Critically speaking, the beginning of the struggle for women’s suffrage, in the Bahamas, had nothing to do with women or feminism per se. It seemingly had everything to do with helping men, husbands, fathers and patriarchal leaders in their bid to become elected leaders.
Arguably as well, when women, in particular negro women, finally got the right to vote, in that first general election of 1962, they voted against their own best interests.
One significant problem with the history of women’s suffrage, in the Bahamas, was that it became entangled with the civil rights, racial equality and economic parity movements, all of which muddied the waters for women.
Men in the Bahamas, be they white, negro or coloured at the time, we’re fighting for control in every societal form. Women however, seemed to be fighting for rights in order to place them on the patriarchal glass ceiling which governed, both home and society, in the Bahamas.
Women, in all likelihood, as they went to the polls in 1962, had no clear vision or collective intent because of so many competing disparate goals.
This is why, Bahamian women, in particular thousands upon thousands of minimally educated, and vocationally educated negro women, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the white minority government, the UBP (United Bahamian Party), and importantly didn’t vote for the first woman, a courageous negro woman, who ran for public office in Eleuthera, Dr. Doris Johnson.
Dr. Doris Johnson
1917 – FIRST CALL FOR WOMEN TO HAVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE BY BRITISH JOURNALIST, ART CRITIC AND WRITER, AMELIA DOROTHY DEFRIES
The first call for the women’s vote in the Bahamas, did not come from negro or coloured women. It came from a white woman, in 1917.
Miss Amelia Dorothy Defries, an English art critic and journalist, was invited to the Bahamas by the Development Board, in 1916, to write a series of articles on the Bahamas. The goal, was that these articles would be published around the world, in order to put the islands on the international map. This in turn, would hopefully draw in much needed foreign investment into the Bahamas.
During her time in the Bahamas, Defries made an extraordinary collection of notes which she turned into a book entitled “In a forgotten colony; being some studies in Nassau and at Grand Bahama during 1916”
(The Nassau Guardian and Bahama Islands Advocate and Intelligencer, 26 February 1916)
THE INFAMOUS LETTER CALLING FOR THE VOTE FOR WOMEN
In June 1917, a letter appeared in the local Nassau papers written by Amelia Defries. In it, she notes that in that year, there was every hope that the vote was coming to women in Great Britain. In 1918, Britain gave the vote to women over 30 years old who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of at least £5 and graduates of British universities.
It was an extraordinary step for Britain that Amelia Defries reasoned could also happen in the Bahamas.
Defries reasoned that if educated women were given the vote, the Bahamas would be a cleaner more prosperous place.
(The Nassau Guardian and Bahama Islands Advocate and Intelligencer, 23 June 1917)
Dame JANET BOSTWICK in a 2009 article in the Nassau Tribune expounded on the early beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement in the Bahamas.
“IN THE general elections in the Colony of The Bahama Islands in 1949, Mr Rufus Ingraham, the Member of Parliament for Inagua for two years, lost his bid to be re-elected.
His wife, Mrs Mary Ingraham, thought that his chances of winning would have been greatly enhanced if women of property were permitted to vote as men were allowed.
She, together with Mrs Mabel Walker, the wife of Dr CR Walker, a Member of Parliament for the Southern District in New Providence, actively began to agitate for women to have the right to vote on the same terms as men.
Mrs Ingraham was a business woman. She owned properties and she was a storekeeper.
Mrs Walker, an American, a university graduate, was a school teacher.
They were good friends, both were members of The Elks Lodge and both lived on Hospital Lane in New Providence. Mrs Walker was chair of the Civil Liberties Committee of the Curfew Elks Lodge, Mrs Ingraham was a past Daughter Ruler and was also a leader in the Star of The East Lodge of Samaritans.
They used their contacts and influence in the Lodges to further their cause and according to Mrs Ingraham’s account, as written in her letter to the Press on November 27, 1975, she was able to get the signatures of more than 500 persons with the assistance of the Rev Dr HW Brown, renowned senior Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Mr Wilfred Toote, Mrs Gladys Bailey and Mrs Ingraham and her five children. That first petition was presented to Parliament and tabled by Dr CR Walker in 1952, the very same year that the United Nations Convention on Political Rights of Women was adopted by that august body. When suffrage talks began in the little colony of the Bahama Islands, suffrage had not yet been accepted as a desirable goal for nations of the world. Our women were therefore in the vanguard of progressive thinking, and this notwithstanding the fact that most of them had not been afforded high school level education.”
1962 GENERAL ELECTIONS
The campaign for women’s suffrage, which began with the musings of Mrs. Mary Ingraham in order to help her husband’s political campaign, then taken up by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), faced staunch opposition by members of the United Bahamian Party.
The opposition to women voting, by the UBP, came down to the racial population ratio across the islands. More negroes being able to vote, seemingly would spell disaster for the minority white government at the time.
In 1962 however,!the fears unduly founded.
In 1962, the first year that Bahamian women could vote, they voted in their thousands for the UBP, giving that political party 19 seats out of 33 contested seats.
More surprisingly, Dr. Doris Johnson, the first woman to run for a seat as a Member of Parliament came 5th in a 7 person race for three seats in Eleuthera.
(Sarasota Herald-Tribune Wednesday , 28 November, 1962)