DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
“WE MUST hasten slowly,” were the words of Audrey Jeffers in 1948.
Audrey Jeffers was the first woman elected to the Port of Spain Town (City) Council in 1936. She is well-known for her pioneering welfare and women’s rights work, for founding the Coterie of Social Workers, and organising both regionally and nationally for better social and labour conditions for women.
However, as part of a Franchise Committee established to consider adult suffrage for women and men over 21 years of age, in 1944, she opted to deny women full suffrage, instead supporting a minority recommendation that the right to vote should be limited to those who met income and property qualifications.
As Rhoda Reddock summarises in her book Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago, Jeffers’s (and others’) middle-class politics “was largely a struggle to become the complement of the men of their class, not for all women’s emancipation from gender and class oppression.”
Such “feminist conservatism” clashed with the more radical feminist and solidarity politics of Christina Lewis from the Caribbean Women’s National Assembly. Lewis was a Butlerite and the first to organise an International Women’s Day march in Trinidad in 1958. Reddock quotes Lewis in 1949 as observing that “most of the intellectuals we voted to represent our views have joined hands against the interest of the working-class.”
Christina Lewis’s observation challenges us to assess whose interests women represent when they occupy and wield state power. Is it the most vulnerable girls in our society or the most influential religious elites? Is it women in the informal sector, such as domestic workers, or employers?
At the launch of a Parliamentary Group of Women Legislators on March 23, I stood looking on with Jeffers’s and Lewis’s words turning over in my mind. It was an historic initiative by the Speaker of the House.
I kept thinking how pleased Hazel Brown would have been. She was a pragmatist, optimist and frontrunner in the feminist push to increase the numbers of elected women, their transformational leadership and their solidarity with women’s rights.
Hazel was famous for her commitment to women’s cross-party caucuses. She was a vortex pulling women together (and then educating and lobbying them while she had them in the room) with encouragement and clear-eyed recognition of how difficult it is for women in governance systems which remain male-dominated and ideologically heteropatriarchal.
Women parliamentarians had a huge affection for her, at the same time as, no doubt, they had to manage inner apprehension when they saw her marching toward them with her unrelenting feminist agenda and stubborn enthusiasm for her cause.
Women legislators both share similar experiences as women and face greater feminist expectation that they represent girls and women’s interests.
This is because, over the last hundred years, Caribbean women fought not just to end numerical inequalities between the sexes in parliaments, but for elected sisters to represent and advance the rights of women and girls. Similarly, feminists outside the State fought for gender ministries and bureaus so that state power could be occupied from the inside to transform gender and sexual injustice across national life.
However, collaborating across party lines and state institutions on behalf of women can still be considered disloyal, too radical, or out of place. In this context, a parliamentary group for women legislators is a bold, ambitious first for TT.
Quite often, feminist activists outside the State are frustrated at how much convincing, lobbying and begging is needed to achieve legislative and policy gains that are empirically justified and overdue. We share interests with elected women and moments of solidarity, yet also navigate containment and gatekeeping.
At the same time, women in parliaments may feel as if feminists don’t stand up for them when they face sexist attacks, and they don’t stand up for each other across party. Public life is full of jeopardies, dividing women by class, race, sexuality and religion, and part played in the pace of change.
I tried to strategise what would connect these women legislators across party divisions. Did they share a vision of where our society should be in 50 years? How did they imagine we would get there? What political will would enable them to be the powerful allies which girls and women need?
I wondered if Christina Lewis would have felt scepticism as well as cause for celebration. For Hazel, I opted for optimism.
Yet Audrey Jeffers’s words echoed. I hoped they would not hasten slowly.
Diary of a mothering worker