Monday, August 9, 2010

An Open Invitation to the Indigenous and Black women of the Caribbean, and a History of Women's Activism in the Caribbean, by Rhoda Reddock

photograph of Rhoda Reddock is from here
I welcome your stories of struggle and resistance, of strength and sustainability. I also welcome the stories of corruption and control by those who believe Black and Indigenous women should not be the leaders in the countries where they provide the most work and the most care. Your stories may be autobiographical, cultural, political, economic--whatever you wish to express about the conditions in which you live and work. I firmly believe individual, social, and political isolation as well as self-blame and self-ridicule, are all tools and weapons crafted by White Male Master. And I also know this: his days as global leader are numbered.

This invitation is extended, as well, to Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous women across the globe.

The email address to send your stories and histories to is:

All materials will be copyrighted to you, in your name. You will hold the rights to your own words and writings.

In solidarity, Julian 

Below, a history of Women's Activism in the Caribbean

About the author:
Professor Rhoda Reddock, former Head of the Centre for Gender and Development Studies, was appointed Deputy Principal of the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies in August 2008.  In March 2002 she was awarded the 7th Triennial CARICOM Award for Women and in 2000, Professor Reddock was the Claudia Jones Visiting Professor in Africana New World Studies at Florida International University.

Professor Reddock has served as consultant for a number of international agencies, including the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union.

Her main areas of interest are women’s labour; gender and history; and the intersectionality of race, class and gender.

Among her academic publications are the books, Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago: A History; Elma Francois, the NWCSA and the Worker’s Struggle for Change in the Caribbean; Ethnic Minorities in Caribbean Society; Women Plantation Workers: International Experience.  Articles by Prof. Reddock include“Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective” and “Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago 1845–1917: Freedom Denied”.

History of the Women’s Movement in the Caribbean (Part I)
By Rhoda Reddock
[source: here]

Thursday 1 June 2006


I would like to begin by congratulating the various agencies and organizations which have brought us together in Grenada this morning to host this very important meeting. I believe it is very fitting that CAFRA – The Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Acton was asked to organize this meeting as this is precisely the role the founders of this organization saw for it at its inception some time ago.

In the 1980s in the Caribbean the new women’s movement was still relatively young. Those of us who thought of the idea of founding such an organization were spread out throughout the region, battling the detractors who saw feminism as a foreign import and our brothers in the progressive movement who saw us as dividing the struggle.

I remember one of our main thoughts at that time was that an organization such as this would:
give support to the few, at that time individual feminists living and working in our different territories;
provide solidarity to struggles in particular countries or to collective struggles as we were able to do in relation to Free Trade Zones and facilitate and support the strengthening of the women’s movement in the region.

Over the years we have been able to do these things to varying degrees but no one can deny that the movement at this time is at a crossroads. We are facing a number of developments and natural changes and we need to really prepare to meet these challenges if the movement is to continue and grow and complete the massive task of social transformation to which we are committed.

This meeting is therefore timely and I am sure that by the end of it we will agree on the need for more sessions such as this at regional and national level.

Before I go into the challenges facing the movement I want to digress a bit into the past. As many of you know, I have done some exploration of the history of the women’s movement in the region. For me this was very important as it was important to establish a history of women’s feminist struggle in our part of the world from which we could draw lessons. Additionally I felt at that time that no one country or region could have a monopoly on consciousness or action, surely any oppressed group would find ways to fight back. My task was to find out the ways in which women did this in our region.

In my explorations for example I learned that women’s and feminist organization existed in this region since the late 19th and 20th centuries. They may not look like they look today but they nevertheless existed. At a recent conference of Caribbean Intellectuals, Linnete Vassel and I began discussing the possibility of expanding her project on documenting the Voices of Women for the entire region as a testimony to the intellectual tradition of women and feminists over this century and the last.


Tracing the development of the feminist space and the sentiment in the Caribbean via the growth of the women’s movement has been an important contribution to recent discourses on Caribbean feminism. Regional studies have revealed a rich history of struggle and organization by women both in women’s movements and other social movements such as nationalist and labour organizations.

