The women of the Suffrage Movement were fierce, intelligent and determined. They had dreams of a Bahamas that went far beyond the enfranchisement of women. They wanted human rights and social services for every Bahamian, and advocated the purposeful, informed, community-engagement of every citizen. This section highlights the leaders of the Movement and provides some background on their lives.
Suffragists Call on Governor, 1960
Teacher, suffragette, politician and author, Dame Dr. Doris Johnson has been described as a woman of a high level of intelligence and ambition, committed to achieving her goals against the odds. Born Doris Sands in 1921, she had long been a social and political fighter for the rights of women. When she returned to The Bahamas in 1958 from studying abroad, the Women’s Suffrage Movement embraced her passion and oratorical skills. She was able to mobilize the movement into a fighting force (while coordinating the founding of the National Council of Women).
In 1959 Dr. Johnson led a demonstration to Parliament and gave a pivotal speech, in the Magistrate’s Court, to members of the House of Assembly on the moral right of women to vote. This event was a turning point in the road to achieving suffrage. In November 1960, Dr. Doris Johnson and Eugenia Lockhart accompanied Henry M. Taylor, Chairman of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), to London to present a Petition for universal adult suffrage to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The following year, a Select Committee of the Bahamas Parliament presented a report which proposed to yield to women the right to vote in 1963. The PLP and Independents opposed the deferral of the right, and an appeal was made to London again. In February 23, 1961 the House of Assembly, perhaps pressured by London, enacted the law to give women the right to vote and sit in the legislature with effect from June 30, 1962.
When the 1962 General Election was held, Dr. Johnson became the first woman ever to contest a seat; she ran for the Eleuthera District. She did not win; but she had run the first leg of a race that would be completed by Mrs. Janet Bostwick twenty years later. In 1967 the PLP became the government of The Bahamas, and Dr. Johnson became the first woman appointed to the Senate; the first woman leader of government business in the Senate; the first woman Minister of Government (1968-1973 Ministry of Transport); and, the first woman President of the Senate (1973-1979) at age 52.
Doris Johnson held a Bachelor of Arts in English and Education cum laude, a Master of Education degree in Administration and Supervision, and Doctor of Education with Honours from New York University. She taught for seventeen years in the Bahamian public education system in the 1940s and 1950s before taking up the position of lecturer in social studies at Virginia Union, U.S.A. 1965-1967. Her book, The Quiet Revolution, is one of the most important accounts of the events and personalities involved in the attainment of Majority Rule and Independence in The Bahamas. She died June 21, 1983.
Mabel Cordelia Holloway Walker was a capable and dynamic advocate for change in The Bahamas. The fact that she was an American, born in Greenville, South Carolina on May 2, 1902, in no way diminished her passion for education and gender equality in The Bahamas. She studied at Howard University in Washington, DC where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree and met her Bahamian husband, Claudius Roland Walker, who was then studying for the Bachelor of Science degree.
Mrs. Walker was founding president of the Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) in 1947, the first woman to head a trade union in The Bahamas. She worked hard for the recognition of the Union and was adamant that teachers be recognized, trained and paid as professionals. The
Mabel Walker Primary School and the administrative building of the BUT, Walker Hall, are named in honor of her contribution to education.
Mabel Walker was also the catalyst of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She brought together strong-willed and intelligent women of diverse social and political background when she suggested to Georgiana K. Symonette, later chairman of the Women’s Branch of the PLP, that they seek the assistance of Mary Ingraham, wife of a former UBP- leaning member of the House of Assembly. Mrs. Walker labored in the Suffrage Movement from 1950 until 1962 when Bahamian women of 21 years or older were given the right to vote. It is a testimony to her character that she fought for a cause from which she would derive no direct benefit as she was an American. She knew that the cause was just and that the fight was for her children.
Mrs. Walker lived by principles. She believed in the dignity of work. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” was her guide. She always believed in the potential of people, and encouraged people to achieve their goals. She would say “nothing is impossible,” and “there is nothing called ‘I can’t’.” Even in her later life, she was always encouraging and helping people.
