Cayman on Monday marked 50 years since the passing of a bill that allowed women to vote and stand for election.
A ceremony to commemorate the landmark law was held on the steps of the Legislative Assembly before an audience that included two women who had signed a letter in 1948 that eventually led the way to women getting the vote in the islands.
Speaker of the House Edna Moyle and the first female Speaker of the House Sybil McLaughlin unveiled a plaque inside the foyer of Legislative Assembly Building which lists all the women who have held office in Cayman since the removal of a law which prevented women from voting in 1958.
‘It is as a direct result of the actions more than 50 years ago that I am able to stand where I am today,’ said Mrs. Moyle at the ceremony.
On 19 August, 1948, 24 George Town women signed and sent a letter to the then Commissioner that they intended to exercise their fundamental human right to vote on an election that day, but they were not allowed to do so because they were told they did not have a constitutional right to vote.
Nine years later, on 29 May, 1957, 358 women, including some who had signed the original letter, put their names to a petition, which was laid before the Legislative Assembly of Justices and Vestrymen. The petition demanded the women’s political right to vote.
A Select Committee in the Legislative Assembly recommended unanimously to grant the petition and on 8 December, 1958, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Law was signed into law.
Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said: ‘Despite this victory, no women ran in the next election, which took place in 1959. However, that same year, Mrs. Sybil McLaughlin was appointed clerk of the new assembly and not only was she the first woman in the Cayman Islands to serve in that post, but she was the first woman in the entire Commonwealth to attain such high office.’
Mrs. McLaughlin, who was named National Hero in 1996, was also present at Monday’s ceremony and is among the women mentioned on the newly unveiled plaque as she went on to become one of the three women who have been speakers of the House.
Since the law was passed 50 years ago, nine women have been members of the Legislative Assembly.
The first woman to be elected in Cayman, Evelyn Wood, was voted into the Legislative Assembly in 1962. Annie Huldah Bodden was the first female member of the Assembly and was appointed as a nominated member in 1962.
Attending the ceremony were Roxie Bodden, 95, and Georgette Ebanks, 81. Both women were signatories of the original letter presented to the Commissioner in 1948.
After the ceremony, Mrs. Bodden explained what had prompted her to sign the letter. ‘We decided that we should have the privilege of voting,’ and when other women who had signed it approached her, she was more than happy to place her signature on the letter.
Mrs. Ebanks, who was just 21 when she signed her maiden name Georgette Hurlston, said she believed only six of the original signatories were still living. ‘By the time women got the vote 10 years later, I was living in the US,’ she said.
The right of women to vote and hold public office was also looked at from the perspective of the younger females on the Island. George Town Primary student, Vania Cornwall, read a letter she had penned to the politicians, outlining her hopes for her future.
After the ceremony, legislators spent the day debating a motion to commemorate the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Law, 1958.
As well as congratulating the three women who serve in the Legislative Assembly – Lucille Seymor, whose member’s motion led to the debate; Mrs. Moyle and Juliana O’Connor Connolly – members also pointed out that obstacles still remained to women entering politics.
‘In 50 years, only nine women have been elected to this Legislative Assembly, I think we should reflect on that,’ Minister Alden McLaughlin said. ‘We still have a long way to go to get the right balance in terms of who exercises control in this country, who helps to shape policy and… shape the destiny in this place.’
Leader of Opposition McKeeva Bush lauded the efforts of women in Cayman prior to them being allowed to vote, saying they had shaped the children of the Island while the men were away at sea and had run businesses.
‘This country could never deny the fact that our women are a great part of our history and played the greatest role in our development, even without the vote, without the opportunity to get elected.’
Ms Seymour pointed out that as well as securing a vote for women, the petitioners had also secured suffrage for men. Only men who had paid a poll tax of two pounds could vote at the time.
‘Many George Town men could not vote because they could not afford to pay poll tax. They had no voice either,’ Ms Seymour said.
She said women needed support from the community and from employers to help them participate in the political and economic development of Cayman.
She added that she hoped that within the next 15 years, she could see at least a third of the House populated by female elected members.