Last Thursday, I watched Hazel Brown encourage women in local government to fearlessly and strategically represent the rights and needs of women and girls. Nearly twenty years had passed since I attended almost exactly the same meeting, participating for the first time in Caribbean feminist efforts to make party politics less male dominated and male defined.
Caught in a two-decade time loop, I was humbled by the commitment it takes to advance equality, given that it is an achievement simply to not lose ground, to make incremental inroads, and to embolden mere handfuls of individuals at a time.
In 1995, at 21 years old, I was introduced to the idea of a Women’s Manifesto, called Ten Points for Power. Jacquie Burgess, Gemma Tang Nain, Rhoda Reddock, Thelma Henderson, Elizabeth Nicholas, Merle Hodge, Cathy Shepherd, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus and other women were there, aiming to convince political parties to add these commitments to women and girls to their own election manifestos, and to champion them on their platform.
Here still was Hazel, optimistic, steadfast and subversive. If she wasn’t giving up, how could I? Beyond thinking that change is possible, she was making it possible. Another meeting, another decade, whatever it takes. I saw such determination spark in the women around the room.
These councillors from around the country had one idea they all agreed on, that it is a man’s world. Just getting into power doesn’t mean that its inequalities have been transformed, nor does it mean that women are any less fearful of seeming to step beyond party line, or appear too feminist or, for that matter, too confident.
Women in local government want help being brave about representing everyone better, but also want to be able to make a difference for women. They want assistance strategizing for collaboration across political party lines, across regional corporation boundaries, and across state agencies. They want funds, training, networks and support that their own parties do not provide, and it seemed that only the women’s movement has been, above all, on their side.
Hazel wanted them to expertly bring women’s experiences of that ‘man’s world’ to the Regional Corporation table, to recognize that women’s challenges were shared across party and could not be solved through division, and to penetrate local government so that individual women wouldn’t have to take on an ungendered agenda, one aimed at less than ending violence and promoting democracy through community connection and service delivery. All the women councillors, these natural rebels, had to do was make an attempt they had not done before.
Since 1995, women’s organizations have advocated for more women on state and corporate boards. When male prime ministers said they couldn’t find suitable women, the women’s movement compiled a list. When four corporations had no women councillors, the 50/50 campaign resulted in at least one in every corporation, and then went after Mayor and Deputy Mayor positions. The Put a Woman in the House campaign acknowledged that women should be as present in the House of Parliament as they are in housework, rather than under-represented in one and crowded in the other.
‘What women’s movement?’, some cynically ask me. For twenty years, I’ve watched women’s efforts, far from enough or perfect, but making invaluable steps, however small. If it seems like there is no mass movement or that feminism has failed to secure sweeping change, recognize that inequality is so overwhelming, institutionalized and endlessly implicated that part of the struggle is always against the complete negation of any presence and gains. As another twenty-year loop appears about to repeat, I’ve learned that commitment means decades of refusing defeat.