Mrs. Walker died on July 8, 1987.
Althea Mortimer was born on 20 November 1908 in Matthew Town, Inagua, the second child of Samuel and Lilla Mortimer. Her family moved to Nassau after her father died in a tragic accident, rescuing her brother from drowning.
In Nassau Ms. Mortimer entered the government school system. By age 12 she had completed all of the available education, but she stayed on as a monitor for several years. Later, Ms. Mortimor travelled to New York City with her brother to find work and attend evening classes. Upon their return she worked as the legal secretary to the Honourable T. A. Toote.
Ms. Mortimer opened a typing and shorthand classroom in 1947 in her residence on Meeting Street, near Bethel Baptist Church. She started out with a few students and two typewriters, but over a period of approximately 40 years hundreds of students benefited from her teaching. Notable students include Dame Ivy Dumont, former Governor General, and Marina Glinton, former Director of The Bahamas Red Cross. Former Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling presented Ms. Mortimer with a plaque at ZNS radio station, naming her Woman of the Year for her achievement as a Commercial Educator.
Ms. Mortimer passionately believed in and supported the rights of women to vote. She helped to draft and type several of the documents created by the Women’s Suffrage Movement (WSM) to further their cause in the halls of Parliament. She was also the guest speaker at “Education for Citizenship,” a seminar designed by the leaders of the WSM to prepare Bahamian women to assume their political responsibilities.
A supporter of the Progressive Liberal Party from its inception, she was appointed a Stalwart-Counselor for Life of the party. She was also made a Justice of the Peace and served for many years on the Juvenile Panel.
In addition to her involvement in teaching and politics Ms Mortimer was dedicated to her church, St. Mary the Virgin, where she worshipped regularly for over 75 years.
Ms. Mortimer died in January 1997 at the age of 88.
Mary Ingraham was a strong-willed and intelligent woman. These were the very attributes that enabled her to complete the work destiny had assigned to her in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. “May”, as she was affectionately called, was born on July 30, 1901 in New Providence. A housewife, she became actively involved in politics in the late 1940s when her husband, Rufus, was a Member of the House of Assembly for the Crooked Island and Acklins Districts. In the 1949 General Election, her husband lost his seat; and he attributed his loss to the fact that women were not allowed to vote. He felt that most of the males who were eligible to
vote did so only in exchange for materialistic things such as alcohol or cash, which his opponents were able to supply. The experience of her husband impressed upon Mary the need for women to be able to vote. She had been agitating the powers-that-be for some time to give women equal voting rights with men, but she had been unsuccessful, until she joined forces with some other strong-willed and intelligent women.
In 1950 Mrs. Mabel Walker, wife of PLP Parliamentarian C. R. Walker and a long time close friend of the family, approached Mrs. Ingraham on behalf of a young women’s group wanting to know how to go about getting the vote for women. Mary was willing to work with them to bring about this change. The women formed a committee, the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Mary already had some experience in the fight and was made chairman; Georgiana K. Symonette, later chairman of the Women’s Branch of the PLP, was made vice chairman; Eugenia Lockhart was its secretary; and Althea Mortimer, Mabel C. Walker, and Muriel Eneas were members. Most of these women held influential positions in various female organizations of that period: Mabel Walker had established the Teachers Union and was working to get recognition for it; and Mrs. Ingraham was a Past Daughter Ruler of the Elks of the World and Past Matron of the Order of Eastern Stars.
The committee evolved in structure, size, and effectiveness between 1950 and 1962. In 1958 Doris Johnson joined the Movement as spokesperson and mobilized the movement into a fighting force. Following two Petitions, an executive meeting with Lennox Boyd, an epochal speech by Doris Johnson on the moral imperative of universal adult suffrage to members of Parliament, and a visit to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, Mr. Stafford Sands tabled a Bill “to enable women to have and exercise rights of registration as voters and of voting similar to those accorded to men….’ The Bill passed Parliament in February 23, 1961. It came into effect on June 30, 1962; and women 21 years or older voted for the first time on November 26, 1962.
