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Women Speak Out! A Report of the Pacific Women's Conference. October 27 – November 2

Address given by Dr. Lucille Mair

Address given by Dr. Lucille Mair

Dr. Lucille Mair from Jamaica, was one of the resource persons invited to the Pacific Women's Conference. Lucille has taught widely in and served on many national bodies in Jamaica, helping, just recently, to set up the Bureau of Women's Affairs in the Prime Minister's office. She is at present attached to the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the United Nations.

I am more than happy to bring greetings from the sisters of the Caribbean to the sisters of the Pacific. The feeling which I have is really that of being at home. You know, to travel halfway round the world and to arrive in Fiji which is the twin-sister of Jamaica is to feel like one of the family. The landscape is the same – it's the same frangipani, the same breadfruit tree, the same ixora, the same lush landscape. But most of all, it's the same colour of skin and the same features. I can't help wondering at what time in our history, we shared a common ancestor. At some stage, I am convinced, our paths did converge, and obviously diverted, but our paths have converged again because I think we have very important things we have to do and we will probably do them best if we can do them together.

That important thing or the important things which I think we should try to share is the process of re-discovering or re-defining our womanhood, at the same time we are also discovering and defining our nationhood. In these important tasks I think it is important that we should share our aspirations and our dreams. Whether it is in your archipelago in page 112 the Pacific here in the East or my archipelago there in the West, it is an adventure that we are jointly engaged in.

First, I would like to bring you up-to-date with what the Carribbean sisters have been up to since we last broke bread together in whatever century that happened, and before this particular week is out I hope I will have the opportunity of finding where you have been also.

At this point, I can't sufficiently express my appreciation to the organisers of this Conference for allowing me the opportunity to be here – they've invited me most graciously to come and share this experience of yours, and, let me assure you, I see it as a great learning experience from my point of view.

But to go back to the sisters who have lost touch over the centuries …. You are actually luckier than we were, for the natives of our islands – the persons who were born in those islands – of those, very few survived the invasion of the Europeans, an invasion of conquest, and an invasion of occupation. So that by the time the second invasion of Europeans came in the 17th Century, there was need for new blood, there was need for new imported muscles and sinews to grow and process sugar on those plantation factories of the New World. That is how our ancestors arrived in the Caribbean.

A unit of labour is a unit of labour whether it be male or female, preferably male, but on the other hand if it were female, it could also breed other units of slave labour, and that is how the African mothers arrived in the Caribbean. And they laboured in the canefields alongside the men, they laboured in the boiling rooms of the sugar factories, they bred slave children, our ancestors. They taught those children how to survive, they themselves, of course, surviving. We are only now, in the Caribbean, beginning to discover the greatness of those Caribbean mothers and to really pay tribute to that greatness.

No history of any civilization ever pays tribute to its women and we are now attempting that, in all humility, because it is necessary to correct that. Women, for their own page 113 sense of assurance, need to be rescued from the silence in which history has placed them. Men as well as women, if they are to work together, to move forward together as equal partners in nation building, need to have restored to women a positive image of participation, initiative and activism – an image which in fact is true to the facts of their past.

We are finding in the Caribbean that as the past comes increasingly to light, we are really exhilarated by our findings. I can only very briefly, on occassions such as this, indicate those findings. They relate to those vital areas of development of any country and any people. I'd like to refer very briefly to the economic life of our people and the traditional participation of the women in that life.

In those dark days of slavery, our women were the backbone of the workers on the estates, which meant they put in an average of from twelve to sixteen to eighteen hours, sometimes longer during the season of crops. That was forced labour. On their own initiative they moved into their own little private plots and there they farmed, they harvested, they marketed, they became the leading producers and traders of the domestic economy, feeding the society for which they slaved. In 1834, which was the year in which our society was emancipated, the produce of slave labour which was largely female labour as our historical statistics clearly show, the value of that slave labour was ₤800,000 which is a large sum at any time and certainly in 1834. Alongside with this pattern of economic enterprise came the development by women of key financial institutions in the society – savings institutions, credit institutions which are the forerunners of today's friendly societies, and partnership arrangements which thrive and which still are significant parts of the financial organisation of our folk – that is part of the tradition, a tradition of great economic enterprise.

In the very important religious experience of the society, women, particularly women of direct African origin, were regarded as having very special spiritual strength. So it's not surprising that in the unorthodox religions of the time (as they were termed by the Establishment) women were most prominent both as members and as leaders in the great religious page 114 activity which went so far towards sustaining a race in those days. And side by side with their activity in what has been called ‘cult’ religions which still persist, there were also the Christian churches which came on the scene, which attracted some of our African ancestors and where women participated as Methodists, as Baptists, as Presbyterians, founded some of the Chrurches, became the backbone of the membership, saved, made contributions and in the days when non-conformist churches were persecuted because they were not Established churches, the women joined the ranks of the persecuted. They formed the backbone of great religious traditions which still persist.

