Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bahamian Women and their Independence in an Independent Bahamas

Bahamian women and their independence
Tribune Staff Reporters:

IN AN Independent Bahamas, women, in terms of numbers, represent the most powerful voting block in the country.

Today, there are on average 17,000 more women registered to vote than men.

But in the years since July 10, 1972, and in the nearly 50 years since November 1962 when Ivy Mackey became the first woman to vote in polling station number one in the district of the City of Nassau, have Bahamian women really become empowered?

The country has had female Presidents of the Court of Appeal and Senate, Members of Parliament, Governor Generals, heads of companies, schools and even a Deputy Prime Minister.

Regardless of these material advancements, however, women still do not have the same power to confer citizenship on their offspring as do Bahamian men and in the Bahamas it is still legal to rape your wife.

The truth is the Bahamian woman’s vote is directed in large part by agendas established by men.

Male heads of churches direct their majority female congregations how to vote, male party chairmen, leaders and deputy leaders still direct the programmes of political parties and the legislative agenda of the country when in government.

Perhaps two out of three of the most significant legislative advancements regarding women’s rights, post Independence, the Marital Rape Bill and the 2002 referendum, which would have continued women on the path toward further equality with their male counterparts were shot down because of a lack of support from women themselves.

The third, the 2002 amendments to the Inheritance Bill, which among other things, granted the right to all children born in or out of wedlock to a parent’s assets was passed after much fuss in January of that year.

The Inheritance Bill, unlike the referendum, was not offered for public vote, but it did have the full political will of the government of the day behind it, unlike the case of the Marital Rape Bill.

Mrs Janet Bostwick, the first woman elected to the House of Assembly, said she was shocked when women voted against the referendum.

“I could not believe it when women voted against the referendum. I was absolutely amazed. I think our women were betrayed by those who politicised this most important issue,” she said.

The PLP opposition said if they were elected to office they would bring the issue of constitutional reform back to the people in 90 days, according to Mrs Bostwick. She said that promise was never fulfilled.

“That was the most serious backward step to the advancement of women in my own memory,” said Mrs Bostwick.

“The issue of women's rights was made a totally partisan political issue, and unfortunately that has worked to the disadvantage of women. To put it very bluntly, the PLP were able to persuade their women not to support the referendum; it would have given the FNM too much power. One of the most painful things for me was listening to arch fundamentalist religious people who preached about the supremacy of men at the town hall meetings, and other events to discuss the referendum,” said Mrs Bostwick.

The referendum if passed would have made it possible for a Bahamian woman married to a foreigner to pass on her Bahamian nationality to her children just as a Bahamian man married to a foreigner gives his nationality to his children.

The failure of the implementation of the citizenship and marital rape laws has led many to wonder how far ahead the women’s movement – started by Mrs Mary Ingraham whose group launched the decade long struggle for women to get the vote— has moved.

One cannot blame those who conclude that the suffragette movement in the Bahamas was highjacked by those who saw women gaining the vote as a path to majority rule and political power rather than having anything to do with the advancement of women.

In essence, there exists no movement to advance women’s rights in the Bahamas today because there was never one to begin with.

“The women’s vote was important to get numbers, to get equality for black people. (Equality for women) was not so much a topic. The women had to vote to get a majority rule government that would do more for blacks. It was about the vote numbers, so the struggle for women did not continue. It was gone and it is still gone,” said Wallis Carey, daughter of Eugenia Lockhart, former secretary of the PLP Women’s Branch.

Mrs Lockhart was one of the architects of the 1950s women’s suffrage movement in the Bahamas.

As a college student Mrs Carey assisted her mother by typing the final 1960 petition that was presented to the Secretary for the Colonies in England.

“Women are figureheads now. We are tokens. We don’t have any power base anywhere. The women in the PLP were not thinking that way so they didn’t take it any further. They were thinking about majority rule with the best party that they saw, which was the PLP. There wasn’t much (desire) to take the movement further,” she said.

Mrs Carey said the platform of the PLP leading into the 1962 election, when women were first allowed to vote was “more jobs, more education for everybody.”

She said women’s rights were not advanced as a separate cause, and the necessity for women to vote was based on the racism that existed and not a view that women were discriminated against based on gender.

