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Women of Distinction

Mary Morris Knibb, a pioneer for women in politics

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2021 | 3:08 PMLennox Aldred/Gleaner Writer
Mary Morris-Knibb

Mary Lenora Morris Knibb was a true Jamaican pioneer, leading the charge for women’s rights and could be counted as one of the country’s most vocal women in the pre-independent era.

At a time when gender equality was pretty much on the back burner where society was concerned, Morris Knibb challenged the race and gender status quo and would eventually take on the moniker of social reformer and philanthropist.

She was at the forefront of social and political activism in the 1930s and the 1940s and the first woman to contest elections in Jamaica.

The St Elizabeth native, who was married to Zechariah Knibb, a sanitary foreman, was a staunch believer in her Moravian faith, and dedicated her life and work to the church.

Her education came by way of the Moravian Church, allowing her to qualify for entry into Shortwood Teacher’s College.

By the age of 21 she was a fully trained teacher. From 1907-1917, she would offer that expertise to the St George’s School and then to the Wesley School from 1917 to 1928.

But Morris Knibb wanted more.

In 1928 she established her own school, the Morris-Knibb Preparatory School, which she operated out of her home in Woodford Park, St Andrew.

As a social and political activist, Morris Knibb, along with Amy Bailey, organised the Women's Liberal Club in 1936. The organisation was created to train young women and offer independence. Morris-Knibb also founded the Shortwood Old Girls' Association, and was a member of the Women Teachers' Association, and served as vice president of the Jamaica Federation of Women.

Morris Knibb championed the cause for universal adult suffrage but went further, encouraging women to enter representational politics.

In 1939, the Jamaica Women’s Liberal Club organised and ran a campaign with Morris Knibb as their candidate for the parish council. She won the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) seat, becoming the first woman to serve as an elected official in Jamaica.

Her work on the Council focused on education and social services, after-school programmes, night schools, and trade education.

When the universal franchise was granted to Jamaicans in 1944, Morris Knibb immediately opened a campaign to run for a seat in the House, becoming the first woman to contest a general election in Jamaica.

While she wasn’t successful, Morris Knibb did the next best thing, becoming one of the first women sworn in as a Justice of the Peace in 1945. and continuing to serve as a councilwoman through the early 1950s.  

In 1953, she was honoured with the Order of the British Empire for her years of social service.