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Women and Activism: Where Have The Women Gone?

Tante Merle, whey yuh?

By Corey Gilkes
August 16, 2005


"Woman is Boss" Denyse Plummer, Calypsonian

"Woman is principal, is principal, is principal" Igbo women chant

Michael De Gale asked a very important question in his article published on July 27th: "Where have all the good men gone?" That is, where are the larger than life intellectuals, "radical" thinkers and revolutionaries who shook up the Western world from the 50s to the mid 70s? The rationale that led to the colonising of the Americas and Africa, the holding of the indigenous peoples in positions little better than cattle, is still around and is no less diabolical. There is still a pressing need for intelligent, articulate people striving to engage the imperialist (that much-beaten word already?) and transform the various societies we find ourselves in. But, as Comrade De Gale has suggested, it appears that no one has stepped in to carry on the works of Amilcar Cabral, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Sir Arthur Lewis, Kwame Ture, Walter Rodney and the others we know of.

I feel the need, however, to pelt the "jep" nest a little harder and further ask: what about our women? Where are they? Why am I not hearing more of their voices? A quick look at the history of the antislavery, anti-colonial and Civil Rights struggles of the last century will reveal that these momentous events are recounted from the elitist, middle-class male perspective. Most of the names highlighted are those of men. This in itself should not be too surprising. The history writers and chroniclers of our past could not help but be products of their Eurocentric schooling. It's well-known that one of the main by-products of a colonial upbringing is that the colonial subject imbibes the cultural values of the coloniser: often the most profoundly affected are the educated elite. This is not meant to be an indictment of them at all; arising from this same group were the Lewis', the Eric Williams, the Du Bois, the Bustamente's, the Manley's et al. These figures took advantage of the education, schooling and churching opportunities given to them by the Eurocentric power structure, used them to their own advantage and helped guide their people on paths to self-determination.

But that's also the problem.

In order to master the Euro-centred systems they had to enter or be allowed in and function in the Euro-centred frameworks and become Anglicised. One of the things we are yet to fully acknowledge and carefully examine is the extent to which they (we), through Eurocentric schooling and churching, have inculcated the values and worldviews of the Euro. To this day many of us still look, dress and value ourselves according to the standards and aesthetics of the coloniser. These values manifested themselves in every major resistance movement in the Diaspora and many of those in Africa itself. Even more serious is that having beaten the Euro with his own institutions, this new elite proceeded to adopt them with all their trappings, ideologies and prejudices instead of discarding them or at least drastically refashioning them. The principal stumbling block of the major liberation movements of the last 50 years is the fact that almost all of them have been oriented along an elitist Afro-Saxon, Euro-Christian, male-centred line.

With regards to this topic, the male-chauvinism that taints and retards the activism of the "person of colour" is anchored in a belief that the world's societies are, have always been and should always be structured along specific male-dominant values and a stratification system that puts the man at the head. We who have grown up in environments coloured by the Euro have been conditioned to believe that this is a universal phenomenon. We have become innocent of the fact that often right within the little villages and communities where we grew up there were challenges to that worldview. Indeed, many of us who claim to be so Africentric are quite comfortable with maintaining that ideology: the man is the head, behind every successful man is a good woman. This woman of course can be strong, but not too strong; vocal, but not openly and is just there to mirror the views of the menfolk who in turn chart the destinies of everyone, man, woman, mon, toute bagai. This is how it has always been, was god's will and who are we to defy what god ordained?

The historical reality, however, tells a different story. Not all civilised societies were male-centred. Most Afri-Caribbean peoples stem from some traditional or pre-colonial African society that had a different system of values. As was outlined in a previous essay the foundation of European culture lies in very ancient nomadic, warrior cultures of Eurasia. These cultures were patriarchal, profoundly male-centred; there was extreme marginalisation and at times outright dismissal of women and their intellectual even physical capacity and this stemmed from a curious blend of contempt and fear. Women were little more than baggage, tolerated only for child bearing i.e., the reproduction of future warriors. Eurasian hunter-gatherer societies were structured in such a way that it was the male who took charge, decided the fate of the clan and was seen as the soul of the community. Their very deities were either exclusively male or had subordinate female consorts. According to the late Senegalese physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, this ideology evolved out of a need to adapt and survive the harsh, wintry climate of the Eurasian steppes and the never-ending contest against rival nomadic groups for scarce food stocks. Diop called this the Ice or Northern Cradle.

