The Women's Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas 1948-1962
By Marion Bethel
The year 2012 marks the fiftieth (50th) anniversary of the culmination of the Women's Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas. In the Bahamas the movement took place against the dramatic backdrop of the Burma Road Riots of 1942, the General Strike of 1958, the Labour Movement of the 1950s, the majority rule and civil rights movements. Bahamian women worked tirelessly along with men to resist and redress the racial discrimination and the political and economic inequities that permeated Bahamian society. Women from all walks of life played a significant role in helping to advance the social, political and economic rights for Bahamians and, thereby, creating a deeper understanding of freedom and a more democratic society.
The Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas had its origins in the emerging Black middle-class of the "over-the-hill" area of Nassau. Mary Ingraham, the founder of the Movement, and Mabel Walker, her friend, were both wives of Members of the House of Assembly. These women along with other leaders in the Movement such as Georgiana Symonette, Eugenia Lockhart, Althea Mortimer, Albertha M. Isaacs, Doris Johnson, Grace Wilson, Mildred Moxey, Ethel Kemp, Gladys Bailey, Una Prosper Heastie, Veronica Lotmore, Nora Hannah and Madge Brown were aware of the enfranchisement of women in countries like Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados and understood the power of the right to vote as a citizen. They also knew that women in the United States, England and Canada had the right to vote. Many of these Bahamian suffragists were not only committed members of lodges but were leaders in the lodges. It was through these women's organizations and their international counterparts that Bahamian women gained increasing confidence to lobby for the suffrage and the further advancement of women's rights and civil rights in general. The Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas received tremendous support from its allies in the United States, Canada and England. The growing enfranchisement of women around the world provided an enabling environment for the Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas.
The specific social climate in the Bahamas in regard to women which engendered the struggle for the enfranchisement of women was described by Sir Randol Fawkes in his book, The Faith That Moved the Mountain
. He states: "More than half of the adult population of the Bahamas - the women - still remained voteless. In 1958, they lagged far behind their male counterparts in the field of human rights. The chief roadblocks to full citizenship for Bahamian women were: - i) the traditional attitudes of men and women towards their respective roles in society; ii) the lack of equal education and training, vocational guidance and counselling in the school; iii) the division of the labour market into traditionally male and female sectors; and iv) lack of child-care facilities for working mothers". Sir Randol detailed other disadvantages women faced including the inheritance law of primogeniture and the inadequate maintenance laws for child support.
There were essentially two branches to the Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas. They cross-fertilised each other and merged at pivotal times to speak with one voice. Several of the key women belonged to both arms of the movement. Mary Ingraham was elected as President of the Suffrage Movement in 1957. Georgiana Symonette was the Vice-president and Eugenia Lockhart was the Treasurer. Mary Ingraham, whose husband was Rufus N. Ingraham, Member of the House of Assembly for Crooked Island and Acklins, was affiliated with the United Bahamian Party. Eugenia Lockhart and Georgianna Symonette, both ardent supporters of the Progressive Liberal Party, organized women within and outside of the party to participate in the Suffrage Movement and the movement for majority rule.
In its particular pursuit of the right to vote for women and its general intention to advance the status of women in the Bahamas, the Suffrage Movement established strategic alliances with the other social movements of this time. It found a strident proponent of its cause in Randol Fawkes, leader of the Bahamas Federation of Labour. The Progressive Liberal Party in its pursuit of a majority rule government supported the right to vote for women and vigorously championed the cause shortly after the bye-election of 1960. The United Bahamian Party which was reluctant in the early stages to support the suffrage for women eventually capitulated in 1960.
In 1958, Dr. Doris Johnson returned home from studying abroad and joined the Suffrage Movement. She was a supporter of the Progressive Liberal Party and became the first woman to contest an election in the Bahamas. She also co-ordinated the founding of the National Council of Women in 1958.
In January 1959, Dr. Doris Johnson who proved to be a formidable leader in the Suffrage Movement led a demonstration to Parliament and gave a pivotal speech to the Members of the House of Assembly concerning the right to vote for women. This event was a turning point in the road to achieving the suffrage. Dr. Johnson spoke passionately and courageously. She held forth, in part,:
"We women have accepted and paid all the taxes which are imposed upon us by a government in which we now have no representation. Since we are powerless to limit these taxes, we are forced to bring charges of tyranny and despotism against this, our government, if it further denies us our rights to choose those who must rule over us and share in the making of our laws.