The Women’s Movement in the Anglophone Caribbean has its embryonic form in may of the women’s self-help societies of the 19th Century beginning with the Lady Musgrave Self-Help Society of Jamaica comprising primarily of ‘white’ and ‘highly coloured’ ladies. Although the membership of these organizations came form the upper and upper-middle classes, one of their primary aims was to provide economic support to “gentlewomen who had fallen on reduced circumstances”. By the early 20th century, these were followed by middle-strata women’s clubs and coteries of primarily ‘Black’ and ‘coloured’ women, which campaigned for women’s political rights, girls’ education and early legal reforms (see French and Fordsmith, 1985; Peake, 1993; Reddock, 1994).

In Jamaica, as early as 1901, Ms Catherine McKenzie, member of Robert Love’s Peoples Convention, a member of the Pan Africanist movement founded by Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams at the turn of the century, spoke on the subject of women’s rights at the Peoples’ Convention Congress of that year. According to Honor Fordsmith “she argued for equal rights for women and for women’s access to education and to the professions. She attacked laws which discriminated against women and urged then to join the fight to change them” in her own words:
...the rights accorded to women have left much to be desired. Just why woman has been denied all the rights which are accorded to man is one of the unexplained relations of life except that it is man who has made laws denying her such rights (Fordsmith, 1987:161)
Both Love and his mentor, Sylvester Williams were strong advocates of women’s rights and agitated especially for the education of Black women. Love also condemned what we now call sexual harassment of working-class women and supported universal adult suffrage (Fordsmith, 1987:161).

Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, the early women’s organizations combined their concern for women’s status with actions related to charity and social work. The ability and opportunity to act in the interest of others, through charity and social welfare work, at that time brought much prestige to its practitioners and for Black women this improved the status of their race. Additionally it was an area of activity which was not seen as selfish or challenging t the status quo. While to some extent it may have truly represented women’s concern with the plight of others, it was also a legitimate cover for action for women’s rights. In 1936, therefore the First Conference of British West Indian and British Guianese Women Social Workers was held in Port of Spain under the patronage of the Coterie of Social Workers led by Audrey Jeffers.

Working-class women were the presumed beneficiaries of many of the activities of these organizations but they were seldom seen as active participants. Indeed the word ‘charity’ and not ‘sisterhood’ best described the relation between Black women of these different classes. But working-class women were also active groups nationalist organizations, in lodges, friendly societies, church groups nationalist organizations such as the Garvey Movement and most importantly workers and trade union organizations and movements. These women participated n large numbers in protest action over conditions of work, and demonstrations and labour riots for improved working conditions. Some working-class women even founded their own worker or feminist organizations.

Middle strata women’s activists like Audrey Jeffers in Trinidad and Amy Bailey in Jamaica often combined a feminist consciousness with a concern with improving the condition of their race. Many were influenced by various strands of African nationalism and Garveyism. Indeed in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, Amy Ashwood Garvey, first wife of Black nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey visited the region. Ashwood Garvey, feminist and Black nationalist, was founder with her husband of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Kingston, Jamaica in 1914. From its inception she founded a ‘ladies division’, and possibly due to her influence the UNIA was one of the few early nationalist organizations which always had positions for women in its executive (Fordsmith, 1987; Reddock, 1994). She was also the only woman among the organizers of the important Fifth Pan African Congress held in London in 1995 where she and another Jamaican woman Alma La Badie raised issues related to the situation of the Black women. As fellow Caribbean, Trinidadian Claudia Jones shad to say in 1949, Ashwood Garvey echoed in 1955:
Very much has been written and spoken on the Negro, but for some reason very little has been said about the black woman. She has been shunted into the social background to be a child-bearer. This has principally been her lot (Padmore, 1963:52).
In the modern era of the transition to self-government and independence, from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, the women’s movement in the Caribbean has also been configured by nationalist ideologies and political positioning. Characteristics of the women’s movement of the region since its inception has been a strong sense of a Caribbean identity, primarily among what was then the British Caribbean. In April 1956, in the wake of the short-lived West Indian Federation, a Caribbean Women’s Conference was held in Port of Spain, on the instigation of Audrey Jeffers, aimed at forming a Caribbean Women’s Association (CWA).