In contrast was the fertile tropical climate of Africa and southern Asia. These regions had an abundance of food and fertile soil for agriculture. Diop and other researchers have shown that particularly in Africa, where the first human societies and high-cultures began and developed, the wonder and the mystery of the fertility of the female, not just women, translated into societies and communities oriented along the principle of the centrality of the female. The first concepts of the divine were all female and for thousands of years after, even into the Christian era, the Great Mother Goddess concept still had profound influence even in parts of Europe. Even more remarkable, argued Diop, was that these were societies created by the men. In other words, our ancestors had no hang-ups with tracing lineage through the female line and otherwise giving the female a central role in their communities. This did not necessarily mean that women were the "head" and the men the marginalised entity; there was rather a dualistic relationship with the men's roles and functions complementing those of the woman and vice versa. Hierarchy in the Western sense was all but nonexistent and for one to understand fully the types of systems and institutions that existed in pre-Islamic/Christian Africa, one must dispense with the Western concepts of hierarchy.

Women in Africa enjoyed certain rights and privileges their counterparts in Europe could not even dream to enjoy until well into the 20th century and even then after long agitation. She stood at the head of armies as the Kendakes or warrior-queens of Ethiopia, supported by men; served as heads of state and senior ambassadors, again with the support of men; owned property in her own name and in many matrilineal cultures, it was the man who gave up his name upon marriage. In some regions, upon death, the body of the woman was to be returned to her natal home and compensation was to be paid for loss of a woman. One of the most powerful women of any civilisation was Queen Tiy of the powerful 18th Dynasty. She was the Great Royal Wife of Amen-Hotep III, mother of the famous Pharaohs Akhenaton and Tutankhamen. During her husband's reign, visiting heads of state and ambassadors from other regions and kingdoms called at her palace and she had great political influence even during Akhenaton's reign.

Even with the incursions of Arab Islam with its own strain of male-centred ideologies, having been nurtured in a zone that was the meeting point of both the "Ice" and "Sun" Cradles, this initially did little to diminish the high status of women, particularly in West Africa where in many regions the religion was embraced but the Arab customs were not. As 10th century traveller Ibn Battuta was to find out to his horror, this meant that though there was an almost puritanical devotion to Islam, women still dressed as they traditionally did which often meant that they wore "revealing" clothing owned property and were free to move about the countryside without male escorts, let alone eunuchs. Their opinions still carried immense weight and, as in the case of the elderly women and the widow or mother of the late king, often had the final say in the election of a new monarch.

This does not mean that in agrarian societies there were no attempts by the patriarchy to assert greater influence. Nigerian sociologist Ifi Amadiume, in her critique of Diop's Two-Cradle theory, argued that throughout human history both matriarchy and patriarchy existed together, each competing for its systems of thought to be the principal model in a given society. However, in the more settled agricultural civilisations of Africa and southern Asia, the importance of the female principles was too great to be easily dislodged. Even in cultures that are patrilineal, such as the Zulus, the woman was still not without institutions and customs of power and influence. In West Africa, even now, there exists powerful all-female secret societies such as the Sande society and the women who belong to these secret societies hold considerable influence.

The confusion over the universality of the patriarchy has more to do with the systematic rewriting of history by scholars who were schooled in the Eurocentric model. The advance of patriarchal cultures across the globe was largely due to the progressive military conquests of northern male-centred tribes, beginning around 1700 BCE. As the centuries progressed, warring tribes began to form alliances and unify. The mighty Roman Empire, itself an early imperialist empire, fell to formerly separate warring groups of barbarians now unified to defeat a common enemy and this was to replicate itself over and over. This constant expansion saw city-states evolving into nation-states usually defining themselves in opposition to hostile "others" and in the process subduing older, more settled cultures that in many cases were matrifocal. This process, by the way, continued right up until the first major European civil war of the 20th century: World War I.