During the more obviously communal political public activities, we found that our women participated fully. The whole legal machinery of the society was such as to make the slave incapable of seeking legal redress, but there was legal machinery and that legal machinery was sought and was used. Women for instance, in groups would assault the courts of the time for very basic human needs such as the right of a woman to nurse her child, a right which was often denied by the plantation. In doing this, she learnt the skill of group organisation and this gave lie to one of the myths which survives all over the world – that women are incapable of working together in a cause. We know that this is not true. And as a necessary corollary of this type of organisational skill came participation of women in those many movements which resisted the existence of an institution such as slavery.

This type of activity of women in so many spheres culminated in what was to me personally one of the greatest happenings in our country and it happened only last week. We celebrated what is called the National Heroes' Day, and for the first time the Prime Minister of a Caribbean country announced our first national heroine, one whom I would like you to know about. Her name was Nanny and she was a Maroon, one of the first great guerilla fighters of the New World. She led her band of warriors in our mountains not unlike yours, perhaps a couple of thousand feet higher but very similar terrain to yours, and those guerillas, not more than a thousand or two, resisted the English for over 50 years till eventually the only answer was a truce. Not military defeat page 115 – a truce. Nanny herself in fact was not party to the truce because she refused ever to buckle in to an oppressor. She was not only a military leader she was a spiritual leader, she was a civic leader, she was the first woman in our history that received a land patent for herself and her people, the first black woman in the New World in her right to be acknowledged by the powers-that-be, to be a leader. She is our first national heroine and we're very proud of her.

You might well ask – why this obsession with the past? We're living in the year 1975 and in a nuclear age. We're not living, we think, in the age of guerilla fighters in the hills. Persons like Nanny who become a focus of national pride help, consciously or unconsciously, to direct our perception towards an image of womanhood with a positive image of creativity, of courage, of organisational resourcefulness. And this is not of the past; this is very much of the future.

The fact is that women, and men too, if they would admit it, need their heroines now. There is a widespread and fundamental need for this process of self-analysis and self-discovery, of identifying those positive strengths which are there in our bloodstream, embedded deep in our heritage. As one speaker put it so well this morning in this Conference: “We want to know where our roots are”. So, evidence of women's proven capacity to face the current challenges of whatever (whether it be slavery) form of exploitation, is an imperative for the sisters of the 20th Century, whether they be of the Caribbean or of any other Sea. If we look back at the past, it is not in anger or in escapism, but in pride at the endless possibilities, at the endless talents which we have for confronting challenge.

For now, we do face the double challenge of the 1970's. Where do we find the resources to be both woman and citizen in the context of what is demanded today of woman and of citizen? It is no coincidence that in so many countries, men and women are seeking for the full release of the potential of women at the same time they are seeking for the full release of nations.

I think all of us here know something, if some of us page 116 don't indeed know everthing, of the experience of colonialism. Colonialism - that state of dependence in which one's status is defined by the other, by someone else. Women in so many cultures are the colonised, are the dependent sex, their status defined by the other, not by the self. The process of undoing that, the process of decolonisation, whether of the woman or of the nation, is a process of self-discovery which is the re-claiming or the re-definition of self by self. And this includes a re-affirmation of heritage, for heritage is as much a part of self as my childhood in my small town in Jamaica is part of my adulthood now experienced in New York. The nation's past of subservience is integral part of its future of independence.

It seems to me above all, that it is colonised peoples, whose historical integrity has been so violated by the forces of exploitation and imperialism, it is above all colonised peoples who must not now be brainwashed into turning their backs on their history. In their history lies their national heritage. Above all we need that continuity of experience to make harmony - past, present and future.

The future, as I see it, which opens up for today's women of the developing world (which is the world I know best), is one in which the existence of second class citizens and second class nations is just no longer acceptable. This is why I'm very happy to be working at present at the United Nations where that process of converting all that is second class into one and only class and that class first, is being advanced - in many ways, in many bodies, by many process - but is being advanced. The guidelines have been set in international forum such as the U.N. and it is being set by the full participation of countries, some of which are represented here. And may I pay tribute to one of the most recent members of that international body, the country of Papua New Guinea.