We, therefore, earnestly desire that this Regime go on record as an enlightened, democratic body, by ordering the immediate enumeration and registration of all women over 21 years and over so that they may carry out their duties as full citizens in the next by-election or general election.
Approximately half of the female population are working women, many of whom are the entire support of their families. Many have built their own homes, have bank accounts, established themselves in business and pay government taxes. An earlier petition points out to the Honourable House that it is a violation of the principles of democracy to grind out taxes from people who are without the power to limit or extend such taxes. Taxation without representation as you will recall was the basic principle upon which the American Revolution was based, and which due to the shortsightedness of the British King George III and his Ministers, lost for Britain our great and beneficent neighbor, the United States of America. It is this principle which still stirs a revolt in the hearts of Bahamian Women and energizes us to make our plea before honourable men".
During the years 1959 and 1960, the movement gained considerable ground advancing Petitions and demonstrating publicly for the right to vote. In November 1960, Eugenia Lockhart and Dr. Doris Johnson accompanied Henry M. Taylor, Chairman of the PLP, to London to present a Petition to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In January 1961 a Select Committee of the House of Assembly gave a Report in favour of the right to vote for women but with effect from January 1963. The PLP and the Independents in the House of Assembly opposed the report. An appeal was made to the House of Commons in England again. On February 23, 1961 a Bill to enable women to vote was enacted with effect from June 30, 1962.
Bahamian women voted for the first time on November 26, 1962.
A Chronology of Events Leading Up to the Enfranchisement of Women
By Marion Bethel
- A new constitutional regime began; a General Assembly of 24 members was elected in 1729; 8 from Nassau, 4 each from the Eastern and Western districts of New Providence and from Eleuthera and Harbour Islands.
- The Assembly was enlarged to 25 members representing 10 districts.
- The Assembly's membership was increased again to 29 with new representatives from San Salvador and Long Cay, Turks & Caicos Islands. Colin Hughes in Race and Politics in the Bahamas
states that this electoral distribution remained in effect until 1967, subject only to the division of the four-member Nassau district into two-member districts in 1886, the City (Nassau having received a charter in 1861 on the strength of its Anglican cathedral) and the Southern District. Eventually four members were added to the Eastern and Southern districts in 1960.
- The first franchise Act came into force in 1799. It stated that all free white males aged 21 and over who were freeholders and had paid 50 pounds duties in the preceding year were entitled to vote
- Free black men were given the right to vote. By the time of emancipation in 1834 there were 4 black Members of the House of Assembly.
- Frances Manester Butler returned from Miami, Florida in the aftermath of the great hurricane of 1929. She founded the Mothers' Club along with her friends, Violet Chase, Winifred Mortimer, Blanche Thurston and many other women. Mother Butler later went on to found the Silver Belles and the Young Women's Christian Association. All of these associations were self-help women's groups in the service of women, their families, young girls and the community at large. The Mothers' Club also established a scholarship fund for young women to attend college in Florida.
- The secret ballot was instituted in New Providence
June 1, 1942
- The Burma Road Riots was the first protest by Bahamians for better and equal wages. The riots opened the way for, inter alia, the establishment of trade union legislation, the secret ballot and improvement of general education.
- The secret ballot was instituted in the Family Islands.
1944 - 1950
- Women in the English-speaking Caribbean gained the right to vote: Jamaica in 1944, Trinidad in 1946 and Barbados in 1950. Women in the Bahamas, especially those women affiliated with lodges, were aware of the enfranchisement of women in different parts of the world including the right to vote for women in Canada in 1920 (excluding Quebec and the First Nations), the United States in 1920 and Britain in 1928.
- Women in the Bahamas began to call for the right to vote.
- Mary Ingraham and Mabel Walker were passionate about the right for women to vote. The husbands of both of these women, Rufus H. Ingraham and Dr. Claudius R. Walker, were members of the House of Assembly. Mrs. Ingraham sponsored a Petition for the right to vote and presented it to Stafford L. Sands, Jr., her representative in the House of Assembly. He apparently agreed to present it to the House even though he told her that he could not support it. The Petition was referred to the Constitution Committee of which Mr. Sands was the chairman. According to Henry M. Taylor, Member of the House of Assembly for Long Island and Ragged Island, the Petition was ill-fated as the Committee was not in favour of recommending to the House that the vote should be granted to women.