Some apologists try to argue that the religions Judaism, Xianity and Islam particularly the latter two ushered in new phases of human history and brought teachings that liberated women. There is some truth to this; in the early years of Xianity, for instance, many women rose to prominence in the nascent Church. However, almost as soon as they ascended those following in their footsteps were gradually reined in. In fact, what these faiths did do was solidify the ancient patriarchal prejudices under the mantle of divine sanction. Even expressions and titles of the divine now became solely masculine.

The Middle Passage did much to disrupt thousands of years of entrenched African culture and concepts of governance, jurisprudence and spirituality. However, in spite of the forcible bringing of African captives to the Americas, certain aspects that acknowledged the authority and centrality of women survived and were injected into colonial societies. In some Caribbean free communities, unmarried women or women in common-law relationships owned properties which remained firmly in their possessions as long as they did not marry, in which case their properties would go to the husband. In many free communities the authority of the woman, particularly elderly women, was very often the deciding factor in community decision making. She was the midwife who possessed knowledge of nature-based herbs for healing, she was the obeah woman who possessed ancient secrets, medicines (and poisons) and she was the matriarch who was the repository of great wisdom. Patterns of her dress were also survivals of ancestral custom; the headwraps or gele that denoted power and authority in Africa were retained in the "New" World.

In all of our revolts, social activism and liberation struggles, despite the male bias of many history writers, it is clear that some of the most militant agitators were women. In some cases it was the women's vociferousness that initiated acts of defiance and rebellion. In the United States Harriet Tubman personally undertook risky trips to the slaveholding South to ferry enslaved Africans and runaways to the North on the Underground Railroad. Sojourner Truth served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and even after the war her charisma and vocal clamouring for women's rights white and black stood out like a beacon.

This is not to say that European women showed any less militancy in their causes. However, it must be understood that for the most part their cause primarily took the form of clamouring for inclusions within the wider patriarchal Eurocentric society and even then fought just to have their voices heard: the Suffragettes' struggle is an excellent example. However, for the African woman, the Suffragettes can be used as an example of something else: the dangers of being associated with movements even so-called revolutionary or radical movements that are grounded in Eurocentrism. Scholar and activist Angela Davis in her book "Woman, Race and Class" has illustrated just how ideologically bankrupt the women's movement in the US really is and how little relevance that movement has had for the particular situations of African women. In spite of their own shoddy treatment, or perhaps because of it, many white women either treated their African-American counterparts with as much racial prejudice as their men did, or as Susan B Anthony did engage in strategic alliances with white politicians and activists who harboured racist views towards African and other non-white people. On many occasions attempts were made by some women in the movement to silence African-American speakers. There were even attempts at having them excluded from parades and demonstrations. That did not stop Sojourner, Ida B Wells and others from asserting their right to speak and speak they did, often capturing the awe and grudging admiration of the men.

The women of the Caribbean were no less militant. Indeed evidence strongly suggests that the militancy and activism of the Caribbean was stronger here than in the US and often influenced agitation in the US partly because the expressions of white supremacy was more subtle in the English and French-speaking Caribbean as opposed to the thuggery of the US. On the one hand this deluded the colonised Africans (and later the Indians) into believing that they actually were legitimate citizens of the British and French Empire and they had some say in the governing of their colonies. On the other hand it enabled the spark of resistance and militancy to become much brighter, often manifesting itself ironically when Caribbean nationals moved to the US.

Up and down the Caribbean these women made their presence felt, sometimes passively, sometimes vocally and physically. For instance, in one such social protest action in Trinidad, a group of about 2000 persons marched on the Warden's Office in Couva on 7th July 1934 and it ultimately led to violence. According to the Report of the Labour Disturbances Commission [1934] it was upon the urging of the women that "the whole mob attacked them (the managers) with bamboo sticks, hoes and other implements". There will remain lost to history hundreds of unnamed Afri-Caribbean women who stoked the fires of resistance in the Caribbean, during the building of the Panama Canal and in the United States itself.

One woman who is known to us was Claudia Jones; born in Belmont, Trinidad in 1915 she moved to New York with her parents and three sisters. Her mother worked in a clothing factory and tragically died of overwork. Claudia became involved, as did many African people in the US at the time, in the movement to free the Scottsboro Nine. These were nine African-Americans falsely accused of raping two white women. During this time she became acquainted with and joined the Communist Party. She assumed responsibility for that party's Women's Commission and became a leading light in the struggle for women in the US. She was also a prolific writer and many of her articles were published in a journal called Political Affairs. One of her more outstanding pieces was entitled "An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women". In this essay she sought to refute the usual male-centred chauvinism regarding the nature of women's roles. She pointed out that African women had always been central to their people's fight for social equality and justice. She made mention of an often ignored historical fact that women were the ones who sparked the "sharecropping strikes" of the 1930s.

