Impact Of St. Kitts – Nevis’ Labour Movement On Women

Cabinet Minister - Marcella Liburd

Cabinet Minister – Marcella Liburd
Photo By Erasmus Williams

Basseterre, St. Kitts – Nevis
May 31, 2012 (CUOPM)

The impact of the Labour Movement on women in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis was brought into sharper focus Sunday by female parliamentarian and cabinet minister, the Hon. Marcella Liburd.

Delivering the feature address at a Requiem Mass for late Labour leaders of the Labour Movement, Minister Liburd first traced the part women played in the struggles over the years and showed how the Labour leaders progressive thinkers and ahead of their time.

She first focused on Betto Douglas who was born in St. Kitts around the year 1772.

“Her mother was an enslaved woman and as a woman’s status determined that of her offspring, Betto was born into slavery as part of the renewable labour supply in St. Kitts.  Her father was white and was therefore free.  Betto was the mother of two sons and she was enslaved at Romney’s Plantation. Betto tried on several occasions to free herself and her two sons.  She used formal methods and when that failed she persisted in other ways.  She refused rations; she refused to comply with the rules.  She was confined, jailed, hired out and eventually Betto took the ultimate step and ran away,” Minister Liburd told the congregation at the St. Paul’s Parish Church.

She submitted that Betto’s story is inspirational for her heroic resistance to enslavement and serves as a platform for women’s struggles in the post-emancipation period.

“In all the recordings of the uprisings, strikes and marches of the 1930’s the contribution of women to these struggles has been for the most part unrecorded and unrecognized even though there is some mention that women were among those arrested during that period giving credence to the belief that women were in the forefront of the struggles,” said Ms. Liburd, who stated that there is some recording of the contribution of Isa A. E. Bradley, daughter of Thomas Bradley and his wife Blanche Wattley, who was born in New Town on 19th May 1887 and lived at Salt Pond Alley, then also known as Sugar Loaf Alley in a house she inherited from her grandfather John Thomas Bradley, a stevedore.

“Unmarried and with no children of her own, Bradley was devoted to the teaching profession.  She started as a pupil teacher at the Moravian School in the district of Cayon and after a course at Spring Gardens in Antigua, she returned to her school and was appointed headmistress.  Bradley was later appointed headmistress of the Basseterre Girls School and was responsible for the early education of many of the girls in the Basseterre area.  Among the girls she tutored were three daughters of J. Matthew Sebastian, Ismay Burt and Gwen Whattey all of whom followed in her footsteps and became highly admired and respected teachers in their own right.

Bradley was a member of the Mutual Improvement Society and the Universal Benevolent Society in its early days.  Because of her employment she had to keep a low profile but being an outspoken person, Bradley could not keep quiet for long.

“The irrepressible spirit of Betto Douglas filled her.  She became a member of the Board of Directors of the Workers League and during the 1937 campaign she was very visible on the League’s platform,” said the former senator and speaker of the National Assembly.

“The Colonial Government was facing challenges throughout the Caribbean at the time.  In a speech made by Bradley in Old Road during the campaign she was reported to have told her listeners how a certain German minister had referred disparagingly to her pupils.  It was one of several illustrations she gave to show that “no white man should be elected to the Council.”  Edgar Challenger, then Vice President of the League, quickly dissociated himself from her statement stating that it was not the League’s policy to encourage such ideas.  But the slogan caught on and labourers all over were heard repeating it. Later that year Marcus Garvey visited St. Kitts and was welcomed on arrival by J. Matthew Sebastian who was reportedly accompanied by “˜an ex-woman school teacher of constitutional prominence’,” said Ms. Liburd.

She pointed out that since no other retired female school teacher is mentioned as having been actively involved in the politics of the time it is reasonable to conclude that this person was Bradley.  Bradley was also a founding member and Vice President of the Teachers Association.  Isa Bradley died on 25th September 1947.

Ms. Liburd continued: “By the time of Bradley’s death up until 1951 women were still generally denied the right to vote or to be elected. As we know, before the emergence of the Labour Party, the vote was limited to those who had property.  And, as we know, most of those who had property in the early twentieth century were male.  What this restrictive law really meant therefore was that the vote was the preserve, primarily, of men.  Women were effectively locked out.  So when Labour fought to extend the vote to everyone, Labour, in effect gave new powers not only to the property-less, but indeed, to females ““ to the lasting benefit of us all.

