A brief history of Women’s Organizations in the Caribbean

 

By Rhoda Reddock

Professor of Gender, Social Change and Development, UWI

Rhoda Reddock

Women in the English-speaking Caribbean have been members of women’s organizations since the 19th century. In the main, these have been religious-based women’s organizations, especially of the various denominations of the Christian Church. In this region the organization of women was particularly important as in the late 19th and early 20th century it was the main mechanism for transferring and inculcating Western European values of women’s place, the sexual division of labor and social and domestic organization.

The large-scale organization of women continues to take place within religious bodies, and has also occurred within the labor movement and political organizations. The early labor movement was a much more amorphous grouping than present-day trade unions. In particular, the very broad concept of “worker” which was used facilitated the participation of persons involved in a wide range of economic activities.

Today, women continue to be members of unions, especially in those occupations dominated by women.

Nevertheless, even in these unions, few attain or accept leadership positions. Today, the trade union movement, in spite of a significant female membership, continues to be a male dominated institution not only in its leadership but in its concerns and style of operations.

The re-emergence of the women’s movement internationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s ushered in a new era in the Caribbean women’s struggle. Unlike the earlier movement, this impact has been broader and has touched many more aspects of personal and political life than its forerunner earlier in the century

Interestingly enough, many of the first women to be influenced were the stalwarts of the traditional women’s organizations from the era of the 1950s, many of whom were heavily involved in nationalist political parties which emerged at that time.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s also, small groups of women began to meet and discuss their situation, many influenced by the ideas emanating from the radical black power, anti-war, new left and women’s liberation movements of North America and Europe. The contradictions among the various strands of this new left politics were felt most by the women of these movements.

Many of those small groups, like the Jamaica Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (JARA) in Jamaica and the Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women in Trinidad, or even Women Against Terror in Guyana, comprised middle-strata women, many members or associates of small left-wing political parties, but not many.

In spite of the strong radical bent in Trinidad and Tobago, one of the earliest of the new women’s groups to be formed was the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago. Launched in 1975, its objectives included “the task of encouraging the exchange of information and ideas for the promotion of joint action among women in the national interest … In its short active life, this group was able to mobilize a national membership (including Tobago).

In 1977 the Sistren Women’s Theatre Collective, one of the first of a line of feminist-oriented autonomous women’s groups was formed. Unlike many others, it had a predominantly working-class membership, and used drama as a workshop and performance tool for consciousness-raising and entertainment.

By the 1980s, small radical or feminist-oriented women’s groups mushroomed throughout the region, beginning with BOW AND in Belize in 1979, an outcome of a WAND Workshop, and followed by the Concerned Women for Progress in Trinidad and Tobago which by 1985 had spawned The Group (1983) and Workingwomen (1985).

Other organizations included the Committee for the Development of Women in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (1984), the Belize Rural Women’s Association (1985), Sisi Ni Dada of St. Kitts/Nevis (1985), Red Thread of Guyana (1986) and most recently the Women’s Forum of Barbados (1988).

Although small and voluntary in membership, the impact of these groups has usually far surpassed their size. This influence has usually been achieved through campaigns on relevant issues which have been able to draw in a wide cross-section of women including women from the more established and traditional women’s organizations. Among the more successful of these were the campaign against violence to women in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1985-86 and the campaign over the Sexual Offences Bill in Trinidad and Tobago during the same period. The issue of sexual violence has been a key factor in mobilizing women throughout the region. This issue which includes domestic violence – sexual abuse of children, rape in unions, wife battering, rape, incest, sexual harassment in the workplace and other forms of sexual assault has served to be the one issue capable of uniting women of all classes, races and ethnic groups.

These developments have served to radicalize the established women’s organizations and force them to refocus away from charitable works to their original concerns, the emancipation of women. Changes can be discerned (for example) in the activities of the YWCA which at least at a regional level began to concern itself much more with issues of women’ s health, young women and world peace, and among women in church groups where, for example, the Barbados Mothers Union has taken up the issue of sexual violence and the ordination of women priests. In Barbados and in Trinidad and Tobago, the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs have both established institutions to assist battered women while the Soroptimists have concentrated their efforts on women and work.

Among the non-Christian religions, the influence has also been felt. In Jamaica, women within Rastafari have begun to assert their identity and while one representative of the organization, Mada Wadada (Mother Love) found it impossible to conceive of a women’s group of women and for women, she noted that – “More and more internationally the sisters adopt new strategies to achieve economic independence and consequently independence of their children.”

Similarly in Trinidad and Tobago the Hindu Women’s Organization formed in 1987 seeks to mobilize the Hindu woman, and “deal specifically with matters affecting the Hindu woman and her relationship with the wider society.

From the above one can get the impression of a well-developed and effective women’s movement within this region. Developments however are uneven, both within countries and within the region.