A dame and a lady
At age 86, there is no slowing down for the indefatigable Dame Maizie Barker-Welch.
Hers is an impressive résumé – school teacher, parliamentarian, women’s rights activist, advocate for the care of the elderly. Though the 90s are staring her in the face, the feisty mother of four goes on and on like the Energizer Bunny.
The 5’2” dynamo remains youthful in outlook, her days spent dealing with responsibilities as chairperson of the National Committee on Ageing, with the work as chairperson of the Royal Commonwealth Society, confronting women’s issues, and when there is a pause for recreation, she is in the spacious gardens of her Accommodation Road home planting, pruning, reaping, or at the piano unwinding with a selection from her favourite composers Chopin and Schubert, or swinging away to Scot Joplin.
Dame Maizie has always believed women should be involved in every sphere of activity and should reach the top of such spheres. This is why she continues to work to elevate the status of women in Barbados. Back in 1992, she was president of the National Organization of Women, the umbrella body for all women’s organizations in Barbados, lobbying for recognition of women as valuable assets in nation-building. She was also a president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club and a member of Soroptimists International of Jamestown.
The stalwart of the Democratic Labour Party began an active foray into politics at age 58 and went on to serve as chairperson of the party’s female arm, the Democratic League of Women. She was also elected first vice-president of the party.
In 1986 her campaign on behalf of the DLP paid off when she captured the valuable St Joseph seat for her party after it had been held by the Barbados Labour Party for 16 years, thereby exploding the belief that the constituency of the parish in which she grew up would always be “B” country.
She told an interviewer many years after: “I wanted to win and serve the constituents of St Joseph who had many unmet needs, even if it meant crawling step-by-step through every crevice of that parish to reach the people.”
It was a determination that saw her navigating her steps up steep pathways to the doorsteps of the rural constituents, some of whom had never before seen a political candidate. She was also formidable on the political platform, and has vivid memories of the night of her campaign when she spoke non-stop for one and a half hours “because no one came to relieve me”.
She was able to do it, she said, because of her familiarity with the issues confronting people in the community. “My father was a country schoolmaster so I saw a great deal of community work . . . . He always taught us that we should give back to the community.”
Winning the seat, being the only woman sitting in Parliament during that term, and sitting alongside then DLP leader the late National Hero Errol Barrow remain highlights of her political career. In later years she would also serve as a Senator in the Upper House.
She is a fashion icon, whose trademark silk outfits never fail to win a nod wherever she goes.
There was a time when she operated her own dress shop from her rambling, old-style Bajan home, whose character distinguishes it in the suburban Bush Hall community in which she has chosen to remain rather than relocate to the popular the heights and terraces.
The love affair with fashion can be traced back to her teenage years when at 15 she learnt to sew and made clothes for the female members of her family. She made all her own clothes until 1986 when personal dress-making had to give way to the duties of parliamentarian. Then she turned to local fashion designer Pauline Bellamy in whose Sew and Sew label she believes because “they pay attention to detai.” and her outfits are more often than not topped off with a fetching hat. “It stems from my upbringing. A proper hat finishes off an outfit. I see a hat as a finishing touch.”
It was only two years ago that she stopped going to the gym but the stairs in her home have become a useful substitute for that exercise regimen. This is coupled with a strict diet that sees every day beginning with a “cup of boiling water”, followed with a breakfast of ground provisions, a green vegetable, egg or salmon. Lunch is a smoothie of goat’s milk, strawberries and bananas.
Growing up with a variety of livestock in the rural Barker household, Dame Maizie, surprisingly, some to some says “I have never eaten chicken”. A roasted lamb leg or steamed fish appeals to the palate more.
With her trim lithe figure, and skin that belies her age, it is no surprise that the octogenarian tells you “I do not eat a lot of anything”.