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Jamaican women - God bless 'em

Hartley Neita, Contributor

OUR WOMEN have been the burden-bearers of their families and our country from before and since Emancipation.

During slavery, they not only laboured in the canefields but were expected to add to the pool of labour on the plantations by bearing the children of the proprietors or attorneys of the properties or their male partners in slavery. They did so with quiet courage and kept their dignity and humanity.

After Emancipation they took on the responsibility of mothering the children of their unions, growing the food on their small units, and travelling on carts and trucks with the surplus to the markets in the towns.

For over 100 years, however, they were the lesser of the genders. Except for a few, they could not vote. If they worked, their pay was less than men's, for the same work. They were the single parents for many of the successful men and women of yesterday and today.

In the Civil Service they could rise no higher than being secretaries and typists. They were the brewers of coffee for the men who ran the Government.

Those who were fortunate enough to enjoy a secondary education were taught to cook and sew, as their ambition was seen as limited to becoming wives and mothers.

In school, too, they did not do hurdles or high jump, as these games exposed their legs to boys from other schools attending these sports.

They never ran the quarter, half-mile or the mile as these distances were too strenuous for their delicate gender. So favourite sports were needle-and-thread and egg-and-spoon and three-legged races.

Most young women became nurses and teachers, postal clerks and telegraph operators. Women without skills became household maids and barmaids. Women could not be appointed Justices of the Peace and sit as jurors.

Indeed, one of the first female jurors to sit on a rape and murder case sometime in the late '50s was told by the Magistrate that she would be excused if the evidence which would be presented became too gory for her tender ears.

It was in representative politics that women first appeared on the same level as men, with Mary Morris Knibb being the first to win a Local Government seat, and Iris (not Ivy) Collins as I wrote last week, being the first woman to sit in our Parliament as a Member of the House of Representatives. Iris Collins also gave the dictators of protocol problems when she sat in her seat at Hibbert House without wearing a hat or gloves!

It was unspeakable for women to become members of the Police Force or be soldiers in our Army. Men, only, were Heads of Departments of Government. Men only, drove public passenger buses and trucks. Men only, also rode motorcycles, and women rode ladies' wheel bicycles. It was in the legal field that women seemed to have made the greatest strides.

The first woman to serve on a Circuit Court jury in Hanover was a Miss C. Buchanan on February 28, 1945. History was made in this profession on May 17, 1948 when Daisy Chambers, the "petite, quick-witted, veteran clerk to Noel Nethersole", became the first woman to be admitted to sign the Register as an Attorney-at-law (then called Solicitor).

Prior to that day the highest role a woman could play in the precincts of the courts was that of either a juror (since a few years before), witness, or as the accused in the dock.

Then in 1950 (May 14) Ena Collymore Woodstock became the first female Clerk of the Courts. She also became the first female Resident Magistrate on August 7, 1959.

Other female firsts included Ena Blanch Allen, first Puisne Judge on July 18, 1977, and Madge Morgan, Justice of the Court of Appeal on July 21, 1988. On December 22, 1971, Shirley Miller became a Queen's Counsel. And Sylvia Myers became an Inspector of Police on August 22, 1952 and Assistant Superintendent of Police on July 26, 1960.

There are, of course, many more, on whose shoulders today's women achievers now stand. We will remember those, next time around.

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