October 15, 1952
- The Daughters of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World and other residents of New Providence drafted a Petition to be presented to the Speaker and Members of the House of Assembly. This Petition was signed by Mary N. Ingraham, Lillian Isaacs, Myrtle W. Wray, Effie Archer, Mamie Astwood, Jennie Smith and 438 other women. Dr. C. R Walker, Member of the House of Assembly and husband of Mabel Walker, presented the Petition of the Elks to the Speaker and Members of the House of Assembly demanding the enactment of legislation to grant the franchise to women in the Bahamas. A.F. Adderley, a member of the Legislative Council, presented the Petition to the Council.
December 20, 1952
- The United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women was adopted by the General Assembly in 1952. This convention provided that "women shall be entitled to vote in all elections on equal terms with men without any discrimination".
- Mary McLeod Bethune, American educator and civil rights leader in Florida, founded Bethune Cookman College. She visited the Bahamas at the invitation of Emerald Nicholls of the Carver Garden Club. An ardent advocate for social justice, Mary Bethune was also a tireless advocate for the rights of women. This visit was the inspiration for the founding of the National Council of Women in the Bahamas in 1958.
- The Progressive Liberal Party was officially formed in 1953. Henry Milton Taylor was the National Party Chairman from 1953 to 1963.
October 21, 1954
- Sylvia Larramore published a letter in the Tribune presenting the case for the enfranchisement of women.
June 8 - 20, 1956
- The Progressive Liberal Party contested the General Election of 1956 as a party. Six PLP candidates, known as the Magnificent Six, were elected to Parliament. They were Cyril Stevenson, Milo B. Butler, Randol F. Fawkes, Lynden O. Pindling, Clarence A. Bain and Sammie Isaacs.
- Eugenia Lockhart and Georgiana Symonette, members of the Women's Branch of the Progressive Liberal Party, campaigned for Cecil Wallace-Whitfield in Eleuthera in the 1956 Elections. He did not win the seat. The two women then decided to organize women to gain the right to vote. They worked both through the organ of the Progressive Liberal Party and through the organization of the Suffrage Movement.
- Mary Ingraham was elected President of the Suffrage Movement; Georgiana Symonette, Vice-President; Eugenia Lockhart, Secretary. Meetings of the Suffrage Movement were held in the Rhinehart Hotel, owned by Dr. C. R. Walker, on Baillou Hill Rd.
January 13, 1958
- The Bahamas Federation of Labour called the General Strike in support of the taxi drivers' union. The Union had protested for many years that the white-owned tour companies in alliance with the hotel operators competed successfully with the taxi drivers for tourist passengers. The coveted trip from the airport to the hotels was the hotly contested issue. The strike lasted some 19 days. This event laid the foundation for the full enfranchisement of men in 1959 and further opened the way for the demands of the Women's Suffrage Movement for the right of women to vote.
March 1, 1958
- The United Bahamian Party was officially formed at this time. Stafford L. Sands, Jr. was the Chairman.
April 7 - 14, 1958
- Alan Lennox-Boyd, the Secretary of State for the Colonies visited the Bahamas. He supported the franchise for adult males but stated that he saw no evidence of a demand to extend the franchise to women even though there was a demonstration on Bay St. by women demanding the right to vote. He further recommended that the plural voting be reduced to two votes, ie, one residential and one property vote per elector.
- The Bahamas Federation of Labour headed by Randol Fawkes gave its full support to the Women's Suffrage Movement in recognition of women's contribution to the trade union movement. Randol Fawkes was a public spokesperson for the improvement of the status of women in the Bahamas.
September 11, 1958
- The establishment of the National Council of Women, an affiliate of the International Council of Women, took place at St. John the Baptist Church on Meeting St. Lady Russell, wife of the Governor was the Honorary Member. The Executive committee was comprised of the following women: Irma Grant-smith, President -elect: Mildred B. Donaldson,, vice-President - elect; Irma Albury, Secretary; Elizabeth Bethel, Treasurer and other executive members were Albertha M. Isaacs, Veronica Higgs, Beatrice Huyler, Mable Walker, Eugenia Lockhart, Georgianna Symonette, Mary Ingraham and Virginia Gibson. Doris Johnson was named the representative of the Council for North America. The Council was an umbrella organisation for women's groups in the Bahamas. One of its objectives was to facilitate the removal of all disabilities in regard to the status of women.
- Doris Johnson returned from her studies abroad at university and joined the suffrage movement and the National Council of Women. She was also a committed and forceful member of the Progressive Liberal Party.