If you were to examine all of the changes that Labour brought to this country over these 80 years, Ladies and Gentlemen, you will see that they were all rooted in the rock-solid belief of equal opportunity for all.

What is very real, however, is the impact of these changes on women and girls.

Let us look, for example, at what Labour did for the women and girls of this country when they decided to open our nation’s high schools to all children.

Ever since the end of slavery in St. Kitts and Nevis, children from poor families ““ all throughout the Caribbean – had no choice but to find some kind of work once they completed the Seventh Standard that we hear so much about.  And this, as you can imagine, meant a life of real hardship for hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, men and women, throughout the length and breadth of this archipelago.

However, whereas the boys could learn a trade that might at least later permit them to make a living as a carpenter, a builder, or some other area of endeavour, the options open to women and girls were far more limited.

This injustice and this unconscionable waste of human potential was unacceptable in the eyes of the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party.  And so, despite vocal and relentless opposition from powerful quarters on these two islands whose interests were served by maintaining socio-economic class divisions, Labour moved to force open the doors of our secondary schools ““ so that every child, whether his or her father worked in the cane fields or whether his or her mother could find no work at all, had a right to the information and hence opportunities that had long been the preserve ““ in St. Kitts and Nevis – of the privileged few.

Suddenly girls from poor families were being exposed to ideas and subjects and possibilities that they could never, in their wildest dreams, have contemplated before.  Subjects like chemistry and physics were for the first time being taught to girls. And with better educated women came better educated children and families”¦”¦greater security in the home”¦..greater dignity and self-mastery”¦”¦..dramatically reduced vulnerability and dependency”¦”¦for Kittitian and Nevisian girls who, for centuries, had been denied the options that a secondary education can bring.

As a matter of fact, our country’s very first female physician was able to reach this important career milestone as a direct result of the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party’s decision to open the doors of our high schools to everyone.

Since those early days, Ladies and Gentlemen, we have had female doctors, female accountants, female scientists, female engineers, female lawyers, female entrepreneurs and chief executive officers, and yes, female politicians, females in every field making important and worthwhile contributions, not only here at home, but in countries far and wide.

Free, mandatory, and universal secondary education was, at that time, unheard of in the Caribbean.  However, that was irrelevant to Labour.  It needed to be done, and Labour would not ““ and did not ““ rest until it was done”¦”¦.to the enduring benefit of the females all throughout these two islands.

Sometimes it seems that we, the parents and grandparents, have somehow forgotten to remind our children and grandchildren how we got to this point of universal education that is being followed all over the Caribbean today.

Another change that has impacted positively on women’s empowerment is Labour’s revolution in housing and home ownership particularly since 1995.

For the first time many women, particularly low income women, have become property owners and are turning the keys to their own homes.

Among this number are single mothers who are now able to provide shelter for their children and their families firm in the knowledge that continuously moving from house to house has finally come to an end and that they can now pass their property on to their children to secure their future.

This Labour Party, Ladies and Gentlemen, has always been very progressive where the role and value of women are concerned.  And we have worked to ensure the advancement of women not only in society in general, but most importantly within the Government and the Party itself.

As a result, at a time when many throughout the Caribbean ““ and indeed around the world – believed that a woman’s place was in the home, Labour knew that the involvement of women had always been key to our success.  And history demonstrates the respect that this Party has always had for women, and the substantive and meaningful ways in which we highlighted their importance to our Party.  Indeed, women have always been key and welcome participants in the Labour campaign trail.  And anyone who is in the least bit familiar with politics over the years in St. Kitts & Nevis would know how active and how key women have been to the success and the forward movement of Labour. Bradshaw, Southwell, France, Moore, Bryant, Payne     not only paved the way for women to evolve as leaders but encouraged and promoted their involvement.  Bradshaw recognized that it was the women who carried the campaign through the streets and allies, in the highways and the by-ways.  He praised his women warriors and acknowledged, recognized and respected them.  And so Margaret Moses, Ivy Harrigan, Mae Warner, Emily Allen, Enid Adams, Hilda Veronica Byron, Anne Liburd, Mae Jeffers, Maude Nisbett, Dycus Matthew, Muggy Bryan, Polita Liburd, Cecilia Newton, Pete Warner and Lizzy Sharry to name a few were stalwarts on the campaign trail bringing home the victory for Labour time after time.  They were fearless and indomitable.

I recall that on return from one of his travels, Mr. Bradshaw brought a transistor radio for Emily.  Emily spoke fondly about this radio to all who would listen and took it everywhere she went.  She and her radio from Papa Bradshaw became inseparable.

