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Extraordinary ordinary women: My unsung heroes


Friday, October 16, 2020

Growing up in my community, between 1955 to 1975, the women around me — my mother, her friends, associates, and neighbours — seemed to be quite empowered, even invincible. These women, in many cases, had moved from rural areas to Kingston, and, through education, their labour and force of character had moved into the middle class, owning their own businesses and homes, with support from husbands/partners — where they were present and engaged.

My mother, Gladys Leblance Thomas, nee Morgan, had come from a small St Elizabeth farming community to Kingston in the early 1930s after her dream of becoming a teacher could not be realised. She got a job at Jamaica College Boarding School as a housekeeper. She later met my father and became a housewife, rearing seven children. My mother was intelligent and self-assured. She excelled at budget management, being able to make her “house money” stretch. She was a faithful member of the “pardner” group, and from her draw could always find some extra money in one of her secret places. She was a skilled multi-tasker and provided social welfare services to family and friends. She made a striking figure on a Sunday morning as she went to the Moravian Church of the Redeemer on North Street. She had style.

Coming within my mother's orbit were all these impressive and very capable women. There was my father's niece, Veronica Rose Ballyntine, known to us as Pearlie. From a teen mother and wife, she became a successful businesswoman in her prime. She had a clothing factory and an outlet store in downtown Kingston, Rose's Fashions. She drove a Buick, no less, and owned property.

There was Doris Nerissa Brown, nee Murray, an assertive woman. She did not suffer fools gladly. There was no one who could bake and decorate a traditional wedding fruitcake like her. She was in great demand for weddings, Christmas, birthdays, and other events. In addition, she turned crocheting centrepieces into another commercial enterprise. She was active in her church and in her community. Brown came from St Thomas and moulded herself into a successful businesswoman and philanthropist.

Raising her two daughters, Beatrice Archibald (Sista Bea), from Manchester, operated a stall in Coronation Market, was a part-time cleaner at The Ward theatre, and sang on the church choir.

In the neigbourhood, Annie Mitchell was the founder and principal of her eponymous preparatory school at the end of our road. A teacher, Mitchell started her school in the backyard of her home, which she owned. My sister, brother, and I went there. She was a figure of authority. Later, Mitchell made a major life change and migrated to the USA with her daughter June, where she went to work in health care. Talk about a can-do spirit and being undaunted by challenges.

Hailing from rural St Andrew, Ruthlin Agatha Robinson, after the death of her partner, raised her children with the income from her hairdressing parlour at her home. This was another self-motivated and ambitious woman. In the latter part of the 1960s, she too migrated to the USA, where, through her hard work and determination, she bought her house and supported her family.

I found Mildred Marie Davis most intriguing. This woman had a house at the end of our road. She wore pants and, of all things, she rode a motor bike. Imagine that! She worked with the Government in finance and was involved with The Little Theatre Movement. She was a maverick.

Another non-conformist woman in the neighbourhood was Joyce Berry, known as Man Joyce, who lived two streets away. She acquired this nickname because she had a garage and drove trucks. In fact, The Gleaner records that she was Jamaica's first female motor mechanic. Prior to this, it seems, she had been well known on the Town Moor cycling circuit.

And there were others.

Growing up in this environment, I had the impression that women had power and influence. I understood that life was not easy. Not everyone had the same opportunities; there was sexual and physical abuse, children with multiply partners, disadvantages in common law arrangements, and teenage pregnancies. There was need for social programmes and legislation benefiting women. I came to understand this more in 1975, International Women's Year, and in my first job, at the Bureau of Women's Affairs.

Nevertheless, among my best role models were the women of my youth — my mother, her friends, associates, and neighbours. These were women of substance and the message to me was that you could achieve if you had the will, determination, ambition, and grasped opportunities. The advice was: Rise to the challenge!

By the end of the 1970s, many of these women, community stalwarts, and their families had migrated mainly to the USA and Canada. They are all no longer with us, but the example of their resourcefulness lives on. They are unsung heroes. I am sure you could name many more.


Marcia E Thomas, a history enthusiast, is administrator for the Facebook page: Georgian History Jamaica and More.