International Women’s Day and the Emancipation of Women

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult". (Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Ottawa)

International Days focus special attention and calls for action on needy causes that are always important and always needy. I remember once when our Department of Medicine at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica celebrated Secretaries’ Day, Professor “Champ” said to the ladies “When are we going to have bosses’ day?” And the brightest and bluntest of the ladies retorted “Every day is bosses’ day!” And so we can all agree that every day should be Women’s Day … can’t we?

Throughout civilisation women have always been side-lined, suppressed, disadvantaged, bought, sold and enslaved, raped and mutilated. In the Western world things have changed … we have women Prime Ministers and Presidents, the glass ceiling is broken or missing if not entirely gone, and women are essentially independent to make their own lives and not be treated as vassals. However, for the great majority of the world’s women that’s far from the case, and human rights are flagrantly disregarded, as official policy or with the sanction of the state.

The First National Women’s Day was observed in the USA on February 28, 1909. In 1910 Clara Zetkin, from Germany, at a Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, proposed an International Women’s Day to press for the demands of women. It was first held on March 19, 1911 in several European countries, with more than a million people (men and women) joining rallies. In 1913, March 8, was chosen as the date, and so, on Wednesday March 8, this week, we joined in a rather passive way in celebrating International Women’s Day. Incidentally, colours have significance. According to the American National Woman’s Party, “Purple is the colour of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause, the colour of dignity and self-respect, and signifies bipartisanship”. However, in Britain women wear red – “a colour that can’t be ignored”!

Women in Barbados used to be unable to own property if they were married; it passed into their husband’s possession. Women had no vote. And the abuse of slave women was common place. Sadly, many of us know little about the courageous women of our past who led in many ways. National Hero, the Right Excellent Sarah Ann Gill (1795 – 1866) was the woman who stood out and whose heroic resistance to religious and persecution made her famous. As we know she joined the Methodists early in life and contributed to the building of the first stone church in Bridgetown. After the mob burnt the church, she held services, against the law, in her own house on James Street. She resisted multiple threats to burn down her house and two prosecutions. Eventually she gave the land in front of her house to build the splendid James Street Methodist Church.

Much has been written about the famous early hoteliers. Rachel Pringle became a household name after she hosted the raucous party of Prince William Henry in 1786, sent him a bill for the damages, and payment added greatly to her wealth. She was immortalised as a hugely fat lady in the cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, who made most of his female characters obese – it was the age of the artist Renoir when fat was fashionable and fun! The stories of Caroline Lee, Nancy Clarke, Betsy Austin and others are told in Warren Alleyne’s great book Historic Bridgetown, and beautifully embroidered in the recent historical novel Just Call me Madame, by Morris Greenidge.

My own story of Caroline Lee – the beautiful lady whose name was given to the yellow sweet potato – comes from family lore. My great, great aunt’s husband, a Mr. Barrow, apparently left the bliss of the matrimonial home and “shacked up” with Caroline Lee at her hotel, at Number 1, Broad Street, where Harrison’s is today. My great grandfather thereupon refused to eat “those potatoes” ever again, as “that woman’s” name must not be mentioned!
Jill Hamilton’s wonderful little book Women of Barbados tells the stories of many heroic, creative and pioneering Bajan women of the 19th and 20th centuries – women such as Mrs. John Humpleby, who founded the Ladies Association for the Relief of the Indigent, Sick and Infirm in 1825, and the “Old Ladies’ Home; Mrs. Edmund Haynes of Haynesfield (now Villa Nova) who established Mount Tabor Church, and taught the slave children herself; Mrs. Bessie Yearwood, founder of the Children’s Invalid Home, now the Bessie Yearwood Home for Children; Mrs. Henrietta Marson, matriarch of a hotel history of a hundred years – from the Nicholls building to the Ocean View, Sam Lord’s and Miramar.

In the last century there was Miss Nelle Manning, founder in 1907 of the Women’s Self Help, and Lady Gilbert Carter – artist, architect and landscape architect; Miss Ada Evelyn, founder of the Girls’ Industrial Union; Mrs. Olga Symmonds, J.P., social worker; Miss Maude Law and Miss. Margaret Packer, founder of the Civic Circle, forerunner to the Parks and Beaches Commission; Miss Dolly Hutson, “The Poppy Lady”; Madame Elise Ifill, founder of the Baby Welfare League; Miss Muriel Greaves, social worker and the first woman nominated to the Legislative Council, in 1949 and Mrs Ermie Bourne, our first lady MP; Mrs. Muriel Hanschell, Cambridge graduate and voluntary social reformer; our formidable nursing trio of Miss Eunice Gibson, Mrs. Odessa “Nellie” Weekes and Dr. Ena Walraond; business woman and vestry woman for St. Andrew, Mrs. Erma Rock; Florence Daysh (“Brown Sugar”) voluntary social worker, vestrywoman for St. Philip and member of the Legislative Council and the Federal Parliament (she defeated the Right Excellent Errol Barrow in the elections); Dame Elsie Payne, the first female Barbados Scholar and Principal of Queen’s College; Dame Olga Lope-Seale, doyen of radio and leading voluntary social worker; and of course the magnificent “Mother of the Nation” Dame Nita Barrow, Governor General.

And still with us are those several strong leading women of whom two stand out – Dame Patricia Symmonds and Dame Billie Miller, while many of our women have moved into the boardrooms and the pulpits and dominate the teaching profession, the civil service and the arts. Yet there is much more to be achieved, as victimisation in the workplace and abuse in the home and on the streets of Barbados remains a problem. And sadly, we pay little attention to what remains the blatant disregard of human rights across the world; we are silent in calling for emancipation of the many millions of girls and women “leading lives of quiet desperation” (paraphrasing Thoreau).

The book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by the brilliant Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Sheryl WuDunn (American Pulitzer Prize winner) explains why the oppression of women across the world is the paramount moral challenge of today, much as the fight against slavery was two hundred years ago. The title comes from a pithy statement of Mao Tse-tung (Chairman Mao, founder of the People’s Republic of China). He said: “Women hold up half the sky”.

The book focuses on prostitution, rape, education, maternal mortality, genital mutilation and the urgent solutions needed in so many developing countries. It discusses how there are more than three million women and girls globally who can be fairly termed enslaved in the sex trade – who are, in effect, the property of another person, and can and often are killed by their owner with impunity. There are estimated to be another million people trafficked across international borders every year, far greater even than the number of Africans sold and shipped across the Atlantic in the 18th century every year, to the horrors of slavery in the West.

The authors point out that failure to act is part of “a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by governments, societies and those in de facto authority” and we can see that women continue to face and to suffer one of the greatest human rights atrocities of this century. How little protest there is … how little determination to change things and emancipate all women.

(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine
and Clinical Pharmacology. Website:

Barbados Advocate

Mailing Address:
Advocate Publishers (2000) Inc
Fontabelle, St. Michael, Barbados

Phone: (246) 467-2000
Fax: (246) 434-2020 / (246) 434-1000