By royal mandate the House of Assembly was established in the Bahama Islands in 1729 during the governorship of Woodes Rogers.
The institution was intended for white men of means. Slaves, their descendants and women did not legally qualify to sit in the House. White men of lesser means were unable to sit by virtue of their lower economic standing.
The institution evolved over the centuries, becoming the centre-piece of Bahamian democracy representing the relative advancement and equality of various segments of society.
During the second and third decades of the last century, R. M. Bailey and the politicians C. C. Sweeting and S. C. McPherson formed a political group, the Ballot Party. McPherson, like Stephen Dillette, Walton Young and others before him, were among the first blacks elected to the House.
In the 1940s Dr. C. R. Walker, Bert Cambridge and Milo Butler engaged the struggle for racial equality, championing the cause as members of the House.
Still, the largely undemocratic nature of the assembly involved not only those eligible for election. It also concerned those “qualified” to vote. As noted by Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes in an independence address last year:
“One had to be male to register to vote. One had to own or rent property of a certain value. One male could vote in every constituency in which he owned or rented property. … A lawyer could cast a vote for each of the companies registered at his office.”
The gross inequality of the system was overwhelmingly directed against blacks and women.
In her famous 19 January 1959 philippic and plea for female enfranchisement Dame Dr. Doris Johnson understood how difficult the road ahead was in the face of male intransigence.
She might not have fathomed then the resistance ahead by the men of the PLP in regard to gender equality well beyond voting rights.
She drummed in 1959:
“This mobilization of our energies was called forth by the challenging statement issued by the Right Honourable Secretary of State, Mr. Lennox-Boyd on 13th April 1958 that there was not sufficient interest on the part of Bahamian Women for him to recommend the enfranchisement of women at that time.
“This statement by the Secretary was issued despite the fact that a petition signed by more than 3,000 women had been presented to Mr. Lennox-Boyd by a delegation of women from the Suffrage Movement.
“To add insult to injury, Mr. Lennox-Boyd at the same time recommended the extension of the franchise to all males who have reached the age of 21. May we remind you that there has never been any demand from our husbands and sons to secure their rights, but these are freely recommended. … ”
Women secured the vote in time to participate in the 1962 general election. They would not secure a seat in the House for another two decades. It was not the Old Guard alone which stymied the election of women to the House.
Sadly, ironically, it was some in the New Guard in the PLP that failed in helping secure a woman a seat in the people’s assembly.
It is unfathomable, unconscionable, that a PLP which raised eternal hell in dismantling the Old Guard’s resistance to blacks attaining political power, failed to move heaven and earth to quickly get a woman elected to the centre-piece of Bahamian democracy.
From the inception of the PLP in 1953, and most certainly from the 1956 general election until 1987 – over 31 years – a Bahamian woman was never afforded nomination for a safe or winnable seat in the House by the party.
It was not until 1982, two and a half centuries after the establishment of the House that a woman was elected to the chamber. It was the Free National Movement which shattered the glass ceiling, successfully running Janet Bostwick.
What makes the narrative more compelling is that the accomplishment came while the FNM was still in opposition and enjoyed a limited number of winnable seats. The party made a calculated gamble in the advancement of Bahamian women.
For decades prior, the PLP, which enjoyed a surplus of safe seats, refused to run a woman in any of those constituencies, though they nominated any number of men with limited intellectual capacity, poor character and a talent for corruption.
It seemed that the PLP preferred a dumb man over a smart woman. Even the brilliant Dame Doris was given a nomination for a seat in Eleuthera, which she stood no chance of winning.
Likewise the highly accomplished Mizpah Tertullien who was nominated for the unwinnable Shirlea seat. The sexist pattern was to nominate women as tokens for seats the PLP could not win.
Bahamian women were integral to the success of the PLP in terms of votes, grassroots organizing, fundraising, branch development and other support. But apparently women were not good enough to sit among the men in the House.
Except for the brief period Dame Doris served in an early cabinet of Sir Lynden Pindling, not a single other woman sat in the cabinet of The Bahamas during the PLP’s initial quarter of a century rule. Apparently, women were also not good enough to serve in cabinet.
The election of Janet Bostwick was part of a broader progressive vision which became resident in the FNM after the departure of the Dissident Eight from the PLP.
That split came about for a number of reasons, including the abandonment of various progressive principles and ideas by Pindling’s PLP. Among the eight were Warren Levarity and Arthur Foulkes, two of the leading architects of the PLP progressive advocacy group the National Committee for Positive Action.
Over the decades they were joined by other progressives including Edmund Moxey and Hubert Ingraham, whose record on gender equality is unmatched by any Bahamian prime minister.
With the FNM’s 1992 victory three women were appointed to cabinet posts with portfolio assignments in health, social services, national insurance, transport and the public service.
After a cabinet shuffle during that term, women were appointed to portfolios dealing with education, foreign affairs and that of the attorney general.
The FNM irrevocably shattered many glass ceilings for women, including in the judiciary and Mount Fitzwilliam.
Following the 1997 election both the Speaker of the House, Italia Johnson, and the President of the Senate, Lynn Holowesko, were female. A mid-term change of senators resulted in 50 percent of the Senate being female.
One of the few progressives remaining in what quickly became a reactionary cult of power around Sir Lynden Pindling was the Hon. A. D. Hanna, who reportedly noted in recent years that it is the FNM which now appears as the more progressive of the two major parties.
With majority rule secured, the PLP largely abandoned women. At the 1972 Constitutional Conference the party opposed the right of automatic citizenship to children born outside The Bahamas of a non-Bahamian husband.
The issue was a significant matter of contention, with the FNM delegation arguing for full equality for women.
The FNM made another calculated gamble toward the advancement of women with the 2002 referendum, but the PLP, in a gross act of political expediency, campaigned against the equality amendment.
In office, the FNM dismantled institutionalized sexist policies and laws the PLP maintained for a quarter century.
The FNM required that male and female officers engaged in the public service be treated equally regardless of marital status.
It ended the practice whereby male public officers were routinely promoted over women and winning higher salaries because they were invariably seen as the principal “bread-winner”.
The FNM abolished the dower and made surviving spouses, regardless of gender, heir to the matrimonial home. It abolished primogeniture.
Who sits at the table, whether in the House or in cabinet, makes an enormous difference in terms of policies and attitudes generally and on matters relating to equality.
The next wave of equality is on the horizon. It will include not only more pro-family and gender equality policies. It will include also significantly more women at the heart of political decision-making.
Of historic moment this may include Loretta Butler Turner, the granddaughter of Sir Milo Butler, a progressive with unimpeachable credentials.
Majority rule helped liberate some from their fears and prejudices. The greater involvement of women in elected office may do likewise. But perhaps more significantly she is Milo Butler’s kin and an FNM, rooted in the progressive traditions of her grandfather and the party she now calls home.
Like the offspring of prominent PLP families, including those of the late Charles Maynard and Dr. Duane Sands, she decided to leave the PLP and join the more progressive FNM.
Butler Turner is revealing herself as a champion of all Bahamians, whether black or white; gay or straight; rich, middle class or poor; PLP, FNM or DNA. And no matter whether male or female.
Gender remains a significant factor in political life. Still, today, the bulk of the electorate appears decidedly more motivated by a leader’s vision and values. Decidedly less concerned as to whether a leader is addressed as Mr. or Madam.
The FNM may be on track to shatter the biggest glass ceiling yet.