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    March 21

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PETER WICKHAM: Political women

PETER WICKHAM,

Added 26 March 2017

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THIS MARCH, WE have been reflecting on issues that impact on the welfare of women in several ways that range from the #LifeInLeggings march to the provocative public lecture given by former Government Minister Elizabeth Thompson.

She reflected on her life in politics under the rubric Nasty or Nice: Women In Politics Leadership and Life. Subsequent to Thompson’s lecture, I had my own opportunity to engage the issue of women in politics at a forum which was put on by Nevis Island Administration on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

My presentation, entitled Studying Trends In Women’s Election To Parliament And Factors That Facilitated Their Success was inspired in no small way by Thompson’s reflection.

Attendees at Thompson’s lecture benefited from her characteristic frankness and also the fact that she is now “retired” from politics and can engage these issues without concern for her own political hide. The use of the term “hide” here is not accidental, indeed one of the more memorable comments was her assertion that a woman who dares to enter politics has to have the hide of a “rhinoceros”. The analogy was not the most elegant but conveyed one of the unfortunate truths of politics which she illustrated with reference to a comment made by the late David Thompson.

Thompson’s (David) comment that he was not sure whether she (Elizabeth) or the cutlass she brandished at a meeting should be charged with wielding an offensive weapon was clearly offensive, but to my mind was not “gender- based” and is therefore not necessarily illustrative of inequitable treatment women face. Instead, I have often thought that the holy grail of gender insensitivity was reflected in her former Cabinet colleague’s comment that she and two other women were akin to 1 000 pounds of blubber. 

Notwithstanding, the point Thompson was making is clear and consistent with advice I subsequently offered in Nevis to young women who aspired to become involved in politics. Women more than their male counterparts in politics need to prioritise their issues and ignore much of the gender-based nastiness and focus on what is really more important to their progress. It can be argued that this is one of the more significant factors that contributed to the success of herself and the other two “PowerPuff Girls” as they have individually and collectively been subjected to significant gender-based nastiness over the years. They have, however persisted and achieved political objectives which compare favourably to their male counterparts.

In this regard it is noteworthy that both Mia Mottley and Kamla Persad-Bissesar have endured the indignity of being appointed to the post of Party Leader and thereafter removed when their male counterparts decided they wanted back the job. In neither instance did the women retaliate in a way that most humans would, but instead engaged with the new/old leader to ensure the party’s success at the polls. The fact that Persad-Bissesar prevailed eventually and Mottley seems well-placed to prevail demonstrates the soundness of their reaction and moreover invalidated the suggestion that women are too thin-skinned for politics.

Thompson also made another significant point by reference to patterns of land ownership and while her references were more anecdotal the point was profound. It would appear that comparatively fewer women in Barbados own property and she asserted the undeniable link to women’s political fortunes that is under-researched. It is entirely true that in order to make an impact on both politics and leadership, politicians should have a sufficiently sound economic base that they can withstand the vagaries of political misfortune and moreover cannot be held to ransom by demands from those who are more economically powerful. As such if women are less economically independent then they are likely to be less successful and similarly where women are economically empowered more of them are likely to be successful in politics.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: peter.w.wickham@gmail.com

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