Sun | Sep 19, 2021

Women and the Jamaican Political Process – Part IV: Women and the Politics of Change

Published:Monday | February 22, 2021 | 1:53 AMArnold Bertram/Contributor
From left: Maxine Henry Wilson, Portia Simpson Miller & Beverley Anderson Duncan

The General Elections of 1967 marked a major milestone in Jamaica’s political leadership.

The 83-year-old Alexander Bustamante retired on the eve of the elections, which was the last in which Norman Manley led the People’s National Party (PNP).

In 1962, Bustamante had married Gladys Longbridge, and in his retirement “Lady B” became even more the channel through which he continued to exercise influence on the Party he had led for 24 years. As political leadership passed to a new generation, in both the PNP and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the role of women in the political process reflected an increasing awareness of issues and confirmed their capacity for leadership in representational politics.

The PNP’s loss of the 1967 General Elections deepened the divisions within the Party and brought its morale to an all-time low. The PNP had divided over Jamaica’s membership in the West Indies Federation, and this had diverted the Party from addressing the growing inequity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” which should have been its main focus after winning the 1959 General Elections.

These divisions deepened when, in anticipation of Norman Manley going to Trinidad, the Federal capital, to lead the West Indies Federation, vice-presidents Wills Isaacs, Ivan Lloyd and Allan Isaacs engaged in a bitter contest as to who would succeed Manley as Premier of Jamaica.

Then came Norman Manley’s unilateral decision to hold a Referendum on the Federation in September 1961, which the PNP lost, and which paved the way for the loss of the 1962 General Election. The Party’s acrimonious debate on land reform at the 1964 Party Conference opened an ideological divide, and at the delegates conference called after the 1967 Elections, violence disrupted the proceedings.

It was with the resumption of the conference that the PNP finally got its act together and launched a renewal process with the election of Michael Manley as 1st vice-president and the elevation of rising star, P.J. Patterson, to chair the Appraisal Committee.

The renewal process gathered momentum at the 1969 conference which elected Michael Manley as the new president and P.J. Patterson as one of the vice-presidents. Over the next three years both men would take the PNP through a renewal process which, for both scope and national impact, is yet to be superseded.

Michael Manley took centre stage, communicating his vision of the “politics of change” to unite the diverse social and political trends that had emerged, and restore hope to a nation on the brink of explosion. In the process, he rescued radical politics in Jamaica from its eurocentrism, and mobilised the entire society to new heights of consciousness and purpose. P.J. Patterson was the man on the ground, putting the nuts and bolts of organisation together as the Party recruited 27 new candidates for the 1972 elections.

The PNP’s renewal got the support of the popular artistes which took the form of an islandwide cultural showcase – the Bandwagon. For the first and only time in Jamaica’s history, artistes came together to support a political campaign. One of those exciting young artistes was Judy Mowatt.

Support also came from the more progressive members of Corporate Jamaica, who recognised the need for more equitable growth as the basis for social stability, and that this could only be achieved by a new politics. The youth movement led by the Jamaica Youth Council, in collaboration with Catholic Youth and the Jamaica Union of Democratic Youth, energised the protest against corruption in public life and pressed the demand for issues affecting youth to be addressed with greater urgency.

However, it was the enthusiastic response of women of all social classes that energised the renewal of the PNP and enthused the campaign for the politics of change.

To the extent that an individual can represent a social process, four women emerged who symbolised the commitment of their social class to a new Jamaica.

Angela Melhado was perhaps the best representative of the upper classes who supported Manley’s call for social justice for the poor and dispossessed. She led by example, sharing her life unreservedly with the residents of the communities in which she worked to help make Jamaica a better place.

In the process, she motivated many who might have remained on the sidelines to become a part of the change.

Beverly Anderson was the complete representative of the emerging middle class, with the drive and the sustained pursuit of excellence which characterised a class on the rise.

After graduating from St Hugh’s High School, Anderson achieved distinction in her chosen fields of endeavour – radio, television and film. In 1969, she brought her expertise in communications to the PNP’s renewal campaign along with an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of the Jamaican masses.

