By Nigel Westmaas
“No man on earth can understand a
woman’s point of view so well as a woman;
no man can sympathise with a down
trodden, over worked, underpaid woman,
as a woman can; no man can scold, chide,
brow beat and argue with a woman as well as another woman can; so then, why should women be always willing to sit down mute
and let men talk for and against them?”
Gertie Wood, Daily Chronicle, March 1, 1931
Gertie Wood’s name has appeared at fleeting moments on the periphery of scholarship on the Guyanese women’s movement. As such not much has been said or published on the significant volume of work and activism she undertook for women and girls in British Guiana. Social worker, women’s rights activist, accomplished concert artist, and politician, Wood was sometimes the sole female voice articulating for women and equitable conditions of work in the period of her greatest activity, the 1930s. She was vigorous, sustained and varied in her progressive activism on behalf of women in an age where women’s voices and activity outside of charitable work were seen as subversive.
There were women, before and after, who openly addressed and were proactive on gender, political and trade union issues. But in many respects Wood was a pioneer before her more prominent successors in the women’s movement.
Wood preceded in activism some of the more prominent names that followed in her footsteps. The work of Hazel Woolford and Roberta Kilkenny, among others, has identified these early pioneering women of social activism including Frances Stafford, Marie Bayley, Gertrude Collins, Johanna Harris, Governors’ wives, and of course the even more recognized names such as Jessica Huntley, Janet Jagan and Winifred Gaskin.
But for the 1930s, one name stood out, Gertie Wood.
At the time Wood’s activism came to the fore British Guiana was a society bubbling with the contradictions between labour ferment and colonial stability. The main arenas of concern and action included labour struggles against unemployment and underemployment, and the struggle for adult suffrage, especially for women.
There was a turning point in labour and social activism in the 1930s with the sustained activity of the BGLU (British Guiana Labour Union) and Albert Thorne’s BGWL (British Guiana Workers League), both of which provided hints of ‘socialistic’ militance against British Guiana’s colonial laissez faire economy.
There were sporadic expressions of concern at conditions of labour under which women and girls worked and even sections of the usually conservative press editorialized on these conditions. One editorial in a local newspaper observed: “We observe that the matter of the sweating of female labour by a number of unscrupulous small commercial men has at last been raised in the Chamber of Commerce.” One of the key areas of depression in urban centres like Georgetown was domestic and shop work, mainly conducted by girls and women. Another key female figure of the period, Hildred Briton of the BGWL, complained about restricted employment for women and what she termed the “shade system” in British Guiana and other colonies where “mulattoes have better opportunities to get higher salaries than the darker women.”
In July 1933, Hubert Critchlow, always prescient and at the forefront of any major social issue, read a resolution at the Parade Ground calling for the government to “pass legislation to the effect that working hours for domestic workers should not be more than eight hours a day and forty four hours a week”. With the arrival of adult suffrage by 1928 women began to emerge in more direct ways on the political and social sphere.
Still, simple achievements like women’s acceptance, for the first time, to work as switchboard operators at police headquarters in 1933 were exalted in the press. This was preceded by the colony’s’ first woman barrister Iris DeFreitas winning her first major case in 1932. But these piddling concessions did not affect the dominant patriarchal and anti-working class environment, especially for women and girls in the colony.
Women’s voices were restrained by Victorian ideals of a woman’s place in society and of course the right to vote. Hazel Woolford’s detailed research on women and gender in Guyana found that for a brief period between 1812 and 1848 women in British Guiana were technically allowed to vote. But after that right was terminated in 1849, women had to wait until 1928 for it to be restored. This situation was somewhat in sync with the colonial power’s own experience with female suffrage. The British Guiana press, sometimes sympathetically, mused on women’s right to vote while alluding to the state of female suffrage in the United Kingdom. In 1928 the Daily Argosy cautiously observed, after the suffrage was won by women in British Guiana, that women’s votes in British Guiana “will outnumber the men.”
In sum, for women there had to be push back against their unofficial restrictions to addressing only issues of home, church, and domesticity, or ‘domestic virtue’, and ‘respectability.’
In brief, this was the social and political context in which Gertie Wood made her entrance.
