In October of last year, I was invited to participate in a conference in St. Croix, USVI entitled “Caribbean Women of Political Distinction”. As I reflect on this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “Make It Happen”, I feel I should share the essence of my presentation as I am convinced it has much wider relevance beyond the political sphere.
The necessity for women candidates to promote themselves or one another will one day disappear. To the extent that a forum such as this finds itself on a campaign calendar, tells us that we, women politicians, have some distance to go, some more barriers to dismantle, before we realize a semblance of gender equity in the distribution of power.
Our very presence here and participation belie any notion of gender balance in political representation. As much as we may want to applaud the strides that have been made, there is a subconscious awareness that we are still aberrations – exceptions to the norm!
I wonder to what extent my very participation can be deemed a subconscious acceptance that I as a woman find myself in a space that I do not naturally belong to or that I have chosen a profession that does not see women as natural aspirants. And, whether inadvertently, I am subscribing to a non-truth about my own strength and capacity.
A few years ago while lecturing at the University of the West Indies, a visiting Afro-American male professor asked me, “How do you feel as a black female lecturer on this campus?” Thanks to the provocation of his question, I realized, OMG, I am black, a university lecturer, and incidentally female. It dawned on me that it was either I had no self awareness or I had rejected ethnic and gender ascriptions.
Curiously, at the last national elections in Saint Lucia in November 2011, in my constituency of Micoud North, I was one of three female candidates contesting the elections. I beat the other two. The news simply reported that I had emerged the winner in a three-way fight against two other women. Who knows, had they been men, the news might have been punctuated with all kinds of adjectives like formidable, indomitable, etc., but I had simply beaten two other women. So what!
You and I (we?) female politicians can enjoy the privilege of being in public office because other women before us lost their lives, suffered abuse, embarrassment, humiliation, shed their blood, invested sweat and tears so that we could be here today. What are we doing to ensure that future generations of female politicians do not have to confront the epistemological barriers and the psychological hurdles that characterize the paths to higher political office?
Do we become so imprisoned by the parameters that have been set, that our own political survival and success assume greatest priority and we inadvertently neglect to make provisions for future generations? Or do we forget that there is a greater freedom for which we must fight? The view from the top of the ladder—spectacular and breathtaking as it may be—does little for humankind or womankind if you are up there alone. And never shall your legacy be that you were the first or only woman to have done such and such. The hallmark of a true leader is that he/she would have replicated him or herself several times over so that good succession is assured. In fact, any good teacher or role model would want that those who follow be several times better than you ever were!
Our goal is to ensure that we mold enough women so that political parties would not feel pressured to have poster girls but that women in higher office or women in elective politics would become part of the political staple and so a conference such as this will be rendered redundant. I do not see the men hosting any conference entitled, “Caribbean Men of Political Distinction”.
Women, that which is special about you – contrary to much of what we’ve been taught – is that there is an innate strength, understanding, compassion, resilience, tenacity, pragmatism, and sensitivity that predispose you to being a fine and successful politician. Use your womanhood as a source of strength. It is not a handicap.
We should not be deterred by the derogatory ways in which we are sometimes described, nor feel put down by the sexist and offensive language that is used in an attempt to diminish us. These psychological and emotional traps should be a thing of the past. Shake off the shackles that seek to restrain us, to deny us and the world the benefit of our talent, strength and input. Disassemble, refute and debunk misconstrued notions of who we really are.
Our compassion must not be misrepresented as weakness. Our deliberate and carefully considered intervention must not be deemed as indecision or being slow to act. Our desire for comprehensive, well-thought out, multifaceted approaches that are all inclusive (especially of the marginalized dispossessed and the voiceless) must not be comically re-played as a pointless quest for sainthood.
Our bodies and sexuality should not be a preface to conversation. In fact, those should not feature in any conversation. Campaigns and other social programs must never hinge on our femininity. And, most importantly, we are nobody’s poster girl; we are not to be the token female that affords our party the excuse of being all-embracing of women. We are to ensure that we are equal participants, with equal stake, well positioned to offer equal, if not better, representation with equal access to the higher echelons of our party.
We are all beautiful human beings imbued with certain qualities that are no less than that which may reside within our male counterparts. So, as you leave here, recalibrate your thinking about yourselves, your capacities, and your rightful place in the world. I wish all of you tremendous success as you tap into your womanhood and give shape and definition to the world in which we live.
Dr. Rigobert is the MP for Micoud North and Leader of the Opposition in Saint Lucia.