In her 1959 speech before the Members of the House of Assembly, Dame Dr. Doris Johnson described the women’s suffrage movement as “a revolt in the hearts of Bahamian women.” In recognition of these heroines, who were first allowed to exercise their right to vote 50 years ago, The College of the Bahamas, from March 6th-9th, 2012, hosted a symposium under the theme, “Commemorating the Past, Reflecting on the Present, Envisioning the Future: 1962 and Beyond.”
Connecting past, present and future, afforded the symposium’s panellists and audience the opportunity to analyse the development of gender issues in a broader context, thereby igniting a national discourse on the subject. Arguably, this approach is indeed a most befitting memorial to the suffragettes and their legacy. During the symposium, Dr. Christopher Curry, Assistant Professor of History, argued passionately that the women’s suffrage movement never saw the vote as an end in itself, but only as a tool for transformation. Only if women were given a voice in politics, could women expect their concerns to translate into policies that would recognise them as being of equal value, that would grant them equal opportunities, and that would offer them equal protection under the law.
However, it was also argued that when women finally gained the right to vote in 1961, and when they were finally able to exercise this right in 1962, these objectives had to take the backseat, because other issues were seen as more pressing at the time. It was the decade during which Majority Rule was achieved, it was the decade leading up to independence, and the women’s vote was seen as crucial to achieve the numbers necessary to realise these aims at the polls. The female vote had become instrumentalised in the race and class struggle of the 1960s.
Nonetheless, progress has been made since then. E’Thegra Symonette, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, pointed out that mechanisms to prevent, or at least prosecute, domestic violence are a direct result of the right of women to vote. Yet only minutes later, the audience was reminded of other realities which paint a grim picture of gender discrimination in the 21st-century Bahamas. Dr. Nicolette Bethel, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, demonstrated how our citizenship laws classify women as second-class Bahamians, a discrimination Bahamians, male and female, chose to reaffirm in the 2002 referendum. Furthermore, Margo Blackwell, Associate Professor in the School of Education, presented data showing that women with bachelor’s degrees get paid as much – or as little – as men with associate degrees, and women with master’s degrees receive about the same as men with bachelor’s degrees. So, while Bahamian women outperform their male counterparts in educational achievement, they do not reap the rewards.
Gender inequality is still a problem in the 21st-century Bahamas, and it often goes unnoticed. In his presentation on “Law, Gender and Institutional Structures,” Michael Stevenson, Associate Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, analysed how seemingly gender neutral language in Bahamian law can in fact perpetuate the oppression of women. It was not long ago that we saw a heated, sometimes deceptive, debate about “marital rape,” which I am forced to put in inverted commas, as, legally speaking, it does not exist in this country even though it is a reality.
Marital rape is one of many forms of domestic violence, and the victims of domestic violence are predominantly women. By not recognising marital rape as such, Bahamian law fails to give women the protection that every Bahamian citizen deserves, and by accepting this legal inequality, we accept our society as discriminatory. The tools for transformation may therefore indeed lie in the past. To honour the women’s suffrage movement’s legacy, whose rational political acumen and strategic approach helped shape the nature of the Quiet Revolution and thereby the genesis of our democracy, we ought to make the pursuit of its unfinished agenda our mission.
Marcus Garvey, founder of the pan-Africanist Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Herein lies the cause of what some describe as the current crisis in Bahamian national identity, because, when the British left The Bahamas in 1973, they left us with a system of government, but we did not have a nation.
Nation building is an ongoing process; thus Bahamian identity should be in fluid motion. One of the most acute commentators on Bahamian social issues today is Joey Gaskins, a doctoral student in Sociology at the London School of Economics, who followed the events online. In his Twitter feed he described “national cultures” and “national identities” to have been “scripted to exclude.” I would like to posit that at the end of our “identity crisis,” we might emerge to define being a “true Bahamian” as something to aim for, a vision for the future if you so will, that requires a conscious effort aimed at inclusion and expanding horizons, as opposed to an existing state of mind satisfied with the status quo. To this end, The College of The Bahamas, as the country’s national tertiary institution, has a role to play.
The College’s mission is “to support and drive national development.” Unfortunately, there exists a disconnect between the academe and the Bahamian public that sometimes looks upon The College as an hermetically sealed ivory tower, when in fact our students and our staff, academic and non-academic, are all woven closely into the Bahamian social fabric. Symposia such as this one, however, can bring us together. They create a space for the exchange of ideas, and they are indeed the motor of a Bahamian discourse on matters relevant to the building of our nation.
Given the interest shown in the symposium’s themes, the event must be considered a success. The last day saw presentations from local and international scholars exploring current issues of gender and identity not only in The Bahamas, but in a wider Caribbean context. The College’s symposium has furthered the national discourse and shown that the right questions are being posed. Now it takes the entire body politic to ponder these questions and explore possible answers. Indeed, this is what universities do.