Claudia enthusiastically embraced the Communist Party and Communist ideologies. However, it was and is notorious for its own rigid tendency to restrict writings and views that departed from the central tenets of Marxism. Neither does its analysis of class take into account the specific peculiarities of the Caribbean and African situation. Additionally, in its fundamental Marxist form, it is no less racist and paternalistic than capitalist and Christian philosophies. In spite of this, Claudia Jones was not afraid to remind her white Communist friends that "too many progressives and even some Communists were still guilty of exploiting Negro domestic workers" and they were sometimes guilty of "participation in the vilification of 'maids' when speaking to their bourgeois neighbours and their own families".

She was eventually arrested and imprisoned where she found herself placed separately in spite of a court order for prisons to be desegregated from two of her white colleagues. Soon after her release from prison the pressures from the McCarthy Communist "witch hunts" resulted in her being deported to England where she also set about agitating for social justice. Another almost forgotten fact about this remarkable woman is that Claudia Jones was the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival.

Another outstanding Caribbean woman was Elma Constance Francois who was born in St Vincent in 1897. In her early years she attempted to organise workers on the Mt. Bentick sugar factory in St Vincent, which got her fired. She eventually migrated to Trinidad where she soon found herself in the Trinidad Workingman's Association headed by Capt A. A. Cipriani, a veteran of WWI and who, in spite of his ethnicity and privileged background, campaigned tirelessly for the working class or "barefoot man" as he called them. Though women were active in the TWA, Elma, because of her strong personality would find the roles assigned to women in the organisation too limiting and because of the accommodating stance favoured by Cipriani as opposed to direct confrontation, would often be at ideological opposition to Cipriani. Indeed, even as a member of the TWA she was openly critical of Cipriani, at one time calling him "Britain's best policeman in the colonies".

Elma was a keen debater and loved to engage people in political and religious debates on street corners. It was during one of these debating sessions that she met Jim Barrette. Along with Barrette, Jim Headley and Dudley Mahon they formed the National Unemployment Movement and subsequently the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA), an organisation that campaigned for better working and living conditions for labourers and domestic workers. She organised "hunger marches" into Port-of-Spain that served as the impetus for the hunger marches of the great fiery-speaking labour leader Tubal Uriah "Buzz" Butler. These also served as models for similar hunger marches coming from Indian sugar workers. By the mid-1930s contact had been made between the NUM and sugar workers. One particularly militant Indian worker, a woman named Poolbasie, regularly informed NUM members of the deplorable living and working conditions in Central Trinidad as well as the sexual exploitation of women workers by managers and overseers.

This was one of the colonial authorities worst nightmares; unity of African and Indian workers. Since Indian labourers were brought to the colonies to work on the plantations after the ending of enslavement (and primarily to circumvent the Africans' refusal to work for meagre wages), fervent attempts were made to keep both ethnic groups apart from and suspicious of each other. The presence of African drummers mixed with Indian drummers during Hosay celebrations in the early 20th century had terrified English and French creoles clamouring for the permanent stationing of British marines and warships in Trinidad. Now in the 1930s along comes another attempt by one exploited group to link with another. On July 20th, 1934, a march from Caroni and surrounding districts to Port-of-Spain was planned and arrangements made to link up with NUM marchers. Colonial authorities put a stop to it by setting up a cordon of policemen at Laventille, preventing sugar workers from meeting with NUM marchers. That, however, did not stop such marches from spreading and by 1935 Butler attempted a similar march only to be stopped by TWA head Arthur Cipriani.

