Column: Reflecting On Women’s Rights, Progress

March 8, 2017

[Opinion column written by Glenn Fubler]

On this ‘International Women’s Day’ we pause to reflect on the rights of women in society. Over history, across the globe, women have been disadvantaged by unfair male domination- a system of ‘patriarchy’. Even today in some countries girls are barred from education and women have their freedom of movement restricted. Our circumstances thankfully are not so drastic.

We get some perspective effecting our context, remembering that British women obtained the right to vote in 1918 after years of campaigning by the Suffragettes Movement.

In Bermuda after a decades-long movement, led by Gladys Morrell, that right came in 1944. Dr Eustace Cann – a longtime campaigner against segregation – played a key role in that Parliamentary victory, demonstrating the interconnection of basic rights.

The interlink of various rights became most evident in the 1960’s. While patriarchy meant the curtailing of women’s rights on things such as the ownership of land for decades, change only came as a result of the wider movement for social justice. Bermuda’s first female lawyer was called to the Bar in 1953 and she – Dame Lois Browne Evans – was not joined by another female – Ann Cartright-DeCouto – until 1967.

The winning of women’s right to vote in 1944, sparked the Gordon Movement in the mid ‘40’s, addressing wider social justice. From that foundation, a domino-effect through the early ‘60’s resulted in Bermuda’s first democratic General Election in 1968.

Out of that ’68 Election, Dame Lois Browne Evans became the first female Opposition Leader in the whole of the Commonwealth. While that says something about Bermuda’s attitude towards the rights of women, one would have to carefully consider the context.

During that period, Wilfred ‘Mose’ Allen was a key figure in the Progressive Labour Party [PLP]. Given Mose’s personality, it was much less likely that colleagues would ‘act out’ patriarchal tendencies. Consequently, Dame Lois remained Opposition Leader for a lengthy period, helping to guide the evolution of our Island.

That said, while women made progress over subsequent decades, and there is evidence that they outpaced some men, Bermuda retained glass ceilings.

However, while the United Bermuda Party held Government for 3 decades, they didn’t selected a woman as Premier until the ‘ writing was on the wall’. While there was the politics of capitalizing on her being the daughter of Dr Gordon, it is also arguable that attitudes of patriarchy led them to select the neophyte, Dame Pam during those challenging times.

With the foundation laid by Dame Lois, Jennifer Smith was able to lead the PLP into its first General Election victory in 1998. Serving as Premier for that first term of office, Dame Jennifer was successful in winning a second Election in 2003. However, during a controversial set of circumstances she was removed as Premier. It is arguable that her removal was due to that remnant culture of patriarchy.

The third woman who has served as Premier in Bermuda was the Hon. Paula Cox who took office during a challenging economic period. It is arguable that in our male-dominated political landscape, she too was a victim of patriarchal attitudes.

So that while Bermuda can ‘boast’ that during its five decades of full democracy, we have enjoyed having three women serving as Premiers, questions remain.

The challenge of fostering fundamental social transformation is difficult under the best of circumstances. Change may even be mandated by Constitution and law, but attitudinal change remains key. So that while the South African Constitution mandates that their Cabinet must include at least 50% women, the reality on the ground is another matter. President Zuma is arguably an unfortunate exemplar of patriarchal attitudes.

In Bermuda, on this International Women’s Day we take time to reflect. While we know that we have made some progress, we remain aware that to benefit our entire society, we should consider the matter of rights in the context of the whole.

We are also reminded by Gandhi’s injunction to ‘be the change…’.

- Glenn Fubler


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