The year 1960 proved to be a turning point for the movement. The PLP members in the House rallied behind the movement pledging their support in public and in the House of Assembly.

“Sexual harassment was not a topic. Do we want to have more women leadership? That was not a topic for discussion. And it was a while before (the PLP) looked at including women in the Senate and in the power structure,” said Mrs Carey.

The PLP lost the 1962 election, even with the women’s vote. Parliamentary records showed there were 73,907 registered voters at the time. No records exist as to the gender distribution.

They went on to win in 1967.

Mrs Carey said after the defeat, the feeling was that “there was still a lot of work to do; they have to organize more” and then women were only involved “because of the numbers.”

“There is no source of power for women. The women in the suffrage movement were instrumental, they worked very hard, but they didn’t change the country in terms of the power structure,” said Mrs Carey.

Mrs Bostwick, said that the suffrage movement was for the purpose of securing the right to vote and no other issue with regard to women’s rights were raised primarily because many of the suffragists took pains to disassociate themselves from feminists. Conservatism was the ruling mentality at the time.

“Those women who stood out and tried to move aggressively for equal rights were sometimes called derogatory names. They were associated with the feminist movement and that was not something which was looked at in the main with kindness. Even today, and I say this with great pain, there is still some opposition, from some women, to the idea of true equality,” she said.

On some level, even in the late 1950s, the fight for women’s voting rights found itself divided along political lines.

In the history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas, two women lead the pack, Mrs Mary Ingraham and Dr Doris Johnson.

While Mrs Ingraham, who was a member of the UBP, and her small group of women, were the first to launch the suffragette movement, Dr Doris Johnson on returning from her studies abroad moved in and took over the group after all the spade work had been done. At the time there were those who would say that Mrs Ingraham’s movement, which had succeeded in getting the women’s vote, was highjacked by Dr Johnson of the PLP. Twenty-five years of the PLP government’s retelling of the story of the movement has overshadow — and almost obliterated — Mrs Ingraham’s efforts and achievements in the minds of subsequent generations.

A good example of this was a 1992 advertisement published by the PLP when reference was again made to Dr Johnson and the women’s vote. Ms Ena Hepburn was quoted in the ad as saying: “I remember when women would not vote. That is why I sat down in Bay Street with the late Dame Dr Doris Johnson on Black Tuesday.”

Black Tuesday was on April 27, 1965 by that time Mrs Ingraham had won her fight for women and Bahamian women went to the polls for the first time in 1962.

Post Independence, Mary Ingraham was put in a position where she had to, or certainly felt she had to, fight to have her contribution to women’s suffrage remembered.

The women’s rights movement in the Bahamas spanned little over a decade, from 1950 to 1962.

According to Mrs Ingraham in a 1975 letter to The Tribune— which was a strong supporter of her movement — the first tangible effort made to get women the right to vote was in 1950 when she and a small group circulated a petition typed by Althea Mortimer.

Only 550 signatures were obtained by the late Dr HW Brown, Wilfred Toote, Gladys Bailey, Mary Ingraham and her five children.

The petition was turned over to and presented by AF Adderley and Dr CR Walker to the House of Assembly and Legislative Council.

According to Mrs Ingraham this petition was left on the shelf to die.

A new petition was circulated and in 1958 it was presented to Parliament by Independent MP Gerald Cash in support of the enfranchisement of women in the Bahamas.

The petition contained more than 2,500 signatures.

According to Mrs Ingraham, although she was a UBP, she thought it best that Mr Cash, the independent House member, was the best choice to advance the petition because she did not wish to impose her political beliefs, “not even on my children.”

The vote, which permitted women the vote was taken in February of 1961. While the House passed the bill, the majority UBP beat down the opposition PLP’s attempts to have the bill become effective immediately.

The bill was originally designed to become effective on January 1, 1963, two months after the election which would be held on November of 1962.

Instead the parties compromised to have the bill go into effect on June 30, 1962.


In a move that apparently caught the PLP by surprise the UBP agreed on an amendment that would make it possible for women to sit in the House of Assembly.

