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The Grenada revolution and women’s struggle for liberation

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 3.14.19 PMBy Ajamu Nangwaya From telesur

Socialist feminism is an ally in the struggle against capitalism, imperialism and racism.

The Grenada Revolution, which lasted from March 13, 1979, to Oct. 25, 1983, gave the Anglophone Caribbean an example of a different developmental model. A compelling issue for radicals in this sub-region should be the approach of the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) in fostering the liberation of Grenadian women.

In spite of women’s participation in anti-colonial struggles, the record of most post-colonial governments have not been impressive on the question of women’s liberation. In Maria Rosa Cutrufelli’s book “Women of Africa: Roots of Oppression,” she states that women won the rights of the citizen, but that “neither her labour nor political rights have given African women real power and autonomy.” These regimes have engaged in the rhetoric of women’s emancipation, but have fallen short in the realm of concrete action.

In state socialist countries such as China, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, the promise of liberation has failed to live up to the expectation of women. Maria Mies examination of the condition of women in her text “Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale” asserts that “what is striking in the account of women’s position in socialist countries is the similarity with women’s problem in market economies.” Ending the private ownership of property did not result in liberation of women.

Grenada’s women were active in the political mobilization of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) that ended the repressive regime of Eric Gairey and his private militia, the Mongoose Gang. Caribbean academic Rhoda Reddock boldly declares in the article Popular Movement to ‘Mass Organization’: The Case of the National Women’s Organization of Grenada (NWO) 1979-1983 that the leadership of the Grenada Revolution was unmatched in its public acknowledgement of women’s role in bringing about the revolution and extended an invitation to them to participate in the “process of revolutionary transformation.”

In the December 1982 speech of Maurice Bishop at the first Congress of NWO he recognized the significant contribution of women before, during and after the revolution. Bishop outlined some of the concrete programs that have improved the lives of Grenada’s women. The political commitment of the PRG to the liberation of women was highlighted in the June 15, 1979, speech by Bishop at the conference of the Progressive Women’s Association. He acknowledged that the PRG “cannot pretend that we have done anything in a serious way at this point, to solve the objective problems facing women in society.” However, the government had started to attack the cultural beliefs, attitudes and prejudices that supported the subordination of women in society.

Bishop went to proclaim the PRG’s intention to pass laws on equal pay for equal work and maternity leave with pay, rewrite the language in relevant legislation to affirm gender equality, and dismiss ministers and civil servants who sought sexual favours in exchange for jobs. The Prime Minister informed the audience that a Women’s Desk had been created in the Ministry of Education and Social Affairs and it would be the driving force to “monitor and organize improved rights for our women.”

However, Prime Minister made a comment on women’s liberation in his PWA speech that is worth noting. He called for the unity of men and women in order to create the new society, because “there is a common enemy that faces both men and women.” However, he made a statement that may be read as an opposition to an independent women’s liberation movement.

Bishop declares in this speech:

“I know there are some women, particularly in North America, who feel that the enemy is the man and some have started to go around half-naked, calling that liberation, and others have begun to say that to liberate themselves it is necessary for them to stamp on the man. I don’t believe the women of this country will accept this solution.”

This revolutionary leader appealed to anti-feminist prejudices and ignorance of the different ideological tendencies within feminism. The African-American socialist feminists and lesbians in the Combahee River Collective were committed to “solidarity with progressive Black men” and rejected the “fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand.” However, they, quite rightly, embraced the need for women to organize in their autonomous organizations and movements. The nature of oppression often calls for the independent organizing of the oppressed, while working in solidarity with other dominated peoples.

Bishop betrays a common error of the post-colonial period when he emphasized that “it is only when we have fought and smashed the common enemy that we are going to have the liberation of the woman.” This approach was aimed at preserving unity within the state, which might be difficult to attain with women independently organizing against patriarchy. According to Mies, the “‘women’s question’ constitutes a secondary contradiction which has to be tackled, ideologically, after the main contradiction of imperialist and class relations has been solved.”

The Grenada Revolution facilitated a material improvement in the lives of women in areas such as education, housing, employment opportunities in nontraditional occupations, primary health care, free books and uniforms to children, equal pay for equal work, maternal benefits, free food to families and expansion of child care centers. The PRG created a Ministry of Women’s Affairs to address women’s inequality. Women’s participation in the government, NJM, women’s organization, the army and militia and organs of popular democracy such as the zonal and parish councils were notable accomplishments of the Grenada Revolution. However, the women’s mass organization, NOW, was an arm and channel of the state in advancing its policies.

Caribbean revolutionaries should not be spooked by the explicit linking of feminism and the liberation of women. Socialist feminism is an ally in the struggle against capitalism, imperialism and racism. Reddock highlights the fact that the Grenada Revolution did not end the sexual division of labor, engender the equal sharing of unpaid work at home, and alter the traditional family. They served as enablers of the oppression of Grenadian women.

Caribbean revolutionaries should heed the advice of Reddock that the “traditional prejudices against feminism will have to be eradicated and the wealth of research and analysis carried on by the socialist-feminists taken into consideration” in order to fully understand the reasons for exploitation of women and the crafting of an integrated programme of action to advance women’s liberation and that of other groups.

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator, organizer and writer. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.

IMAGE: Grenada’s women were active in the political mobilization of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) that ended the repressive regime of Eric Gairey and his private militia, the Mongoose Gang.

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