“A right delayed is a right denied.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
The Bahamas Independence Conference convened 12 days before Christmas 1972 at the red Dutch brick Marlborough House in central London, which once served as a royal residence, eventually housing the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation.
Leading the Bahamian delegations were Premier Sir Lynden Pindling (PLP) and Leader of the Opposition Sir Kendal Isaacs (FNM). The central order of business was the independence constitution.
Marlborough House, adorned with paintings, murals, tapestries and sculptures symbolizing the apogee of British imperial and colonial rule was now a museum of sorts where the nadir of empire was unfolding with a succession of colonies holding independence talks in the stately mansion.
There was, at the conference, another irony; a tragic one: Ten years after women’s suffrage and at the birth of a new constitution committed to equality, the PLP, the party which helped usher in majority rule, opposed full equality for Bahamian women in terms of passing on a right of automatic citizenship to children born outside The Bahamas of a non-Bahamian husband.
This denial of full equality by the governing party was not an oversight. It was a matter of contention between the FNM, which argued for full equality on the citizenship question, and the PLP, which defended its patronizing, antiquated and discriminatory position as an international norm.
During a break in the formal talks, one of the most senior PLP leaders was pressed by an FNM delegate on the matter. The flippant response was that if Bahamian women got such a right, they would then want the right to use the men’s washroom.
The unhumorous quip exemplified an entrenched sexist mindset in the party which came to power because of the women’s vote and the efforts of the suffragettes.
The party which bore the name progressive and liberal and which fought racism, proved wedded to sexism and male superiority and supremacy from independence onward. This record of the betrayal of Bahamian women on key matters is as astounding as it is long, stretching to the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
During the 25-year reign of Sir Lynden’s PLP, full constitutional equality for women was never addressed. A few women were appointed to the unelected Senate. Yet, from the inception of the PLP in 1953, and most certainly from the 1956 general election until 1987, a Bahamian woman was never afforded a safe or winnable seat for the House of Assembly by the party.
This was the worst kind of betrayal of the aspirations of Bahamian women over several generations. It was not until 1982 that the FNM shattered this glass ceiling, successfully running Janet Bostwick.
The PLP only followed suit in 1987, embarrassed by its historic and tragic failure to be the first party to have a woman secure a seat in the House. Later, when the FNM sought to secure full constitutional equality for women, the men in the Perry Christie-led PLP sacrificed women’s rights in lust for power.
In a recent joint-sitting of Parliament, Christie and the PLP again indulged the rhetoric of progress and equality, lauding the 50th anniversary of the seminal speech by Dame Dr. Doris Johnson, on behalf of the suffragettes, calling for the right to vote for women.
Tragically, typically, tellingly, the PLP’s progressive rhetoric is light years behind the sad reality of its often abysmal record. Dame Doris’ refrain in her speech was of the urgency of now in terms of women’s rights. It is an urgency often falling on deaf ears of the men of the PLP high command.
Dame Doris did briefly serve in the Sir Lynden’s Cabinet and as a senator. But she was ousted for reasons to be detailed in a subsequent column. The PLP could have taken Dame Doris to the Independence Conference. But it failed to take her or any other woman as a delegate.
What a tragic exclusion and failure of historic proportions that only men sat around that table, and in Sir Lynden’s cabinet over the course of two decades. After Dame Doris’ departure from the cabinet, Sir Lynden never again appointed another woman to his cabinet – never! Hubert Ingraham’s first cabinet boasted several women.
As an aside, it was the FNM which built and named a senior high school after Dr. Johnson. The school was not officially opened before the FNM lost office in 2002. Over the next five years, the Christie government never got around to an official opening of the school honouring the suffragette they now so gleefully celebrate. That opening came after the FNM’s 2007 re-election.
Mizpah Tertullien nee Duncan was a therapist, popular columnist for this journal, folklorist and author who penned: “Psychologically speaking: attitudes and cultural patterns in the Bahamas” and “Old Stories and Riddles (Bahamiana culturama).”
The outspoken and articulate Tertullien, a strong advocate of majority rule and women’s rights, was a dedicated PLP. She was appointed to the Senate in 1972, and ran unsuccessfully as a PLP in Shirlea. As with other women, the highly-intelligent Tertullien was often treated as a token by Sir Lynden’s PLP.
Shirlea was a bedrock of opposition support and Tertullien, like Bradley Roberts, himself never a favourite of Sir Lynden, was sacrificed in the uneven contests against the unbeatable Sir Roland “Pop” Symonette.
Tertullien and other PLP women, eminently more capable than the various male dullards and laggards who often served in the House and in the PLP cabinet, were the victims of an entrenched sexism which relied on their votes at election time, and then treated them as accessories and tokens while in office.
In 2002, given a chance to correct an historic wrong, Christie’s PLP turned its back on the women of The Bahamas. Having voted for constitutional equality in the House, the once progressive and liberal party, now turned regressive, reactionary and illiberal, reversed course in one of the grossest acts of expediency in Bahamian political history.
The pattern of neglect was repeated from 2002 to 2007, when, to its great shame, the PLP failed during another five years to ensure full constitutional equality for women after promising to do so in that term.
History will record that the first referendum proposed by Perry Gladstone Christie was one of a commercial rather than constitutional nature; a plebiscite designed to guarantee windfall profits for self-interests rather than the broader interests of Bahamian women.
This decision speaks volumes about today’s PLP, a kleptocracy in which a progressive spirit, once on life-support has given up the ghost and now rests, not in peace, but in great shame of having abandoned the ideals of the progressive movement.
The chronology of betrayal is an odious record of four decades: No to full equality at the Independence Conference in 1972; the 2002 reversal; non-action from 2002 to 2007; and putting a gambling referendum ahead of women’s rights in 2012.
When asked if the failure of the 2002 referendum hurt Bahamian women, Perry Christie, in one of the most shameful and sexist statements ever made by a Bahamian politician, dismissively, insultingly, and insensitively said no.
Now in 2012, Christie and the PLP are play acting as great champions of women’s rights after years of entrenched sexism and a failure to remove discrimination. The lame excuse of process for the PLP’s 2002 flip-flop is easily deconstructed, more of which next week.
Still, this line about due process has been parroted by senior PLP women including some in the cabinet. The historic parallels for such a nauseating and diabolical argument is someone arguing to enslaved people throughout history generally and to Poor Black Kate in particular that their full equality would have to wait for due process by the very one’s keeping them in bondage.
That this argument about process would be made by today’s PLP is an insult to the legacy of those who demanded racial justice and majority rule in the face of those gradualists and racists of yesteryear who also argued process.
Next Week: The PLP abandons the progressive cause as the FNM and Hubert Ingraham take up the progressive mantle.