Anne Liburd became the leader of the women.  She led Labour Women, Trade Union Women, National Council of Women, Toastmistress and eventually Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA).  She ran “Learn to Earn” courses for grassroots women throughout the island in an effort to make women economically independent.  She organized courses for women to learn to establish cottage industries for self-employment while she ran courses in effective public speaking for women building their confidence and self-esteem.

In the meantime the Labour Administration appointed Lilith Kelsick nee Warner in 1975 as Permanent Secretary and she was the first female to hold that position.  Then in 1976 Christine Arthurton was the first female appointed to the post of Accountant-General.

When we consider the fact that more than half of the Permanent Secretaries today are female and in Ministries like Finance, Sustainable Development and National Security, that women are heading Social Security, Financial Services and Public Prosecution, that in the diplomatic field Labour has appointed 4 female ambassadors, Ambassador Roslyn Hazelle, Ambassador Jacinth Henry-Martin, Ambassador Jasmine Huggins and Ambassador Shirley Skerritt, the first time females are appointed as ambassadors, those two appointments in the 1970’s may seem insignificant.  But at that time they represented the opening of the door for women in leadership positions particularly when it was still felt that a woman’s place was in the home.  The foresight and progressive thinking of our Labour Leaders in promoting women cannot be overstated or gainsaid.

On the political front it was Labour who elected Mrs. Ada Mae Edwards to parliament as our first female speaker of the House.  Mrs. Edwards, who was an executive officer of the St. Kitts-Nevis Trades and Labour Union from 1972, made history as our first female in parliament.  She participated in the Third Session of the 31st Parliament of Legislative Assembly on Ontario in 1979 and the 15th Caribbean Regional Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held in Nassau, Bahamas in the same year.

It is significantly noteworthy that the 2nd female Speaker, your humble servant, was elected by another Labour Government.  To date the country’s 2 female Speakers in the Federal Parliament were elected by consecutive Labour Governments.

The enormity and critical importance of Ada Mae Edwards’ election to Parliament in the journey and rise of women in leadership under Labour is further highlighted when one considers that this was pre-Independence.  Compare this with what was termed a landmark day for America on 3rd January 2007 (29 years after Ada Mae’s election to parliament and some 200 years after their independence) Nancy Pelosi made history as the first woman Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Who then could with any justification challenge the fact that our leaders are progressive thinkers in the promotion of women in leadership!  Only recently I came across a news item that stated that Rebecca Kadaga is changing the country’s political landscape and making history by becoming the first female Speaker of Uganda’s parliament on May 19, 2011.  I thought we in tiny St. Kitts and Nevis have had two already.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are just a tiny speck.  Most people would expect us to be following the lead of the great powers in terms of human rights, female empowerment, and other important indicators of human advancement ““ wouldn’t you think?

That may be the case with some tiny nations, and that may be the case with some political parties on some tiny nations, but that certainly is not the case where St. Kitts-Nevis and the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party are concerned.  Because long before most of the people alive in St. Kitts-Nevis today were even born, long before women’s liberation became the rallying cry for women throughout North America and Europe, long before all of those mass movements had reached a fever pitch beyond our shores, the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party had looked at the life, the abilities, the contributions, and the importance of women like Isa A. E. Bradley, a woman of immense courage, conviction and intellect and welcomed her to the political platform at a time when women were still denied the right to vote and Ada Mae Edwards, a woman of remarkable talent and mental strength and decided that she possessed exactly the type of attributes that are needed by any person being placed at the helm of a legislative body.

Ada Mae Edwards being the first female Speaker of St. Kitts & Nevis, and our first female parliamentarian, was indeed historic and indicative of the strong progressive values and ideas that have always shaped and defined our Party.

What did the prominence and weight of Ada Mae Edwards say to the women of this country?  First, it told them that their minds, their judgement, and their intellects were second to none.  Secondly, it told them that they could, indeed, assume and aspire towards leadership roles ““ indeed, roles of final and respected authority ““ at the highest levels of the nation’s business.  Thirdly, it told them that hard work and dedication do have concrete and quantifiable rewards.  And fourthly, it told them that, as far as the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party was concerned, it is one’s abilities and one’s efforts that determine one’s accomplishments ““ not one’s gender.

Successive Labour leaders continued to push for women in politics.  And so in 1979 Ermine Queeley-Evelyn became the Party’s first female candidate by contesting the Nevis local elections and in 1980 the national elections as a candidate in Nevis.  Though unsuccessful we admired and respected her courage, conviction and pioneering spirit which paved the way for those of us who followed.