Among the stated aims of this organization was to:

provide the women of the Caribbean with a representative national organization dedicated to the principle that women must play a vital role in the development and life of the Caribbean community;

to encourage women’s active participation in all aspects of social economic and political life in the Caribbean and to work for the removal of the disabilities affecting women, whether legal, economic or social.

In 1958, the first Biannual conference of the CWA was held in the then British Guiana and the second in May 1960, in Barbados (Comma-Maynard, 1971:89).

Notably in this regard the emergence of women’s arms of the major political parties in the region, women were important members of the new nationalist political parties which were emerging in this era, providing a solid block of loyal support which was seldom, however, translated into political office or power (see Reddock, 1997b). In the 1970s, women were also involved in the radical challenge to these nationalist governments such as the Black Power movements in the 1970s and the socialist and New Left Movements which accompanied or followed in its wake.

To a greater extent than their male counterparts, women were denied the franchise through unattainable voting requirements. In some colonies, the age at which women could vote was higher that that of men in others, women were barred from seeking elected office in the Legislative Council until as late as the 1950s (Senior, 1991:152). The experience is varied though, for in St Vincent, women receive the same voting rights as men as late as 1951. In Trinidad, universal adult suffrage was obtained in 1946.

What was clear at that time just as much as now is that the women activists were up to date with developments in the international movement and were keenly interested in these developments. Unfortunately most of us know little of this early history of the Caribbean women’s movement and I encourage you to try to do more work in your own country.

Last week I saw a very earnest and interesting letter from a young woman to the editor of the Trinidad and Tobago newspaper. In this letter she was responding to a very anti-feminist letter in which the male writer had been attacking feminism and the women’s movement. This young woman although earnest clearly did not know much about the early women’s movement. She stated that feminism began in the 1960s.


The emergence of second-wave feminism internationally also had its impact in the Caribbean region. On the one hand it caused older women activists of the 1950s, many now aligned with nationalist political parties to once more become concerned with women’s issues, it also stimulated a new generation of women activists, some coming from the New Left and Socialist Movements of the 1970s, while through the influence of the United Nations Women and Development programmes, governments and quasi-governmental organizations at national and regional level were encouraged to establish ‘national machineries for women’.

In the early 1970s therefore there was the establishment of CARIWA, a rekindling almost of the earlier CWA among ht eh older women’s organizations of the region, while later in 1985, there was the establishment of CAFRA, The Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action. Unlike CWA and CARIWA, CAFRA, moved beyond the boundaries of the Anglophone Caribbean and its membership includes all cultural and linguistic area so the Caribbean as well as the Caribbean diaspora. For the founding members of CAFRA, one of its important aims was to break down the barriers confronting women in the region. While the other was to support the development of and strengthen the women’s movement in the Caribbean.

The new feminists of the time sought to move beyond the earlier liberal and nationalist concerns of their predecessors who basically sought to improve the lot of their race and sex through improving rights to education, citizenship and political participation. These concerns remained but the new feminists claimed a larger vision which sought to come to terms with both their womanness and their Caribbeanness through a broad-based challenge to existing socio-cultural and economic and political structures. Writing in the introduction to the poetry collection Creation Fire two founding members had this to say:

For a start, the incorporation of the word ‘feminist’ in our name claimed for Caribbean and other Third World women the right to focus on all the strategic issues facing women in our societies, issues which span the range of social, economic, political, cultural, political and sexual. In addition, for Caribbean feminism as we sought to develop it, the emancipation of women and the transformation of exploitative social and environmental relations necessitated a clear challenge to the dominant world economic system and the development policies emanating from it (Baksh-Soodeen and Reddock, 1989: ii).


One of the most important developments of contemporary feminism in the Caribbean has been the emergence of feminist scholarship and women’s and gender studies. This has developed both within the outside of academic institutions. In 1993, the Center for Gender and Development Studies was established within the three campuses of the University of the West Indies. This was the culmination of eleven years work by the Women and Development Studies groups at the UWI. These Centers have now become bases for systematic teaching, research and outreach in feminist scholarship in the region building on the tradition which was established by the groups.