December 1, 1958
- Gerald Cash, Member of the House of Assembly, presented a Petition to the Speaker and Members of the House in support of the enfranchisement of women. The Petition was signed by more than 2,500 persons. This Petition was supported in the House of Assembly by Milo B. Butler.
January 12, 1959
- Mary Ingraham wrote a letter to Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, requesting an audience to present the case for the enfranchisement of women. He responded on January 16 advising that the Petition of the Suffrage Movement would be discussed in the House of Commons. He encouraged them to continue soliciting signatures of support.
January 19, 1959
- Doris Johnson led a march to the House of Assembly and presented a Petition to members of the House of Assembly demanding that women have the right to vote. This Petition was presented in the Magistrate's Court of Maxwell Thompson as the UBP Members of Parliament refused to have her address them in the House of Assembly. Lynden O. Pindling persuaded his parliamentary colleagues to hear the Petition in the court room. Doris Johnson demanded that women be placed on juries and boards and official committees. Amongst other demands, she petitioned for the improved treatment of female juveniles and better maintenance benefits for children. She called for the appointment of female justices of the peace and female commissioners amongst a long list of other demands.
January 20, 1959
- Mary Ingraham, Dr. Doris Johnson, Georgianna Symonette, Eugenia Lockhart, Mildred Donaldson, Shirley Sands, Madame Willamae Saunders and Marion Stuart called on the Governor at Government House to present a Petition for the enfranchisement of women and demanded the enactment of legislation to provide for the vote for women.
- Eirene White, British Labour MP and Joan Vickers, Conservative Member of Parliament in England visited the Bahamas to support the Women's Suffrage Movement. The movement also attracted support from other international women's organizations. Helen Tucker, President of the National Council of Women of Canada and Voice of Women, supported the suffrage movement in the Bahamas.
- The General Assembly Elections Act was passed granting universal suffrage to males of 21 years of age and older. The property qualification for voting and the company vote were abolished. The plural vote was reduced to two votes. The Act did not include the right of women to vote.
January 10, 1960
- Lynden Oscar Pindling brought a Petition to the House of Assembly for the immediate extension of the franchise to women.
- After the Bye-elections of 1960 at which time the Progressive Liberal Party gained five seats in the House of Assembly, the Party increased its advocacy of the right to vote for women.
- The Elks Association pledged publicly its support for the enactment of legislation for the right to vote for women.
September 21, 1960
- Six women of the Women's suffrage Movement called on the Governor to discuss the grant of the right to vote for women. The women were June Stevenson, Emily Purkiss, Mabel Walker, Sarah Sands, Doris Johnson and Eugenia Lockhart.
October 22, 1960
- On Women's Vote Flag Day, women agitated for the right to vote on Bay St. and raised funds for the scheduled trip to London, England by Doris Johnson, Eugenia Lockhart and Henry Milton Taylor.
November 7, 1960
- Dr. Doris Johnson, Eugenia Lockhart and Henry Milton Taylor, Chairman of the Progressive Liberal party and a member of the House of Assembly, travelled to London to present a Petition to the Rt Hon. Ian McCleod, the Secretary of State for the Colonies for the right to vote for women. Eirene White and Joan Vickers, Members of the British Parliament, attended the meetings in support of the suffrage for Bahamian women.
- During a meeting of the members of the United Bahamian Party, they approved the vote for women 63 to 2.
- Women demonstrated in front of the House of Assembly. A Select Committee gave a report in favour of the vote for women but with effect from January 1963. This was signed by seven United Bahamian Party members. The PLP and Independent members did not sign. Lynden Pindling presented another Petition demanding the immediate enfranchisement of women.
- Arthur D. Hanna presented a Petition to the House of Assembly to amend the Election Act to provide universal adult suffrage and the abolition of the property vote.
February 23, 1961
- the Bill entitled "An Act to enable women to have and exercise rights of registration as voters and of voting similar to those accorded to men under the provisions of the General Assembly Elections Act 1959" was passed. It came into effect on June 30, 1962.
June 23, 1961
- Mary Ingraham, in her capacity as Treasurer of the Suffrage Movement, addressed the nation in a radio broadcast urging all women to register to vote. She gave special thanks to Reverend Dr. H. W. Brown for his active support of the suffrage for women. He had helped to obtain signatures for the first Petition that was presented to Parliament.
- Dr. Doris Johnson was invited by the Canadian organization, Voice of Women, to travel on a Peace Mission to 13 European capitals, London, Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen, Moscow, Leningrad, Paris, Oslo, Frankfurt, East Berlin, West Berlin, Amsterdam and Stockholm.