Labour lost power in 1980 and for 15 years the working-class was attacked, sidelined and humiliated by a retrogressive and uncaring government.  When the then government as part of its attack sought to take Masses House, the symbol of the working-class movement, the women sprang into action.  It was their numerous fund-raising events led and organized by Anne Liburd that helped to ensure that Masses House remained the bastion of the working-class that it has always been.

Anne Liburd’s blackboard which she updated daily became a popular avenue for dissemination of information.  One ECCB top official told me that when he came to St. Kitts to work during the 1980’s ECCB was opposite Masses House.  He said he was amazed at this woman who dutifully updated the board every day. He referred to her as “the opposition leader”. He never missed a chance to read it every day during his coffee break.  The board attracted all persuasions and even tourists.

This aggravated the government of the day who sent police officers to remove the board.  So much for freedom of speech and freedom of expression!  The board was arrested and was never bailed.  And so I find it amusing today when under a Labour government we see true freedom of the press, true freedom of speech and expression, when people criticize the Prime Minister and the government morning, noon, afternoon and night, to hear talk of dictatorship.  We say “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”.

The Party was, however, adamant that women should be represented in Parliament and so in 1980 Mrs. Eugenie Byron-Condor was appointed as our first female Senator, the first woman to be so appointed and the second woman in parliament, the first being Ada Mae Edwards.  It is again noteworthy that it took a Labour Government after 15 years in opposition to appoint two female senators in 1995 in the persons of Ann Wigley and your humble servant.  To date three female senators have been appointed to parliament.  All three have been appointed by Labour.

The importance of women in leadership to the development of our country was again promulgated by Labour when Jacinth Henry-Martin was chosen as a candidate in Constituency #5 in the 2000 elections.  The difference between those who pay lip service to women and those who respect women and have a genuine interest in their development was starkly illustrated.  Jacinth’s candidacy was not just a stop gap measure to fill up the slate of candidates nor was she put to run in a constituency where her chances of success were zero or even minus.  Indeed Jacinth was successfully returned and became the 2nd female to be elected to office, the first being Constance Mitcham in 1984.

Jacinth’s bid for re-election failed in 2005.  But Labour’s unrelenting persistence to see women in parliament led to the candidacy of your humble servant in the 2010 elections in the Central Basseterre seat.  It is said that as Central Basseterre goes, so go the elections.  And for Labour to place confidence in a woman to contest that seat in difficult circumstances in its bid for a fourth term bears out the thrust of my presentation today, that is, that successive Labour leaders have consistently been progressive thinkers in their promotion and encouragement of women in leadership.

The elections of 2010 are now history and the defeat of the opposing candidate in every single box is historic.  Frankly it had little to do with me and everything to do with all those men and women who worked tirelessly to secure Labour’s victory in Central Basseterre.  I am grateful to them and for their guidance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, study after study, all over the world, has shown that the opportunities that are available to women have a strong impact on the strength and stability of a nation’s families, and therefore the nation itself.

The St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party has always understood and known that.  And it has, as a result, despite ongoing opposition, striven to implement policies and programmes that make women more independent, more capable of providing for themselves, more capable of providing for their families.

We have just introduced legislation providing equal pay for equal work to ensure that, with the advent of new companies to our shores, anti-female, discriminatory practices that may be common elsewhere are not brought here.

The new Pensions Act for auxiliary workers is also beneficial to women as a large number of women fall into that category of workers.

We continue to lobby for a pension or some form of gratuity for workers at the industrial site so that they would not be left empty-handed should they decide to leave their places of employment after ten, fifteen or twenty years.  As we know, the vast majority of workers at the industrial site (about 95%) are female.  This effort therefore is not only pro-worker, but it is strongly and indisputably, pro-woman and pro-family.

We have recently collaborated with the police in establishing the Special Victims Unit in response to the increase in domestic violence and physical and sexual abuse of children.  Even though this phenomenon can have victims of either gender, the statistics show that the victim is, most often female.

Throughout the history of the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party, therefore, we have consistently and unfailingly given positions of authority and power to those women whose abilities and efforts made clear the important contributions that they had made, and wished to continue making, to our country.  At the same time, we have also consistently remained alert to pockets of female vulnerability or exploitation that exist throughout the Federation and have moved to enact legislation and implement policies to protect and empower the women involved.”

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