Gertie Wood was President of the Circle of Sunshine Workers, an organisation founded in 1931 and located at 110 Regent Road, Bourda. The Sunshine Workers, with its motto “Feed my lambs, Feed my sheep” was the main medium through which Wood stamped her presence in Guyana’s social and political life. As far as the newspapers convey, the Circle of Sunshine Workers functioned both as a charitable organisation and a de facto trade union. Wood was also responsible for a free breakfast programme for schoolchildren in Georgetown. The programme had measurable success and the Daily Chronicle recorded a “stirring appeal made by the workers of the worthy and appreciable movement, through which 23,985 free meals were distributed to children in the year 1936.” The breakfast programme was complemented by other active schemes to assist the women and girls of Georgetown to earn a livelihood inclusive of needlework and free tuition on sewing machines. One weekly publication described Gertie Wood as “the energetic Social worker of this city,” lauding the work done by Wood’s Circle of Sunshine Workers including the “introduction of the 4H Club, and the maintenance of the Sunday School which forms a training ground for good and useful citizens.”
In November 1933 Wood ran for the snap municipal byelection for the Board Ward seat of the Georgetown Town Council, rendered vacant after the resignation of Alfred Victor Crane, a legal luminary at the time who stepped down to take up the position of Senior Magistrate. Ultimately Wood was unsuccessful but the press was voluble on her character and capability. The Daily Chronicle observed that Wood as an African-Guianese woman had “made history for her race and this country in being the first woman to enter the political arena as a principal.” Three days later, as Wood began her campaign in earnest, the paper was even more glowing in its recommendation. Attesting that Wood was not new to public life, it praised her for being the “only candidate to come out with a clear and definite programme.” Wood’s programme included a revision of taxation, rigid municipal control of the city’s milk supply, addressing foreclosures on mortgages and general concern for “starvation”.
Wood was also head of the local committee that hosted the second Inter-Colonial Conference of Women Social Workers (founded in 1936) in Georgetown in 1938. She complained during the proceedings that “one section of the press appeared not in favour of the conference…” It was not difficult to establish why Wood was seeing British Guianese society from two angles, as charitable worker and as activist against subservience to the male order. Her coherent and far seeing social and political contributions were even more stellar in her language and expressions. On the question of women workers in the shops Wood had this to say:
“now we come to the question of ‘sweated labour’, I want to say that in Georgetown, woman and woman only bears the lash of this damnable scourge…in homes and in the shirt factories, by women and girls who are bravely trying to help out the situation, by doing their bit, but who are being crushed, sent down to perdition, ruined physically and morally, by having to submit to work under conditions known as ‘sweated labour’. Oh woman of Guiana, throw off the shackles that bind you, there must be something you want to say for yourselves…It is high time for British Guiana women to stop following men and taking whatever they say for granted – step out from behind and lead out somewhere, somehow, over rough and thorny places perhaps, it matters not so long as the goal is reached.”
Wood’s detractors appeared few and far between, or at least they were not very public. Maybe it was on account of her protean ability to advocate sternly for women’s rights while affecting the normalized and accepted functions of ‘womanhood’ at the time including charitable work. But nothing was normal at the time about Wood’s tough prescriptions for a male-oriented society. In essence she forsook the hallowed tradition of compromise with the status quo. “There is no gainsaying the fact that there is urgent need, at the present time for a very strong and representative womanhood in British Guiana” she exclaimed at one meeting.
Apart from press reportage of Wood’s activity and speeches she published an important document on Guyana’s women. This text was titled An Ideal Womanhood in British Guiana. While it is difficult to obtain, it was quoted from in Selwyn Cudjoe’s book on the Guianese politician ARF Webber, while Veronica Marie-Gregg’s book on Caribbean Women: An Anthology carried extracts from it.
And what about focus on women of other races? African Guyanese organisations like the Negro Progress Convention (NPC) were open to actions by Indian organisations in support of Indian women and girls. And in 1938 a local Indian organisation, the Balak Sahaite Mandalee of which Mrs Alice Singh was President, was invited to the aforementioned inter colonial conference of women social workers. But although the overall trajectory of Wood’s activism appeared directed to the cause of women it is not immediately known whether Wood herself intervened on the question of the particular interests of East Indian women; according to Clem Seecharan’s book Mother India’s Shadow over El Dorado, these included efforts to remove the “scourge of illiteracy in the Indian community, banish child labour” and “elevate the woman”, but did not formally extend to trade union activism or political roles at that time.
At least up to 1939 Gertie Wood was still at it, feeding children and addressing the woman question. As for other social and political organisations and individuals the arrival of the Second World War must have stymied some of her activism. But even today her words, uttered in 1931 still ring with prescience and continued relevance:
“Do not for a moment let anyone convince you: that the ‘Political Woman’ is a freak; she is not, she is a very serious problem and one that has to be reckoned with, and since woman looms largely in every phase of life, she should, yea I say, she must let her voice be heard; long enough has she been patiently sitting with hands folded and head bent, reading and hearing what man has to say on all topics…but he seldom remembers her view of public matters…”