- The Women's Suffrage Movement and the Women's Branch of the PLP intensified their campaigns to educate and organize women to register to vote
July 12, 1962
- Ruby Ann Cooper was the first woman to register to vote.
November 26, 1962
- Dr. Doris Johnson, the first woman in Bahamian history to contest a seat in elections, ran on the PLP ticket in Eleuthera. She did not win the seat.
November 26, 1962
- Women of 21 years and over voted for the first time in the Bahamas. The United Bahamian Party defeated the Progressive Liberal Party in the election.
The Constitution of 1964
- The plural vote, inter alia, was abolished.
April 27, 1965
- On this day called Black Tuesday, Lynden O. Pindling threw the mace, the symbol of the authority of Parliament, out of the window of the House of Assembly. Milo B. Butler threw the hour glass out of the window. Both acts were an attempt to highlight and defy the ironclad exercise of power by the United Bahamian Party in Parliament.
1962 - 1967
- The Women's Branch of the PLP intensified its campaign to have the PLP elected in the General Election of 1967 in its pursuit of Majority Rule and a more democratic political system.
January 10, 1967
- The PLP became the elected Government of the Bahamas.
- Dr. Doris Johnson under the auspices of the PLP was the first woman to be appointed a Senator and Cabinet Minister in the Bahamas.
- Dame Bertha Isaacs was appointed a Senator under the Progressive Liberal Party Government.
October 16, 1972
- Mizpah Tertullien under the auspices of the PLP was appointed a Senator.
- Dr. Doris Johnson under the auspices of the Progressive Liberty Party Government was the first woman to be appointed as President of the Senate.
- Albertha Madeline Isaacs was awarded the title of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. She was the first woman to receive this award.
- Dr. Doris Johnson was awarded the title of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
- Janet Bostwick was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. She ran as a member of the Free National Movement Party.
- Ruby Ann Cooper-Darling was appointed as a Senator under the auspices of the Progressive Liberal Party Government.
- Ruby Ann Cooper-Darling won a seat for the Progressive Liberal Party in Exuma and Ragged Island. She was the second woman to be elected to Parliament.
- R. Italia Johnson under the auspices of the Free National Movement Government was the first woman to be appointed as Speaker of the House of Assembly.
- Dame Ivy Dumont was the first woman to be appointed Governor-General of the Bahamas. Earlier, she had served as Minister of Education under the Free National Movement Government.
- Cynthia A. Pratt was the first woman to be appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Security. She was a member of the Progressive Liberal Party.
May 22, 2002
- Sharon Wilson was the second woman to be appointed as President of the Senate under the auspices of the Progressive Liberal Party Government.
May 23, 2007
- Lynn P. Holowesko was the first white Bahamian woman to be appointed as President of the Senate under the auspices of the Free National Movement Government.
Chronology compiled from, inter alia,:
The Quiet Revolution
, Dr. Doris Johnson, Family Islands Press Limited, Nassau, Bahamas, 1972
The Faith that Moved the Mountain
, Sir Randol Fawkes, Printed by the Nassau Guardian, 1979
Race and Politics in the Bahamas
, Colin Hughes, University of Queensland Press, 1981
Chronological History of the Women's Suffrage in the Bahamas 1952-1962
, Dr. Gail Saunders and Kim Outten Stubbs, "Aspects of Bahamian History" Prepared by the Department of Archives, Ministry of Education
My Political Memoirs
, Sir Henry Milton Taylor, Kr. J.P., A Political History of the Bahamas in the 20th Century
Bahamian Culture and Factors which Impact Upon It
, A Compilation of Two Essays, Donald M. McCartney, Dorrance Publishing Co, Inc., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2004
The Making of a video-documentary of the Women's Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas
The documentary will narrate the story of the Suffrage movement with special attention to a) the five women who founded and/or led the movement, namely, Mary Ingraham, Mabel Walker, Eugenia Lockhart, Georgiana Symonette and Dame Dr. Doris Johnson and b) the voices of the women who
stood shoulder to shoulder with the leaders and c) the women who voted for the first time on November 26, 1962; d) the men who supported the right to vote in the halls of Parliament; e) the international women's groups that supported the Bahamian women's right to vote: and f) the legacy of the Women's Suffrage Movement.
Kindly contact Marion Bethel concerning any documents, photos or information on the Women's Suffrage Movement of which you may be aware.
February 29, 2012