The first necessary step to that state is to identify the indices of second class citizens – until we know that state we cannot adjust it. In my own country, we are trying as objectively as we can to identify the elements in our society which point to discrimination against women which relegates them to a position less than equal to that of other citizens in the society. We look, for instance, at the economic page 117 indices. We are a country which is typical of the ex-colonised countries of the New World, where unemployment is so staggering that one shudders even to give you statistics such as 34% unemployment of women. This is women who constitute one-third of our labour force and one-third of those women on the labour force at any given time cannot find work. And this is by no means commensurate with what I have very briefly indicated, which is the economic potential of women, the economic enterprise which has been demonstrated throughout our history. Nevertheless, our economic system has not been able to develop that potential either by giving women the employment which they seek or by providing the supports they might need to engage in their independent economic activities. Supports such as credit facilities for those many traders who still keep our domestic economy viable; transport; storage facilities; investment facilities, etc. We are aware of this and we see this as a critical index of the fact that our women are still undeveloped. We look again at another area in which there is no question in our minds of the potential of women – religion, which I've touched on briefly before – and their past roles and present, in religion.

Nevertheless, it is true to say that there is no recognised leadership of any significance among women. Women keep our spiritual life really vibrant; nevertheless they do not direct that life. In our political life we are very aware of the fact that women constitute the majority of our electorate because they exceed men in the population; they constitute the majority of the consumers and let us never forget that. Consumer potential is significant political potential and our women are that, if you consider how much goods and services the woman in any society consumes. So, she is the critical economic component there; she's a critical political component. In the political life of the party she is the grass-roots worker in the constituency. No man could get into power without the work and the vote of the woman. Nevertheless, in a legislature of 55, we have only been able to put three women in those positions. And we are conscious of this. And we are particularly conscious of this because it seems to us that the whole process of converting any type of citizen from one status to another is a political process. It is the exercise of political will which is directed into page 118 the corridors of power, which can make the sort of decision and then convert the sort of decision into some kind of national action, which makes a reality of the equality of women which we aspire to. This is why in our country we are consciously activating our women politically to recognise their role. We have found it necessary to activate men simultaneously. May I say we are very pleased we can say with pride and accuracy that our leading feminist is a man, our Prime Minister, who acknowledges, because he is not only a sensitive man but a shrewd politician and a very fine politician – he acknowledges this and it did not require too much persuasion from the women in the political party to get him to first, to establish, a desk for women's affairs in the Ministry of Youth and Community Development and within this year, the International Women's Year, to upgrade that desk to a Bureau of Women's Affairs lodged in the Prime Minister's own office which, as you know, is where the action in most national planning is. But nowhere in history have inequities and inefficiencies disappeared by handout. No one can confer freedom, equality and independence on another. We have to claim it for ourselves from within ourselves. Then and only then can we communicate it to the reluctant sisters, and one of the realities of any women's attempts to upgrade the total condition of women is to recognise that there are many women who are not yet aware of their true condition. So our reluctant sisters have to be communicated with and our even more reluctant brothers. We have to convince them if they are not yet convinced that to mobilize all the human resources in any nation and particularly in newly-independent or to-be-independent nations, some of which are represented here, is an imperative, if national development is going to be in any way meaningful.

We're not engaged in any war of the sexes but a partnership of the sexes in re-building our new nation. And it is a nation such as ours that critically needs women's inputs in the economic re-construction which has to be undertaken at the national level, at the regional level, at the international level. Women's inputs are needed to so develop our rural areas that we can retain the strengths of those rural societies which are being rapidly eroded by all sorts of modern developments. We know and we have identified here page 119 in this room today, some of the strengths of our rural societies in which women have a key role in retaining, while at the same time ensuring, that such rural societies get the modern supports that they need to retain our youths and to make living for women as well as for their families and for their menfolk, decent and humane. We need women's inputs to develop however stable and however rewarding the life of the countryside is. Our urban communities are here with us in the 20th Century. In my own island which projects our visions of sun and sea and sand and tropical paradise, it's not so well known that the tropical paradise is going to be, before the end of this century, an urban settlement. This is the way our migration patterns are working and it is a critical challenge to women to ensure that these newly developing urban centres become humane centres for the young as well as for the old.

We need, above all, the inputs of women to work for peace. I don't want to indulge in the cliches about the special qualities that women have to bring for peace. I can only say that the many areas of international conflict which we observe in the world today are, if you know, areas which are directly dominated by man. The least one can say is, if women are involved in the peace-making areas of the world they could scarcely do worse than our men have done. I would just like to close by saying that these things which have to be done have to be done by the conscious act of women themselves. Women themselves working together, women themselves communicating with each other, women sharing with their sisters and with their menfolk, women, indeed, such as the sisters of the Pacific, sharing with the sisters of the Caribbean, their dreams and their plans, as we work together for a brighter and a freer world.