Caribbean Women Who Paved The Way For Women Everywhere
No celebration of women would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of Caribbean women who have paved the way for women everywhere. The global influence of Caribbean women has been noted in a wide array of areas. While not an exhaustive list, the following women have each demonstrated excellence in her respective field that cannot go unnoticed:
Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou)
Louise Bennett-Coverley, known by her stage name Miss Lou, was one of the most influential figures in Jamaican culture. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica on September 7th 1919 and had a long career as a poet, folklorist, performer, educator and activist. She began writing poetry while in school and gradually grew a following. She received nationwide notice when in 1943 she was asked to publish a column of her poetry weekly in the Sunday Gleaner. Her role as a judge in drama shows across the island gave her an understanding about rural Jamaica and its customs. Her reputation grew as she became more and more involved in performances. Miss Lou wrote and performed all her poems in Jamaican Patois and was very instrumental in the acceptance of the creole language in mainstream art. This established respect and pride in Jamaica for its native culture and heritage. In 1945, Miss Lou became the first black student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London when she won a British Council Scholarship. Throughout her career she made several appearances on Jamaican television and travelled extensively to promote and educate about Jamaican culture. For her contribution to Jamaican culture, Miss Lou was bestowed with several accolades including the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1960, the Order of Jamaica in 1974 and Honorary Doctorates from The University of the West Indies in 1983 and York University, Canada in 1998. Miss Lou died in Toronto, where she spent the last decade of her life, on July 26th 2006.
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles was born on May 15th 1919 in Pointe Michel, Dominica. She attended both the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics to pursue law. She became the first female lawyer in Dominica when she passed the bar and later established a property law practice. Charles began political life in the 1960s and was a founding member of the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) which she led from the 1970s to 1995. She served Dominica in the capacity of Opposition leader in 1975. Charles became Prime Minister of Dominica in 1980 when her party swept the national election, an office she held until June 1995. She has the distinction of being the first female prime minister in the English-speaking Caribbean, Dominica’s longest-serving prime minister, and the first woman to be elected as head of government in her own right in the Americas. Dame Mary Eugenia Charles is also the world’s longest continuously serving female prime minister and the third longest-serving female prime minister. For her service to Dominica, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1991. Dame Charles died on September 6th 2005 in Martinique.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30th 1924 to parents who emigrated from the Caribbean (her father was born in British Guyana and lived in Barbados, and her mother was from Barbados). She was raised by her grandmother in Barbados as a child and returned to Brooklyn where she went to high school. Chisholm spent her early adult years involved in early childhood education. In 1964, she secured a seat as a Democratic Member of the New York State Assembly- her first political office. Shirley Chisholm created history by becoming the first African-American congresswoman in 1968, beginning the first of seven terms in the House of Representatives. She once again created history in 1972 when she ran for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, becoming the first black candidate from both parties and the first woman to seek the presidential nomination. She fought for gender equality throughout most of her political life. Chisholm retired from politics in 1982 and resumed her career as an educator. As the Purington Chair at the Mount Holyoke College, she taught politics and sociology until 1987. Shirley Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991 and died on January 1st 2005. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Audre Lorde, born Audrey Geraldine Lorde on February 18th 1934, was a self-described “black feminist, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. She was born in New York City of Caribbean parentage- Barbados and Carriacou. Lorde’s work confronted the issues that were dearest to her: racism, sexism, feminism, homophobia and black female identity. As an activist in the 1960s, Audre Lorde engaged with the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements. Her first volume of poetry, First Cities, was published in 1968. This was followed by Cables to Rage in 1970. Her third volume, From a Land Where Other People Live which was released in 1973, received critical acclaim and was nominated for an American Book Award. However, the release of Coal in 1976 cemented her status as an influential voice in the Black Arts Movement. Lorde also engaged with prose during her literary career. In The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light, which won an American Book Award in 1989, Lorde confronted her struggle with breast cancer and possible death and dealt with themes such as fear of mortality, victimization versus survival, and inner power. Lorde succumbed to cancer on November 17, 1992 leaving behind an extensive body of work and a lasting legacy.
Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis, better known as Calypso Rose, was born on 27 April 1940 in Bethel, Tobago. She is considered by many to be the Undisputed Calypso Queen of the World. In 1966, Calypso Rose sang the famous Fire in Me Wire which became the first and still the only calypso to ever be sung for consecutive carnivals in Trinidad and Tobago. Fire in Me Wire has since been recorded in eight languages. Rose held the title of ‘Calypso Queen’ from 1972 to 1976 and became the first woman to win the Road March competition in 1977 with Gimme More Tempo. She repeated this feat in 1978 with Come Leh We Jam. In that same year Rose broke gender barriers by becoming the first woman to win the ‘Calypso King’ title, then renamed the ‘Calypso Monarch’ in her honor. Throughout her long career, Calypso Rose has received a number of awards including the British Empire Medal of Merit Class II in 1975 and the Trinidad and Tobago Humming Bird Medal Gold (for Culture) in 2000. In 2014, she received an honorary Doctor of Letters (D Litt), University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Cicely Tyson is an award-winning actress of Caribbean descent. She was born on December 18th 1924 in Harlem to parents who emigrated from Nevis. After working as a successful model who graced the covers mainstream magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Tyson pursued acting. She initially landed jobs in off-Broadway productions but obtained her first television role in 1951 on an NBC series called Frontiers of Faith. Her first film appearance was in Carib Gold in 1956. This living legend has built a career by choosing quality roles that have positive impacts on women of color and offer a positive image of black women. As a result, she has been the recipient of several awards and nominations. In 1972, Cicely Tyson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for her portrayal of Rebecca Morgan in the movie Sounder. She also received two Emmy Awards in 1974 for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Her latest television work, a guest appearance in How to Get Away with Murder in 2015, earned her a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. In addition to her legacy in acting, Cicely Tyson is an activist and humanitarian. She was bestowed with an honorary degree from Morehouse College in 2009 and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Columbia University in 2014.
The ‘Queen of Salsa’ Celia Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba on October 21st 1925. In her early years she was influenced by the diverse musical climate in Cuba and was encouraged by her mother to pursue a career in music after winning a singing contest. Initially, she followed her father’s advice and enrolled at the National Teachers’ College with the aim of becoming a literature teacher. However, Celia soon left all academic pursuits to sing full-time. Her singing career began in the 1950s when she became the lead singer of the band La Sonora Matancera. After the 1959 Cuban revolution, Celia left Cuba with the members of her band never to return again. She later became a solo artiste and found her niche with salsa music. For decades, Celia entertained audiences with her operatic voice, flamboyant costumes, and impressive crowd engagement, and also appeared in a number of films. Her seventy released albums resulted in several accolades including three Grammy Awards and four Latin Grammy Awards. For her contribution to salsa and Latin culture, she received a Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement award, a National Medal of the Arts and honorary doctorates from Yale University and the University of Miami. Celia Cruz died on July 16th 2003 from brain cancer. Thirteen years after her death, she was awarded with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
Cheryl Bowles is a Trinidadian biochemist, entrepreneur, founder and managing director of The Herbarium Ltd, parent company of Cher-Mère, a brand of natural, aromatherapy and herbal products for hair, skin and body using fresh herbs and natural botanica, and Cher-Mère Day Spas. In 1976, she became the first woman to hold a managerial position at Nestlé, Trinidad and Tobago where she was the company’s chief chemist, head of quality control, and head of research and development. Cheryl walked away from her corporate career to launch the Cher-Mère brand. After 29 years in the business, The Herbarium Ltd. operates four day spas and a kiosk in Trinidad and one day spa in Barbados. The brand is also distributed in Guadeloupe, New York and London. At present, Cheryl Bowles is in the process implementing an internationalization strategy.
The iconic singer, lyricist, supermodel, record producer and actress Grace Jones was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica on born May 19th 1948. At age 13, Grace moved to Syracuse, New York. Initially, she became a model and gained success in Paris where she worked for designers such as Yves St. Laurent, Claude Montana and Kenzo Takada. Her striking statuesque appearance earned her appearances on the covers of Elle, Vogue and Stern magazines. She entered the music industry in 1977 when she received a contract with Island Records. Grace Jones became one of the most unforgettable and risqué characters to emerge from the Studio 54 disco scene in New York City in the 1970s where she frequented with her friend Andy Warhol. The dawn of the anti-disco movement saw Jones transition into new wave music and she adopted a more androgynous appearance to match her new sound. During the 1970s and 1980s, Grace Jones also appeared in a number of films and saw success with her roles of Zula the Amazonian in Conan the Destroyer (1984) and in 14th James Bond film, A View to a Kill (1985) as May Day. Jones’ career as an actress and musician continued throughout the 1990s and in the new millennium. Grace Jones’ distinctive image, style and sound has inspired numerous artistes including Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Lorde.
The Antiguan-born novelist Jamaica Kincaid is considered by many to be one of the most influential literary voices from the Caribbean. Jamaica Kincaid, born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25th 1949 in St. John’s on Antigua, was sent to New York in 1966 by her mother to work as an au pair for an affluent family. Desiring a new life away from the unhappiness of Antigua, she cut herself off from her family at home. Now free to forge her own identity, she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid mainly to establish anonymity for her writing. Her work was first published in 1973 when she began writing for Ingenue, a magazine that targeted teenaged girls. She later wrote for The Village Voice, The Paris Review and The New Yorker. In 1976, she was employed as a staff writer for The New Yorker and later as a featured columnist in a relationship that spanned twenty years. Jamaica Kincaid found her voice as a writer under the tutelage of William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker. In 1983, Kincaid published her first collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River. She later wrote novels including Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990) and See Now Then (2013), which earned her an American Book Award. Jamaica Kincaid explores themes such as colonialism, the legacy of colonialism, gender and sexuality, racism, class and power. Among the many plaudits to her name, Kincaid was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Tufts University in 2011.
Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong
Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong was born in Trinidad and Tobago on June 15th 1953. She migrated to the United States with her family when she was 13 years old. However, she returned to Trinidad and Tobago in 1976. The next year Janelle won the Miss Trinidad and Tobago title and was the country’s representative at the Miss Universe pageant. Four days before the final in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, she was named Miss Photogenic, becoming the first black woman to receive this honor. On July 16th 1977, Janelle Penny Commissiong created history as the first black woman to be crowned Miss Universe. During her reign (1977-1978), she was an advocate for black rights and world peace. For her activism and role in promoting the image of Trinidad and Tobago, Janelle received the Trinity Cross in 1977, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest award. Three postage stamps bearing her image were issued in her honor in 1977. She became a successful business woman after her reign and continues to be an icon in Trinidad and Tobago’s history.
Merlene Joyce Ottey was born in Hanover, Jamaica on May 10th 1960. She was first introduced to track and field by her mother who bought her a manual on the sport. Her aspirations in athletics were heightened when she witnessed her countryman Don Quarrie win gold and silver medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics. In 1979, Merlene earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Nebraska and is the Huskers’ most decorated collegiate athlete of all time. Her Olympic debut came in 1980 where she became the first woman from the English-speaking Caribbean to win a medal (bronze in the 200 m). For this feat, she was received the title of Officer of the Order of Nation and was awarded the Order of Distinction in Jamaica. Since then, Merlene has crafted a long and meritorious career, winning nine Olympic medals in seven Olympic games- a record for any track and field athlete. She also has fourteen World Championship medals, inclusive of three golds- the most by any athlete. Merlene Ottey became a Slovenian citizen in 2002 and competed for that country in the international circuit.
Mahadai Das was a Guyanese poet who was born in East Bank Demerara in 1954. She was influential in promoting Indo-Guyanese culture at a time when it was excluded from the mainstream. Das was recognized as one of the first Indo-Caribbean women to receive regional acclaim with the release of her book of poetry entitled I Want to be a Poetess of my People. Later, she would release works such as My Finer Steel Will Grow in 1982 and Bones in 1988. Her poetry dealt with themes such as ethnic identity and labor conditions in the Caribbean. Mahadai Das paved the way for other Indo-Caribbean poets to be published. She remained a pioneer of Indo-Guyanese literary thought until her death in 2003.
Susan L. Taylor
Writer, editor and journalist Susan L. Taylor is most famously known as the long-standing editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. She was born on January 23rd 1946 in New York City to a Trinidadian mother and Kittitian father. Taylor’s was employed by Essence as a freelance fashion and beauty editor in 1970. She was eventually rose to post of editor-in-chief in 1981, serving in this capacity until 2000. Susan L. Taylor was then promoted to publications director. She left Essence in 2008 to focus on her non-profit organization, the National Cares Mentoring Movement. Susan L. Taylor is author of four books including the best-seller In the Spirit, an expansion of some of her best writings for her column of the same name. Since her devotion to mentoring, she has become a sought-after speaker who delivers messages of hope to audiences. Susan L. Taylor is the recipient of several awards including the magazine industry’s highest honor, the Henry Johnson Fisher Award from the Magazine Publishers of America in 1999. She was the first African-American woman win this award. She was also inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ (ASME) Hall of Fame in 2002.
Naomi Campbell was born in South London to a Jamaican mother on May 22nd 1970. Naomi was scouted at the age of 15 and appeared on the cover of British Elle before her sixteenth birthday. She quickly became on the world’s leading models and became one of six models of her generation to be declared ‘supermodels’ by the industry. Naomi formed an alliance known as the ‘Trinity’ with Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista. Working in a predominantly white fashion industry, she was able to break several racial barriers. Naomi Campbell was the first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, the September issue of American Vogue, Time and Vogue Nippon. Known as the undisputed ‘Queen of the Catwalk’, Naomi was always in high demand. She has walked for countless designers including Versace, Azzedine Alaïa, Mizrahi, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. Naomi also has numerous campaigns under her belt. In addition to modelling, Campbell has pursued singing and acting and can be seen in her recurring role as Camilla the hit series Empire. Naomi Campbell remains a key figure in the fashion industry and uses her influence to advocate for the inclusion of black models in print and runway.