Her marriage to Michael Manley in 1972 provided her with an institutional base for her indefatigable efforts to transform early childhood education, and to ensure the Party developed and implemented policies to effectively address the issues that kept women from realising their full potential.

By 1976, the Women’s Bureau, the PNP Women’s Movement and the Jamaica House Basic School were all indicative of the progress Anderson-Manley had made.

Maxine Henry, even before graduating from St Andrew High School in 1969, had been radicalised by her participation in the youth and student movements. Her one-year sojourn in Germany courtesy of the International Youth Exchange Programme, gave her an international perspective. In 1974, she was one of the students on the UWI Mona Campus who responded enthusiastically to Michael Manley’s call and after graduation joined the PNP Secretariat.

At 23 years of age she became the Party’s Deputy General Secretary working with the legendary D.K. Duncan, who had moved from National Organiser to General Secretary of the PNP. This marked the beginning of a lifetime of service to Party, country and community in a range of activities to which she brought organisational skill and fixity of purpose.

Portia Lucretia Simpson’s deep roots in the Jamaican working class and peasantry strengthened her commitment to raising the living standards of the poor and disadvantaged. Her tenure at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) increased her awareness of the workers’ struggle for better working conditions and a fair wage.  P.J. Patterson recalls that in 1969 it was the 24-year-old Portia Simpson who took charge of his vice-presidential campaign.

In the run up to the 1972 elections, she went to the forefront of the PNP’s organisational efforts to win over the JLP stronghold of South West St Andrew.

By 1974 her efforts were rewarded with her election as one of the councillors from that constituency to serve in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC). She went on to win the South West St Andrew constituency for the PNP in the 1976 Elections with 75% of the votes. Portia Simpson was on her way to becoming Jamaica’s most outstanding female politician.

The critical role played by women in the PNP’s renewal process was hardly reflected in the number of candidates chosen to represent the Party in the 1972 Elections, for only two of the five women chosen as candidates were from the PNP.  Rose Leon won the West Rural St Andrew for the PNP, but her colleague Violet Thompson representing the PNP in Central St Thomas, lost in a close election to Adrian Bonner of the JLP.

The three female JLP candidates included Esme Grant, who lost to Jim Thompson in North East Westmoreland, Euphema Williams, who lost to P.J. Patterson in South East Westmoreland, and Enid Bennett, who retained the Central St Catherine constituency.

The PNP won the elections by a landslide, taking 37 of the 53 seats. Two women were named to the Senate – Dr Mavis Gilmore and Vie Thompson. They were joined in 1974 by Fay Saunders, who had been elected the first female president of the JTA in 1968, and re-elected to that position in 1971.

Rose Leon was the only woman in the Cabinet, which under Michael Manley’s leadership, implemented the most far-reaching range of social and economic programmes, carefully designed to improve the quality of life for the Jamaican people.

Jamaican women welcomed the passage of the Maternity Leave Law, together with the granting of equal pay for equal work, and the breaking down of the barriers that had historically prevented women from achieving their full potential and denied them equal rights with men. Their bond with the political process was further strengthened with the repeal of the Bastardy Act, according all children the same status in law, and ensuring children born out of wedlock would no longer be described as bastards.

Women also appreciated the reforms which radically transformed the lives of the men in their families, which included the minimum wage, the compulsory recognition of trade unions, and indeed for the body of legislation and programmes which expanded workers’ rights, raised the workers’ standard of living and strengthened the process of empowerment and democracy at the workplace.

With the abolition of the Master and Servant Law and the passage of laws affecting redundancy and employment termination, the right to work became no less sacrosanct than the right of property.

The Impact Work Programme provided regular employment for women for the first time and the Rural Electrification Programme transformed home life. One of the most welcome programmes, was the expansion of access to educational opportunities with “free” education to high schools as the centre piece.

The support of women had been critical to the success of the PNP’s politics of change, as well as to the socio-economic policies and programmes which transformed Jamaica.

For the first time, at last, African-Jamaicans had been brought to the front of the line. They would show their appreciation by campaigning, even more enthusiastically, across the length and breadth of Jamaica for the re-election of the PNP in the 1976 General Elections.


Arnold Bertram is a historian and former minister of government. You may send comments to: redev.atb@gmail.com