Alongside this has been the scholarship emanating from women’s research and activists organizations. While these are much more developed in the Hispanophone Caribbean this is also the case elsewhere. For example CAFRA has spearheaded some comprehensive region-wide research/action project sin the area of Women and Agriculture, Women and the Law and Gender and Human Rights. This work has been the advantage of involving and reaching women’s community based organizations in the small non-campus territories. While much of the work has been empirical and aimed at providing information for struggle and advocacy, it has often been informed by feminist insights and theorizing and so challenges traditional approaches in addition to supplying new knowledge.

At the same time it can be said that a Caribbean Feminist theorizing is emerging. Based on the work again of scholars within academia and without. In particular, some of the areas which have been theoretically developed include –
  • Gender
  • Race/Ethnicity and Class
  • Development Theory
  • Labour and Work
  • Differences


As I mentioned at the start of this presentation, the movement is at a crossroads and there are a number of challenges facing us. In a recent presentation – Stories of Caribbean Feminism: Reflections on the 20th Century, my colleague Patricia Mohammed noted that, for many young people Feminism is dead ‘ism’ like other isms – communism and socialism. She also noted to the amusement of the crowd that students at the Mona Campus were surprised that I was still alive and remarked that since they had read so much of my work, I must be dead.

This is interesting to me, as feminism is going through one of its generational transitions. This was the experience in the late 19th and early 20th century, so much so that my generation know nothing of that earlier time and now a new generation is emerging born after the 1960s and 1970s. In some ways we are in a better position in that there is a much larger literature than before, young students are exposed to gender studies courses at the UWI CXC syllabi includes components on women’s history, and other gender related aspects in other areas.

Nevertheless, we now are at a time where we have to manage the transfer from one generation to another. This is something which we all acknowledge and in many ways try to do but maybe we need some guidance on how exactly we can do this and this meeting or future meetings can probably give use the tools to do so.


In large part, the majority of the Caribbean population comprises persons of Afro-Caribbean descent and the struggle of these peoples to recreate and validate themselves out of a tradition of self-hate and ethnically-based oppression is a continuing one. In this context, the concerns and different experiences of Caribbean minority ethnic groups have often been seen as invalid or competing. Recently, feminist scholars of various race/ethnicities, colours, and classes, have challenged attempts to homogenize women’s experience and therefore the path to their liberation. Eudine Barriteau in her 1992 article, critiques earlier generalizations of Caribbean women’s experience. Rawwida Baksh Soodeen for example has observed that in the emerging discourse on Caribbean feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, the analyses almost exclusively concentrated on the African-Caribbean experience within the post-colonial context. She noted that in Caribbean feminist historiography, (with one exception), studies of family and slavery has concentrated on issues of matrilocality, female-headed households and so-called male marginality. All issues which contrasted greatly with the more clearly patriarchal and characterized as ‘afrocentric”. The post-colonial experience however has been one of competing deprivations as all ethnic groups feel that they are discriminated against and all blame each other for the situation.

Baksh Soodeen continues however, to note that the issue of racial differences within the Caribbean feminist movement is quite distinct from that of the USA and Europe in that in the post-colonial situation the African population has had some degree of political if not economic control. As a result she notes the bitterness characteristics of inter-ethnic relations among feminists in North America and the United Kingdom Is not as characteristic of the Caribbean region. She posts that in spite of the real cultural differences among feminist of different ethnic and religion groupings, the larger tradition of anti-colonial struggle based on the commonalities within the differences have contributed to how we have conceptualized ourselves.

Differences in the Caribbean therefore can be a mechanism for showing interconnectedness. In other words, the long-term project of a feminist understanding of difference would not be simply to come to terms with the other or to celebrate diversity, but rather to understand the other within ourselves as we have in many ways been defined in opposition and in relation to each other. As a movement we need to therefore to work among our members against racism and towards an appreciation of diversity.

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