Georgiana Kathleen Symonette was born April 4, 1902 in Wemyss Bight, Eleuthera to Olivia McKinney and Alexander Symonette. She was educated at the government school in Wemyss Bight and later became a monitor there (assistant teacher).
Georgianna Symonette’s ambition to improve herself professionally caused her to migrate to Nassau to pursue nursing at the Bahamas General Hospital (renamed the Princess Margaret Hospital). She lived in the Eastern District where she raised her family of four children and ran a successful dry goods business. Miss Symonette had a passion for politics, the rights of women and the advancement of black people socially, economically and politically. It was this dimension of her life which has set her apart. The vehicle for that expression was the Progressive Liberal party which was founded in 1953. She became the founding chairman of the Women’s Branch of the party.
Recognizing the inequities in voting rights, Miss Symonette and three other ladies, Mrs. Mary Ingraham, Eugenia Lockhart and Mabel Walker formed the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In order to sensitize the government of the day to the desire of women to vote, Miss Symonette and the other suffragettes adopted a very aggressive action programme. They toured the entire archipelago gaining signatures for petitions; picketed the House of Assembly; addressed Parliamentarians; and, made representation to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. As a result of the persistence of the suffragettes, Parliament in 1961 passed an Act giving women the right to vote. In the 1962 General Election women voted for the first time in The Bahamas thanks to the tireless agitation of women like Georgiana Symonette.
Miss Symonette died May 14, 1965. Her political contribution has continued through two generations of her children. Her son Sir Clement Maynard was a minister of the government for 25 consecutive years and deputy prime minister of The Bahamas (1985-1992), and two of her grandchildren have served as ministers of government.
Adapted from The 100 Most Outstanding Bahamians of the 20th Century
Dame Albertha Madeline Isaacs was born Albertha Madeline Hanna on April 18, 1900 in New Providence. She was educated at The Girls Cosmopolitan and Victoria Schools in Nassau, and following her graduation she embarked upon a career as a primary school teacher. However, in her thirties, Dame Albertha left education to pursue a professional tennis career. She became the first Bahamian women’s champion to win on the United States circuit and enjoyed an international doubles championship with her American doubles partner Lillian Spencer. During the middle of the twentieth century, this educator-turned-professional-tennis-player embarked upon a political career to champion women’s rights in The Bahamas.
Dame Albertha became a founding member of the Women’s Branch of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), the first political party of record in The Bahamas. The Women’s Branch was primarily responsible for fundraising. In this vein, Dame Albertha and her sister Norma Hanna played a pivotal role in raising funds for the PLP by hosting their renowned and elegant tea parties. Dame Albertha and many of her contemporaries were attuned to the global movement for voting rights for women and grew dissatisfied with the status quo for women in The Bahamas. She turned her considerable energies and influence to the Women’s Suffrage Movement which was organized in The Bahamas in the 1950s. By 1961 the suffragettes had convinced Parliament to give women the right to vote, and Dame Alberta and the women of the Bahama Islands marked their ‘X’ for the first time in the 1962 General Election.
Today, the women of The Bahamas are beneficiaries of the gallant efforts of Dame Albertha Isaacs and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Dame Albertha had contributed tremendously without fear or doubt to the cause. Her courage and sacrifice were acknowledged when she became the first female in The Bahamas to be bestowed the honor of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974. Throughout her life, Dame Bertha, as she was affectionately called later, served the nation in various capacities in civic and social organizations such as The Girls Industrial School; the Persis Rodgers Home for the Aged, of which she was the first President; the Elks family; the Good Samaritans Lodge; Excelsior Purple Cross Nurses Unit; The Red Cross; the Y.W.C.A.; the Eastern Union Burial Society; and St. George’s Church Choir. Dame Bertha also served as a faithful member of the National General Council of the Progressive Liberal Party up to the time of her passing in 1997.