cause and according to Mrs Ingraham's account, as written in her letter to the Press on November 27, 1975, she was able to get the signatures of more than 500 persons with the assistance of the Rev Dr HW Brown, renowned senior Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Mr Wilfred Toote, Mrs Gladys Bailey and Mrs Ingraham and her five children. That first petition was presented to Parliament and tabled by Dr CR Walker in 1952, the very same year that the United Nations Convention on Political Rights of Women was adopted by that august body. When suffrage talks began in the little colony of the Bahama Islands, suffrage had not yet been accepted as a desirable goal for nations of the world. Our women were therefore in the vanguard of progressive thinking, and this notwithstanding the fact that most of them had not been afforded high school level education. Of even more signifigance is the fact that the first petition seeking women's suffrage was presented to Parliament before any political parties existed in The Bahamas. Mrs Ingraham stated that the suffrage movement was formed between 1951-52, and she was elected President. What is definite is that in 1958, when the Petition for suffrage was again presented to the House of Assembly - this time by Sir Gerald Cash, Mrs Ingraham states that she was a UBP, but she had approached Sir Gerald, who was an Independent Member of Parliament, to present the petition. From the early beginning of the Movement, matriarchs of the PLP, such as Mrs JK Symonette and Ugenia Lockhart were active members. They, and later others, worked arduously to secure the vote because they felt that party would not be successful in winning the government unless women gained that right. When Dr Doris Johnson returned to the Bahamas from University in 1958, she became involved with the suffrage movement. In September of that year, she and others established The National Women's Council, an umbrella organisation of many of the women's NGOS. That council, with Erma Grant Smith as its president and Lady Russell, wife of Sir Dudley Russell, as its vice-president, adopted the suffrage cause. Mrs Erma Grant Smith was not known to have any party affiliation, and Lady Russell was a Caucasian, and a member of the leading class in Bahamian Society. I recall that her husband, Sir Dudley, was then chairman of the Public Service Commission. It was thought that she was a supporter of the UBP. In late 1958 and thereafter, the PLP officially championed the suffrage cause. And it is well known that Dame Doris Johnson presented the women suffragettes' case to the Parliament in her historic and dynamic address to that body on January 19, 1959. I have given these brief facts to show that the suffrage movement reached across partisan lines, racial and social class divides. The movement was actually started by a black woman who, after party politics was introduced in the Bahamas, was a member of the UBP, it was embraced by the PLP, it was adopted by women without party affiliation, supported by women of different races and social standing, and it was championed by progressive men. Sir Stafford Sands was not one of them. He had said that women would get the right to vote "over his dead body", and he wielded great influence over the decisions of the UBP. Yet, at the end of 1960, the UBP in a party meeting voted 63 to two in favour of extending the right to vote to women... and Sir Stafford was still alive! Mary Ingraham had taken a stand which was diametrically opposed to the position of the political group which she supported and it appears that there were other women of her party which had done so. Of course, the PLP ladies had the full support and encouragement of their party. The militancy and persistency of the women had paid off. They had been throughout the islands of the Bahamas, they had petitioned the Colonial Office, they had taken their case to the United Nations, they had obtained the assistance of international organisations. They had been relentless and they succeeded. Such was the fight and the drive and the militancy and constancy and commitment and dedication of our pioneer women. How proud they did us! In Dame Doris Johnson's address to Parliament in 1959, she addressed the main concern of the suffragettes, which was the right to vote, but also raised their concerns about: (1) All male juries (2) Sending delinquent girls of 8 to 11 years to jail (3) Local government in the Out Islands; ie appointment of women members of local Boards and Committees (4) No female Justices of the Peace (5) Out Island Commissioners - no women invited to serve. Women were granted the right to vote by legislation passed on 9th February, 1961. But the battle was not over. Thereafter, women had to be persuaded and encouraged to register to vote, and then taught how to vote. Again, the matriarchs of the PLP did a most commendable job in this respect. What was remarkable is the women who did this work were housewives, storekeepers, some teachers, clerks et cetera. Not professional women, but women who were committed to ensuring victory at the polls for their party and thereby securing a better opportunity for the advancement of their children politically, socially and economically. Women suffragettes showed us that, in order to bring about significant change, we must accept sometimes that the cause is bigger than the individual, than a party, than any of the things which divide and separate us and that much can be accomplished when we unite. Unfortunately, after the vote was won, in the main, suffragettes rested on their laurels and were content to stand behind their male leaders. Many of the leading women of the Bahamas felt that politics was a man's job and women should be content to raise their families and, where possible, contribute to the income of the family. In an interview with the press in November 1981, a similar view was expressed by Lady Caroline Butler, wife of our first Bahamian Governor General, when she stated that she did not believe that women should become actively and directly involved in politics, she felt that "politics takes a devil of a lot out of a person" and as a result a woman's family would be "shortchanged" by her involvement in politics. She conceded that perhaps a woman with no family could be active in politics, if she was educated and willing to carry a "heavy burden". This thinking was undoubtedly the informal position of the hierarchy of the PLP because otherwise its failure to have a woman elected to Parliament until some 25 years after women gained the right to vote is