Women's Day, milestones and by-elections


Thursday, March 08, 2018

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It is International Women's Day. Today is the also the birthday of the late Lady [Gladys] Bustamante, wife of Sir Alexander, who would have been 106 years old today had she still lived. Today is also the 17th anniversary of the by-election in St Ann North Eastern in which the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) Shahine Robinson snatched the seat for her party following the resignation of the People's National Party's Danny Melville from Parliament.

Tuesday, March 6 marked 21 years since the death of former prime minister Michael Manley. And, of course, today marks three days since the by-elections in St Andrew North Western and in the Norman Gardens Division of the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation. Congratulations to the JLP's Dr Nigel Clarke and Jacqueline Lewis of the People's National Party (PNP) on their victories in those by-elections.

The early protests for women's rights in England were about the right to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Franchise League movement to win the right for women to vote in 1889. In October 1903 she co-founded the more militant Women's Social and Political Union.

In 1913, Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the king's horse at the derby in protest for women's suffrage. Many fighters for women's suffrage were arrested on occasions including Emmeline Pankhurst. There was a series of hunger strikes, which led to the British Government passing a law to release prisoners on hunger strike, and when they grew strong again, rearrested them. This act came to be known as the 'Cat and Mouse' Act.

But it was the realities of the Second World War that brought women into so-called equality with men. With the men at war in Europe, and later the United States of America, the women delivered mail; climbed utility poles; turned plumbers, farmers; and all the jobs normally performed by men. When the men returned from war it was very difficult for the men to get back their normal jobs.

Then, at the end of the 1960s came the Women's Liberation Movement in which it was more than the demand for equal rights. The women literally wanted to be men; hence, unisex barbers, restrooms, and so on. While there is no single reason for the growing acceptance of homosexuality starting with its legalisation in England in 1967, this stance of the Women's Liberation Movement certainly contributed to it. And Jamaica has felt the wind of all this through travel, television and the Internet.

So, eventually, women's rights were no longer just about treating women with respect and equality in terms of rights and protection. This has a striking contrast with the Roman Catholic Church's position honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary as an example of holy womanhood.

Mary is regarded as great without having a university degree, or without being a successful business woman or without holding political office. Her greatness in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was her faith and in saying 'yes' to Almighty God. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation on March 25.

Here, in Jamaica, the upper- and middle-class women who fight for the rights of women do not concern themselves much with the plight of domestic helpers — of whom over 90 per cent are women. These women who sometimes travel distances of up to 10 or 15 miles waking from as early as 4:00 am to fix breakfast for “Mr and Mrs Upper Class” who have not yet got out of bed and are called upon to be cook, washerwomen, and child nurse all at once. This is a subject seldom addressed on International Women's Day. This is a subject that I have written on several times in my nearly 30 years as a newspaper columnist, but to little avail.

In the 1990s, however, through my columns in the now defunct Jamaica Record I successfully got the Government to reverse a decision made in the 1980s to have two minimum wages and have one for all workers inclusive of domestic helpers, just as it was when it was introduced by Michael Manley in 1975. How do I know it was me? I saw then Labour Minister Portia Simpson Miller shortly after that and she said, “You see we got the minimum wage though.”

While Portia Simpson Miller praised me on one occasion in 1991 for being (sic) the first journalist to write on behalf of domestic helpers, I discovered later in my research that the late John Maxwell was before me in this regard, so I settle for second place until research displaces me further.

Domestic helpers have very little bargaining power because they do not have the numbers to go on strike, unless they do so across the board. This would have to be done by the trade unions rather than the Jamaica Household Workers Association, which as an arm of the Ministry of Labour, 'he that pays the piper calls the tune' is applicable. My suggestion to them is to get their educated children and grandchildren involved to get more rights.

Ironically, Jamaica's second female minister of labour is the current one, Shahine Robinson. She it was who won a by-election 17 years ago and, having done so, forced the PNP to get themselves organised to win the general election of 2002. It was that sturdy organisation for the 2002 General Election that caused Omar Davies to later remark regarding roadwork done prior to that election they had to just 'run wid it', as seen in recent by-elections at a time when the JLP is in power.

Apart from the overconfidence of the PNP in what was a safe seat, and apart from Shahine's popularity in St Ann North Eastern, another contributing factor was a fuss between two powerful PNP women in the constituency leading to a division in the organisational effort. And the failure of the PNP to get those two women together was a factor in the JLP's Shahine Robinson's victory on International Women's Day in 2001, exactly 17 years ago today.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or




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