Women's Issues In Guyana

Why has the struggle for justice for women attracted so few men?

Posted in Gender Equality by wiig on March 8, 2007
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Kaieteur News – March 8, 2007

Dear Editor,

It is sometimes said that history is an assemblage of past events that should not distract us in the present. Perhaps so, but only if history is seen as remote and abstract. A living history that directly informs the present is anything but a distraction.

I recently came across two such pieces of living history, from 1932 and 1958 respectively, in the pages of a couple of old newspapers. They bear an eerie resemblance to debates going on today, debates on the role of women in Guyanese society.

In June 1958, Rose Sobers, the Social Editor of the Sunday Chronicle, made a stirring call for a League of Women Voters for British Guiana. Lamenting the terrible social conditions of women and children, Sobers called for a body that would enable women “to get together and make our voices heard.”

“Such a League,” she went on, “should be non-party,” with its membership “drawn … from all parties, but showing allegiance to none.” Rose Sobers then laid out the rationale for her proposed League of Women Voters. Her words are worth quoting at length: “It is the ordinary women who carry the cross of rising living costs and out-of work husbands. And it is the ordinary women who have the vote and who put the politicians in power. Why can’t the ordinary women of this country get together, for once, and form a non-party organisation, such as the league I have suggested. Such a league could bring the complacent politicians to their right senses, because the women of this country can, by their votes, turn the tide of an election.”

Whether or not she knew it, Rose Sobers was standing on the shoulders of others. A generation earlier, in 1932, a somewhat similar debate had taken place in the New Daily Chronicle. The open salvo was fired when the paper reported the inaugural meeting of the women’s section of the British Guiana Workers’ League, which boldly asserted: “The time has passed when women were regarded as the completion of the furniture in a man’s home, when she was to be decorated and treated as a wax doll. She has in many instances been converted into a machine, a money-making machine, to save and cut down expenses in the home for man. Today she is a human being like man with equality of rights.”

So forthright a claim alarmed the defenders of patriarchy. A certain Walter Mac Lawrence, a prolific writer of his time, spoke for them, blaming women for the depression, then in full swing. “Is it so or not,” Mac Lawrence asked, apparently rhetorically and with a straight face, “that the entry of women into business is primarily responsible for the present world-wide economic crisis?”

Mac Lawrence did not have the last word. He received what was described as a “flaming response” from “Omphale,” gender uncertain, who poured scorn and derision on his assertions: “The more richly a man may be endowed with ignorance of woman, the more competent does he consider himself to decide what should be a woman’s lot in life… Drive them out of business either by force or by legislation, compel them to fill the role of brood-mares, and all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds…. When one sees with a pitiful eye the number of youthful Magdalenes all driven on the streets through the rotten man-made economic system, ‘to gratify that old philandering appetite inherent in man,’ pace Mr. Mac Lawrence, I thank thee Sir, for teaching me that phrase; one devoutly wishes that there were more women in gainful occupations.”

Again, the defenders of patriarchy picked up the gauntlet, and they found another spokesman in the famed Guyanese writer Edgar Mittelholzer. Writing in 1932 under the title, “Oh, These Girls,” Mittelholzer struck below the belt, so to speak. “There is a peculiar strain in my nature,” he confessed, “which compels me periodically to burst forth, so to speak, and say all sorts of things concerning these somewhat interesting – I nearly said intriguing – creatures we call females.” Having reduced women to the level of creatures, Mittelholzer ended his diatribe with a rhetorical flourish and a veiled threat. The “fickleness” of the feminine gender, he intoned, “leads them into intricate tangles, and like Alexander and the Gordian knot, when they find themselves faced by a tough problem they back through the cords of the net that enmeshed them at one fell… and in closing, let me say to you ladies, as some famous person, I forgot who, once said – ‘Watch your step!’”

The British Guiana East Indian Ladies Guild of 1932 was also told to “watch it” in so many words. Responsible for several social activities including sewing classes, distribution of dresses to poor women, the production of a play ‘Savitri’ from which the net proceeds were distributed to the Salvation Army and other groups and Xmas parties for poor children, the Guild was still forced to defend its social, humanistic role against a certain Akbar Shah, himself involved in a controversial newspaper debate with his disapproval of “educating East Indian girls.” The Women’s Guild representative wrote to the press advising that “these acts of Social Service were not shouted from the housetops, so Mr. Akbar Shah could be excused for the ignorance of these facts but he should get acquainted with his subject before attacking the guild.”

The Guild Representative under the soubriquet ‘Example’ earlier prefaced their defence with the following: “It seems unfair to the members of the BG East Indian Ladies Guild that an intelligent gentleman like Mr. Akbar Shah should sit comfortably in his home and dictate to this small body of plucky women who have been trying to hold together for the last five years in spite of all the disadvantages and selfish comments which are always being showered on them as to what they should do in regard to Social Service.”

What is the relevance of these references to this activism of Guyanese women in the past to the present? I left these historical snippets in recognition of the current daily struggles Guyanese women, whether the women vendors of the Stabroek Market as the recent letter from Andaiye attested of the experience and struggle of women in various dire experiments with politics in the formal sense. It is also of course in honour of International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th each year. Final intriguing questions arise. Should men allow only women to speak on the injustice faced by women in that time and this? Indeed, how long will the views expressed by Mittelholzer in 1932 be allowed to stand as the distilled wisdom of the male gender as a whole? Why has the struggle for justice for women attracted so few men?

Nigel Westmaas


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