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Sheryl Lee Ralph was born on December 30th 1956 of an American father and Jamaican mother in Connecticut, USA. She spent her early years between Mandeville, Jamaica and Long Island, New York. Ralph created a name for herself in theatre and her creation and portrayal of Deena Jones in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. She later released her only album In the Evening in 1984. Sheryl Lee Ralph has a number of film and television roles to her credit. She is best known for her role of ‘Dee’ in the sitcom Moesha for which she was named one of ‘TVs Favorite Moms’. Among her extensive film credits include Sister Act II with Whoopi Goldberg, The Mighty Quinn alongside Denzel Washington, and To Sleep with Anger beside Danny Glover- which won her the honor for Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards. Sheryl Lee Ralph has also found success as a writer with her first book Redefining DIVA receiving rave reviews. Her positive energy, humor and wit makes her a highly sought-after speaker and commentator and host.
Alison Hinds has been given the nickname the ‘Queen of Soca’ by her fans worldwide for her distinctive vocals and exceptional live performances. She was born in England to Barbadian parents but moved to the island at age 11. Upon completing high school, Alison joined the band Square One. With Square One, Alison made a name for herself within the Caribbean islands and in the diaspora. Their nine albums from 1988 to 2001 spawned hits such as Raggamuffin, Aye Aye Aye and Faluma. She left the band in 2004 after her daughter was born. Alison Hinds later returned to the soca industry with an appearance in a remix of Kevin Lyttle’s crossover hit Turn Me On. She would then release her greatest hit to date, Roll It Gal in 2005. This song was a huge success in the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and with the West Indian diaspora throughout the globe. It was re-released in the UK in 2007 to coincide with her debut album, Soca Queen. Roll It Gal catapulted Hinds to a higher level of stardom and she gained new fans all over the world. Alison Hinds continues to represent the Caribbean through performances in many global festivals and as a touring artiste.
Madame Rose Agatha Leon, born October 20th 1913, was a Jamaican businesswoman and politician. Leon has the distinction of being the first female government minister and the only person to hold a post in the Cabinet of both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People’s National Party (PNP) governments. Before embarking on a political career, she launched a manufacturing company that provided locally-made products to consumers. She also founded the Leon’s School of Beauty Culture where she also taught cosmetology. In 1948, Leon created history as the first woman to chair a political party, the JLP- a post she held for twelve years. She left the JLP in 1960 and later joined the PNP where she served as a local councilor and the deputy mayor of Kingston. From 1972 to 1976, Madame Leon was the Minister of Local Government in the government of Norman Manley. Rose Leon was murdered in her home on August 16th 1999.
Hon. Hedy Fry
The Honorable Hedy Fry is a Trinidadian-Canadian politician and physician. She was born on August 6th 1941 in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago. She declined an Island Scholarship to Oxford University to pursue medicine in Dublin. She migrated to Canada in 1970 where she practiced medicine at St Paul’s Hospital in the West End of Vancouver. Dr Fry entered political life in 1993 and defeated Prime Minister Kim Campbell to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre, the first rookie politician to unseat a prime minister. She has been re-elected in every subsequent election. Her most recent victory in 2015 made her the longest serving female MP in Canada. She has served in several capacities including Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Status of Women and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.
Claudette Werleigh was Haiti’s first female prime minister, serving the country from November 7th 1995 to March 6th 1996. She was born on September 26th 1946 to a prosperous family in Cap-Haïtien. In her formative years, she studied and worked in fields such as medicine and pedagogy in Switzerland, Mexico and the United States. However, she later changed her career trajectory by studying law and economics in Haiti where she registered as a lawyer in 1978. Despite being born into a high social standing, Werleigh was able to sympathize with the ills plaguing Haitian society. She became engaged with a number of non-governmental organizations to provide adult literacy and humanitarian relief to her countrymen. She was the secretary general of Caritas Haiti, a confederation of charitable relief and development organization within the Catholic Church, from 1976 to 1987. Werleigh became involved in public service and politics in 1990. She briefly served as Minister of Social Affairs from March to August 1990 in Ertha Pascal-Trouillot’s interim government. After years of civil unrest in Haiti, where she went into exile after a military coup, Claudette Werleigh returned to serve as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994 and then as Prime Minister. Since her term in office, she has been involved in a number of international peace and conflict missions. From 1999 to 2006, she was the director of the conflict transformation programs at the Life and Peace Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, and the secretary general of Pax Christi International, a Catholic peace movement, from 2007. For her unwavering commitment to her cause she was named a Woman PeaceMaker in 2011.