Women would not have a seat in the House until 20 years later when Mrs Bostwick was elected as the first female member of the Assembly.

In a November 1975 broadcast during Women’s Week, radio ZNS credited Dr Doris Johnson with getting the vote for Bahamian women.

In November of 1975 Mrs Ingraham wrote a letter published in The Tribune where in essence she pointed out that Dr Johnson only joined the movement in 1958 when she returned from university and the dynamic speech about women’s rights delivered to House members in 1959 was Dr Johnson’s most significant contribution to the effort.

“This is the only part Dr Johnson played in the vote for women,” Mrs Ingraham said.

Perhaps it could be said that Mrs Ingraham’s statement came more out of hurt and anger than fact, but she did feel that her contribution was being diminished because of her political ideology.

In the end Mrs Carey said that the illusion that women are equal to men in Bahamian society is propped up because of “materialism.”

“That is a poor replacement for real autonomy and power. We don’t own anything. We don’t even talk of owning anything. There is a lot to be done and it is not enough to just observe an international day for women,” she said.

Mrs Carey said she thinks the architects of women’s suffrage would have supported the marital rape bill and the right for women to pass on their citizenship.

“The women’s movement has died. I never even hear about it anymore. People talk like all of our issues are the same. There is no movement. We don’t even identify the issues any more that women have.

“We have given up everything to materialism, and we have accepted the worst part of materialism. That was the big thing for the PLP; they said they would make people have more. Have more what? We see materialism through the party we choose. We look at which government is going to give us more material things,” said Mrs Carey.

However, Mrs Bostwick said that there have been many advancements since the 1950s that have helped level the playing field for women, which people take for granted.

“You are talking about a society where women in the public service had to resign if they became pregnant, married or not married. You are talking about a society where even if you were allowed to stay on the job, it did not pay you when you were pregnant. You are talking about a society that did not permit you to divorce for anything but adultery, a society where if a wife committed adultery she was excluded from any share in the matrimonial property. There were so many things which happened to change the status of women in society that I feel there has been great, great advancement,” said Mrs Bostwick.

However, Mrs Bostwick admitted that there is a need to go further.

“Look at the thing with just the inheritance laws. They were so discriminatory against women. You started with a woman if she died without a will her husband to the exclusion of her children and everybody else took all of her personalities (money in the bank, shares, jewellery, furniture, car, clothes). He had a life interest in all of her real property, so that even if she had acquired the house herself and it was in her sole name, he had the right on her death, even if he was estranged, to move in, with his possible mistress, and even put out her children. You had a situation where women could not inherit from their father, mother or parents if there was one lawful son. They could not get anything. All of these things were hurtful laws,” she said.

These laws Mrs Bostwick mentions changed because of the agitation of women, in general and a lot of help from Mrs Bostwick specifically.

Mrs Bostwick was in the attorney general’s office from 1957 to 1974; it was a part of her work, so she was very aware of the laws and painfully aware of the plight of mothers.

“On Friday’s you had a court that dealt with maintenance matters. There was a tamarind tree in the square by the library and there were lines of women waiting under the tree to get the pittance of the maximum of $8.40 per child per week. That was the maximum by law. That remained until I was in Parliament,” she said.


If women were to remove politics out of, well their own politics, they might be able to achieve more for themselves. Mrs Bostwick said that if women banded together, they would be able to get everything they needed for themselves.

“The thing is women must themselves want equality. They must truly want it. They will not truly want it unless they are personally feeling the pinch. You will find that you have the most talk about inequality when you are talking about not receiving equal pay for equal work. And it hurts me when I hear some leading professional women, who went against the referendum, now getting on the bandwagon and saying that we must move in the direction of equal pay.

“Philosophical equality is not something the grassroots will be concerned about. It is difficult for people to relate to that and rally around a cause to create change. There needs to be a process of education. You have to start teaching from the school level that we are equal and that discrimination is wrong,” she said.

Mrs Bostwick said that there are not many laws that need to be changed.

“The constitution must outlaw discrimination and it has to be so framed that women and men have equal rights with respect to discrimination on the grounds of sex. The Penal Code needs to be changed. Beyond that most of the changes are social and cultural,” she said.

July 11, 2010