Wed | Jul 18, 2018

Joan French | Portia’s crucifixion

Published:Sunday | September 18, 2016 | 12:00 AM

In the wake of the general election, the People's National Party seems completely unable to recompose itself. Worse, the woman who, for many years, was considered indispensable to the election success of the party is now vilified within and without.

How did the arena of adulation at the feet of an energetic and admired leader change so rapidly to a scene of crucifixion? How did sympathy and empathy dissipate to the point where the party faithful, and the women within and without who promote and defend women's leadership, are unable or unwilling to stem the tide of acrimonious vilification? After all, whatever is being said about her, as a woman she met a challenge no Jamaican woman has so far managed to face, far less win.

While she was on a winning streak, the party could not do without her. A one-seat loss for which she is certainly not the only person responsible has resulted in her being hoisted to the cross for sacrifice. "Portia must go" from the party presidency has spread like wildfire.

In the cacophony of vilification and enumeration of weaknesses, is there nothing that Portia Simpson Miller did right? What of her steadfast and vocal defence of children and women against violence? What about her support to the establishment and building of the institutions that address them? What about her encouragement and support for the organisation of grass-roots women such as domestic workers and rural women? Did she not represent the country internationally with a decorum many had once doubted she could achieve?

Despite her weaknesses and shortcomings, Portia is a woman of great strength. She has been under attack for most of her political life from conservative elements inside and outside of the party. She has survived them all and displayed maturity and good sense in mending fences when the unity of the party seemed to require it.

Many voices of genuine concern have been raised regarding the uncharacteristically 'suffering-from-the-heat' appearance in a recent televised interview. How did the media manage to catch Portia off guard and so change her image in the twinkling of an eye from that of an energetic woman physically able to take on all competition and challenges to one who seemed tired and in need of a rest?

She has since appeared in other settings and looks as youthful and as energetic as ever. How many of us can say we age that well? If she did at some point need rest, is rest considered 'unmanly' and, therefore, unacceptable in political party culture? Or is Portia having to prove, beyond what is normally expected of the men, that she is equal to the task, even after the extreme stress that the post-election period must have had for her personally? Who is in charge? Why is she cooperating?




What can we learn from this about the exercise of woman's leadership in a society still dominated by men who think they are more entitled than women; intellectuals who think those with fewer academic papers have no sense; women who are unsympathetic to other women if they are not like them; and, worst of all, the impact on the psyche of even the strongest women among us of the constant and unrelenting presence of these factors in the daily exercise of leadership in political parties and other power structures in the society?

What has the male patriarchal domination of all party structures meant for the leadership of Portia Simpson Miller? Simply put, it means that to retain power, she must accommodate deficiencies arising from patriarchal belief systems and assumptions, while depending on them for support. In the process, within party processes, patriarchal sensitivities infused by assumptions of male superiority are accepted as 'normal', their recommendations as 'sensible', and praising and honouring them as 'respect due' in order for the party to retain power.

However, these patriarchal forces are in positions where they can undermine her leadership, consciously or unconsciously. Even 'help' from the males in the party is often imbued with the patriarchal assumption that men know best. When, overwhelmingly in the power majority, they break down into factions, Portia has to choose her male 'pack': a dem run tings. It also means that other women in the party, still in the 'minoritest' of minorities (I feel the need to coin a word), are also influenced by the need to accommodate themselves to the patriarchal 'normal'. There is nothing in the structure that they can depend on for support against it.

So what could have made this story different? A consciousness of these factors and a commitment to undermining them as part of a process of education and consciousness-raising within the parties and in the society. Critical to achieving this is leadership - female or male - that educates itself in the configuration of these factors within the party and in the society, and defines as part of the vision a direction for transformation.

This transformation would see the conditions for the exercise of women's leadership, and the content of all leadership, male or female, change to counter these negative factors that have a particularly 'downpressing' impact on the psyche and daily emotional and spiritual load of women in leadership.

This 'downpression' largely explains why the few women in leadership positions within the parties mostly remain silent on these issues. Even the party adherents who most understand the situation - male and female - rarely name or analyse these factors and the challenges that arise from them.

There is need for a critical mass of women in the leadership of the parties with a common vision and unified action around these issues, supported by conscious males willing to submit their behaviours to scrutiny and change, where necessary. Until then, the leadership of individual women in our complex Jamaican context will present major challenges, and women like Portia will continue to be poised on a slippery slope, no matter what they have brought to the parties.

- Joan French is an international gender specialist. Email feedback to and