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Cayman Islands Government

Education Minister Remarks at NHD

Hon. Alden McLaughlin, J.P., Minister of Education, Training, Employment, Youth Sports and Culture

HON. ALDEN McLAUGHLIN, J.P., MINISTER of EDUCATION, TRAINING, EMPLOYMENT, YOUTH SPORTS AND CULTURE

The 5th February this year will be the 50th anniversary of the coming into force of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Law which gave to women the right to vote and to stand for public office.

The 4th of July this year will also mark 50 years since the Cayman Islands received its first written constitution and 23rd September will be 50 years since the first women voted in the Cayman Islands.

On this special day, as a people and as a country, we honour and pay tribute to the struggles, achievements and aspirations of our women and we laud their strength, perseverance and intelligence.

It is only right that we should do so, for the foundations of this country were not built solely on the blood, sweat and ambition of generations of Caymanian men who went down to the sea in ships, but also on the stooped backs, the nurturing spirit and the industry of the women they left behind. It was not simply the allotments from the men at sea which sustained us and caused this land to prosper; it was equally the thrift and good sense of the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters who scrimped and scraped, saved and invested that hard earned money that helped to move this country forward. And it was principally our women who upheld the moral standards and shaped the social fabric of this developing nation. It was the generations of salt water widows with living husbands who were both mother and father to their children and instilled in them the values of Christian living that even today, as a people, we hold dear.

Caymanian women have never been fragile flowers of womanhood. From the earliest times of our settlement, the women of these Islands have been central to the growth and development of our society, exerting influence far beyond that which was publicly acknowledged by the men who controlled both commerce and the political system. And for generations the women of this country, like women elsewhere accepted, at least publicly, their lot in life and their exclusion from the political process.

But in the wake of World War II and the great social and political changes that followed, Caymanian women became increasingly concerned at the possible impact of these profound changes that were occurring globally and in particular, regionally. Many of the British colonies in the region were agitating for independence and as a dependency of Jamaica, it was obvious that this would have real implications for the Cayman Islands. Caymanian women grew impatient and increasingly frustrated at their lack of involvement in the political process and were encouraged and influenced by the fact that women had been granted the right to vote in the United Kingdom in 1926 and in Jamaica in 1944.

But the right of women to vote and stand for public office in these Islands would not be easily won. The male political establishment would resist the call for equal political rights for women for as long as it could. It would be dangerous to grant women the right to vote and hold public office, claimed one of the political leaders of the time, "since women were not politically educated".

When the Caymanian women of my mother's generation began to seriously agitate for political rights, I doubt if any of them regarded their actions as particularly heroic or themselves as heroes. They were simply doing what they believed was right. But because they had the courage to do so, they are heroes.

And when on August 19th, 1948 24 George Town women, including Mrs. Georgette Ebanks and Mrs. Roxie Bodden, who are here with us this morning, signed a letter addressed to the then Commissioner insisting that they be allowed to exercise "the fundamental human right of taking part in deciding who shall govern us" they were not trying to be heroes, they were just pressing for what was right. But because they had the courage to do so, they are heroes.

And, when on 29th May 1957, 358 Caymanian women, white and black, educated and illiterate, rich and poor, presented petitions to the Legislature demanding that "women should be permitted from henceforth to exercise the right of voting in elections,[and] that they should be permitted to hold public office", they were not seeking to be heroes, they were just fighting for what was right. But because they had the courage to fight, they are heroes.

And when in May 1958, Mrs. Ena Watler sought to be nominated for the elections that year and her nomination was rejected, she was not attempting to be a hero, she was just standing up for what she knew should be her right. But because she had the courage to do so, she is a hero.

And when in the run-up to the August 1958 elections, scores of Caymanian women demonstrated and protested their exclusion from the electoral process, they were not looking to be heroes, they were simply demanding their rights. But because they had the courage to do so, they are heroes.

They are heroes because the victory they won in the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Law on December 8th 1958 was historic and seminal. Indeed, it altered the very course of this nation. Its impact on these Islands will continue to resonate through the ages from generation to generation. Because of the courage, determination and perseverance of those women, the lives, opportunities and aspirations of their daughters, granddaughters and, indeed, generations of Caymanian girls and women yet unborn, have been immeasurably enhanced.

Winning the right to vote and to stand for public office has not just given to women a privilege which they should always have enjoyed, it has provided the country with the benefit of their intellect, insight and perspective and because of it, Cayman is so much the richer.

The right of women to stand for public office opened the door in 1959 for a Caymanian woman to be appointed as Clerk to the Legislative Assembly, thereby becoming the first woman in the Commonwealth to hold such an office. She would in due course also become the first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and ultimately the second National Hero of the Cayman Islands.

Over the ensuing 50 years, the right to stand for public office would clear the way for 9 women to become representatives of the people, starting with Miss Evelyn Wood in 1962. In the years that followed, Miss Annie Huldah Bodden, Mrs. Daphne Orrett, Mrs. Esther Ebanks, Mrs. Berna Thompson-Cummins and Miss Heather Bodden would all do tours of duty as public servants. And then there are Hon. Edna Moyle, Mrs. Julianna O'Connor-Connolly and Miss Lucille Seymour who presently serve. Three women would also hold the office of Speaker of the House and 2 would become Cabinet Ministers.

It is now difficult to conceive of a Cayman Islands without women in public life. Though their numbers have been relatively small, their impact on the development of public policy over the past half century has been positive and far reaching.

But perhaps the most profound effect of the enfranchisement of women should not be measured by the relatively small numbers who have served in public office, but by the huge numbers who have seized the opportunities presented by equality. Today, because of the efforts of women two generations ago, Caymanian girls and women are limited only by their aspirations and ambition. Opportunities abound and every field of endeavour is open to them. Young Caymanian women are attending college and university in scores and usually out performing their male counterparts. Caymanian women are fire fighters and police officers, accountants, bankers and lawyers, scientists and architects and builders, pastors and counselors, nurses, pharmacists and doctors. Today nothing is beyond the grasp of a Caymanian woman with ambition.

This day has been a long time coming. Too long. But this day, National Heroes Day, 2009 ,we raise our voices, in praise of our women. This day we pay homage to those who have gone before and we seek to inspire the next generation. In doing so, I wish to publicly acknowledge the Speaker of the House, Hon. Edna Moyle who, three years ago and countless times since, urged me to find a way to recognize the struggles, contributions and achievements of our women.

I wish also to thank my colleagues in the Legislative Assembly on both sides of the House for their unanimous support and encouragement of today's celebration. In particular, I express my gratitude to my fellow MLAs Lucille Seymour and Alfonso Wright who brought to the House the Motion calling for this Heroes Day to be dedicated to the Women of Cayman and for a monument to be erected in this Square in their honour.

We will move shortly to unveil the monument honouring our women. On behalf of the Government, I do hope it that it is seen as a fitting tribute to the legacy of the generation of Caymanian women who fought for equality. But perhaps, more importantly, I hope it provides an inspiration for present and future generations of our women for whom opportunities are limitless and who, because of that legacy, may now aspire to the world.