unexplainable. It is unfathomable why Dame Doris Johnson for example, was never nominated as a candidate in a seat which the PLP had a good chance of winning. It is of significance that the first PLP female member of Parliament was Mrs Rubyann Cooper Darling, the first woman to register to vote in 1962. But the spirit of social activism was ignited in a cadre of younger women, who, at relatively young ages, banded together to agitate for changes effecting the national and personal lives of women. I speak of women who were members of the BPWA, and who under the leadership of the then relatively young Pauline Allen fought for the right for women to sit on juries, which was an issue presented by suffragettes in 1959, but which did not become a reality until years later. Many of those women agitated for consumer protection measures, and gained the cessation of the practice of pricing over items imported and displayed in stores after new shipments were brought in at a higher price and also taught women shoppers to be aware of expiry dates, etcetera. I speak of the women who banned together as WAR - Women Against Rape and took part in the largest demonstrations denouncing rape and brought about changes so that rapes were no longer published on the front pages of newspapers, and the identity of the victim and her family was concealed, and brought about changes where victims were taken into private screened areas away from the regular outpatients section of the hospital for medical examination, and wherever possible, a female police officer would take statements from the victim. It was a time when social awareness and conscience were awakened on gender issues and when voices spoke out... being true to the legacy we had received from strong, principled and fearless women suffragettes. There have been many changes. There are a very large number of female justices of the peace, family island administrators, members of local boards, district councils, national boards, commissions. Women are members of the medical, legal and judicial professions. They are members of Parliament. They have held the highest office in the nation. But there is still much to do. As women, we have become complacent, materialistic and quiet. We have never been more educated, nor have we ever enjoyed greater levels of influence, yet this is hardly reflected in our involvement in seeking social justice and true equality. In 1949, we were in the forefront of progressive thinking, agitating for empowerment of women before UN adopted that position. Now we are lagging behind. Some 20 or so years ago, the world body set a desired quota of 30 per cent for representation of women in parliament. To achieve this, some countries have promulgated legislation making it mandatory. It is a goal to be working for, and it has been advised where laws do not mandate that minimum percentage, political parties should seek to offer 30 per cent female candidates. The FNM is now actively seeking to address that and its leadership is seeking to move forward to the time when an equal number of FNM women and men will be offered to the electorate as candidates. Last year, I said to a meeting of lawyers in Freeport, and I quote: "On October 6, 1992, the Bahamas ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women with certain reservations. The Bahamas did not adopt Article 2(a) which obligated it to 'embody the principle of the equality of men and women' in our Constitution; Article 9 which obligated it to grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality, and Article 16(h) which conferred the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, etc, of property. "We are now in a position to remove our reservation regarding property ownership since the passing of the Inheritance Act. We must yet retain our reservations in the other two instances because some 38 years after Independence, women of the Bahamas are still discriminated against in the supreme law of the land, our Constitution. For this, we cannot blame the government, we must blame ourselves. "How does it make you feel? If you feel as I do, belittled, abused, insulted, you make think it time to remember the legacy of the women's movement and use your power to bring about to change. "Discrimination against women, as stated in the preamble to the CEDAW, is still an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, civil, economic and cultural life of their countries; it still hampers the growth of the prosperity of the society and the family and still makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their countries and of humanity." And it is shameful that we in this age and at this time accept it. It is an equal shame that we are prepared in this day and age to accept that a man may rape his wife and be immune to legal sanctions. We who cried out against rape are painfully silent when our children are being abused and raped and murdered. We are not agitating for laws and practices to afford us time to be at the schools at crucial times, like at the times to receive our children's reports, but we are fighting for employment contracts to give us time off on our birthdays! We are not concerned with mentoring our young girls, or for you young people, girls younger than yourselves, and we leave them to emulate junglists! Our foremothers were active in the Mother's Club, where they were concerned to find food, clothing and house furnishing for the less fortunate, they established schools for toddlers, they established the Silver Belles, where they provided wholesome extra curricula activities for young people, they were even ahead of international bodies in seeking equal voting rights for women, they used their lodges and their churches to pursue social justice and true equality, and to promote higher education, and their youth and young people were equally involved in these pursuits. Charitable institutions, national service agencies and programmes are all pleading for volunteers, what are we doing? Really ladies, our foremothers have bequeathed us a rich legacy. What legacy are we bequeathing to those who follow us? * The first female member of parliament in Bahamian history, Janet Bostwick served in the House of Assembly from 1977 to 2002. She also served as Minister of Housing and Labour (1992-94), Minister of Justice and Immigration (1994-95) and Attorney General (1995-2001). In 1998, she became the first woman to act as Prime Minister of the Bahamas during the absence from the country of both the premier and his deputy.


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