Francois' uncompromising stance at times even brought her into conflict with Butler himself. For he, despite his fiery agitation of oil workers, still considered himself a loyal subject of the Crown and on numerous occasions declared his support for Britain's policies. Another major bone of contention with Butler was over the relevance of religion to political struggle. Elma was a non-believer and had always argued with justification that religion, principally Christianity, was the most stultifying institution in the colonies. Nevertheless, when the labour riots broke out on June 19th 1937, the NWCSA was busy organising support for the rebellious labourers. Since the early hours of the rebellion, she left her home in Port-of-Spain and travelled to Fyzabad to investigate and lend support. She was eventually arrested and tried for sedition, earning the dubious distinction of being the first woman in Trinidad to be put on trial for sedition. Against the advice of lawyers, she defended herself with an impassioned address to the court and was acquitted.

Elma had many noteworthy contemporaries. In the Trinidad Workingman's Association and the Butlerite movement there were a number of women who laboured and used their talents to better the lives of workers; Albertha Husbands was the head of a woman's section of the TWA responsible for domestic workers as were Eldica Alkins, a Barbadian milliner and Theresa Ojoe. Some of these women were to later break away from the TWA because of the limiting roles this organisation assigned women, and formed separate organisations. One such person was Helena Manuel who was a founder of the National Trade Union Centre in 1928. Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Organisation, of which so much has already been written, also had many women in its ranks, speaking and organising including Garvey's first wife Amy Ashwood Garvey and Amy Jacques Garvey his second wife. Even after Marcus' death in 1940, Amy Jacques Garvey continued to be a powerful voice in the Pan-African world.

I strongly believe that the submerging of this type of woman really gained momentum when the educated elites both men and women took over popular protests. Again, this is not necessarily an indictment of that group; there was a need for an educated class to deal with the imperialist hierarchy on their own terms. However, in so doing the movement gradually became divorced from those who actually experienced the true hardships of colonial "order".

Whether in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe or the rest of the Americas, the woman took charge of the domestic front. Unlike the European woman, however, the African woman's place in the home was not viewed with disdain. The man may have been the breadwinner but it was she who was the head of the home which in some African communities would also be built by women and the home, along with the family, was the foundation of the community; her kitchen and field were seats of her domain. Paul Keens-Douglas' "Tante Merle" should be seen as the metaphor for the quintessential strong, opinionated African matriarch. The community looked to her, especially in her elder years, as its soul and its rock. To dispense with that rock is to dispense with our very lives. The voice of our women should be loud, insistent, in-your-face if need be. This is especially important since the assaults from the forces of globalisation are seriously affecting domestic industries and home/community-based economies most of which were controlled by women.

Further, given the resurgence of religious fundamentalism influencing political decision-making, it is imperative that women also retake control of their bodies. This may be an extremely touchy and controversial subject, but then again, what isn't? Western-influenced societies are sexist, plain and simple. Every day women are inundated with images, messages and symbols that make them feel less of themselves; that force them to conform to the Eurocentric man's ludicrous ideas of beauty and civility. These are symbols that are hinged upon men's own schizophrenic attitude towards the woman as a sexual being; they reinforce the desire to subjugate women while simultaneously fearing them. So this means that they must seriously address, challenge and overturn a great many institutions, images, symbols and aspects of our culture starting with religion. In the African women's reassertion of themselves, she must systematically deconstruct her religious teachings; Judaism, Xianity, Islam and Hinduism are heavily laden with sexist themes and were written within contexts of fear and hatred of women. These are the lynchpins of patriarchy and their influence on secular society and our lexicon run deep. Tante Merle may need to put her bible down for awhile.

We need to have a modern-day Elma Francois, Tante Merle, Queen Mother Audley Moore, N'zingha and Nanny. We need to have more principled, articulate "jammettes" in the arenas of social activism and the highest offices in the region. But this does not mean simply placing more women in positions of influence. What must take place is a complete redefinition of our political, epistemological and ontological constructs. The "liberation" theories and theologies of the past have had their time but are now totally unsuitable. Almost all of our present leaders, whether political or religious, are ideologically impotent, unable to grapple with the complexities of the changing faces of racism and economic subjugation. The elitism of our politics and Pan-Africanism are rooted in certain cultural spaces that do not accommodate women. The concept of leadership itself must move away from the singular messiah image or what Lloyd Best calls "maximum leadership". These women must possess a clear understanding of the peculiarities and uniqueness of our historical circumstances and yet have a firm grounding in the struggles of the working class. There is absolutely no need to be intimidated by such a woman.

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