In my column of October 30, 2020, I lauded Marika Baptiste for her performance at the Lions Club South Public Speaking competition. Her impromptu presentation convinced me that she was special, for the impromptu part of the competition is the great divider. Speaking then of challenges facing people beyond the Dry River and the stereotypes to which they are subjected, she went on to say that her story is yet to be told. I suggested it would be a story worth hearing. So, her story continues. Marika is the winner of the US Embassy’s fourth annual Black History Month Secondary School Speech competition that was open to students from Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.
She spoke on gender equality and racial diversity as they relate to women’s involvement as elected parliamentary representatives. She, fittingly started with a quotation from the late US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the effect that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made,” and used this to make the point that parliamentary representation of women “is notably minimal.” She notes that a mere six years after Adult Suffrage Ivy Joshua was elected to the Legislature and continued for six consecutive years. What she neglected to mention was that Ivy Joshua represented the area beyond the Dry River.
She calls for the greater involvement of women, but we have been seeing greater moves in this direction. Five women contested the recent elections, three for the opposition party. Two did exceptionally well with one of them from North Windward now serving as a senator. There are two other female members in parliament who have been nominated. Marika noted that Ivy Joshua was ridiculed because of her darker skin and lack of formal education. She points to the challenges facing women in a male dominated society “steeped in colonialism and gender roles” that erroneously hold that a woman’s place is in the home. It is true that Ivy Joshua blazed the trail, but this must be put in context since that success was in large part due to the fact that she was the wife of Ebenezer Joshua who was then Chief Minister.
She feels that not enough is being done to encourage women to aspire to a career in politics although they are very much present as cheerleaders and organisers and are usually in the forefront vocally supporting their parties. Since we have just celebrated International Women’s Day and are into National Heroes Month that celebrates aspects of our history it is worth while looking at those early women who followed Ivy Joshua. On September 12, 1983 Valcina Ash won a bye- election brought about by the death of Arthur Woods. She however lost in 1984 to Herby Young. In 1989 Mary Hutchinson and Yvonne Gibson won seats. Gibson was to win again in 1994. The death of Mary Hutchinson led to a bye-election in the Southern Grenadines in 1991 resulting in Stephanie Browne winning then and in 1994. In 1998 Girlyn Miguel won in the Marriaqua Valley. What must be mentioned is the other women who contested unsuccessfully; Nelcia Robinson in 1984 and 1989, Celitha Davy in 1989, Olivia Bentick in the bye-election of 1991 and in 1994. We must note that in 1991 and 1994 the only contestants in the Southern Grenadines were women.
Marika suggests that the minimal involvement of women candidates was due to gender roles that placed men as controllers of politics and power. I am not sure that it is the onus of policy makers to dismantle those stereotypes. Existing parties need to facilitate the involvement of women at the highest level. But the question is, how do you deal with stereotypes in the broader society, although people tend to vote for their party regardless of the gender of the individual candidate. Women have perhaps the greatest role to play and we can be hopeful in that women are becoming increasingly involved and see their role not as cheerleaders but as aspirants to parliament and to reach the top.
Some of the issues raised by Marika call for wider discussions especially by women. They have to try to overturn stereotypes and society’s expectations. The big question is, when they enter parliament, do they simply live up to expectations, fit the stereotypes and blindly follow their male leaders?
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian