By Larissa Hosein
“I have me pride and I have me ambition, I want to hold up me head up high as a woman”Singing Sandra
As women around the world are being celebrated in honour of International Women’s Day (Month), we should take the time to celebrate our own heroines! Trinidad and Tobago has no shortage of awe-inspiring women. From women in the political arena, arts, science, humanities and other important fields, to your neighbour and grandmother. Trinbagonian women have always been forces to be reckoned with. So, this article will highlight three outstanding women of Trinbagonian heritage.
Claudia Jones – Revolutionary Activist!
As an activist, she went above and beyond and fighting for her beliefs as a feminist, journalist, black rights campaigner and orator. Her activism started in North America when she began writing for a “negro nationalist newspaper” with a weekly column called ‘Claudia’s comments’. Also living as a lower class black woman in a Jim Crow era in America it spurred her radical activist spirit, which led her to join the Young Communist League USA.
Eventually, she became an editor at the Communist Party’s Daily Worker where she wrote for the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys’ case. She used her position in the Communist party to campaign for the rights of her fellow black American peers, especially women. After years of activism in the States, she was eventually deported to the United Kingdom.
Not to be deterred from her activist spirit, she immediately started fighting for the West Indian community in London. She eventually founded the West Indian Gazette which was the first major black newspaper in Britain and the Afro-Asian Caribbean News. Moreover, after multiple protests against police violence by black British civilians in certain areas in England including Notting Hill, Jones held the first Carnival celebrations which would become the precursor to the infamous Notting Hill Carnival. Hence, she is often credited with founding what is often called “the biggest street party in Europe.” The Notting Hill Carnival is especially significant because, like the original Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago, its roots lie in an undertone of anti-racist resistance and rebellion. Claudia Jones lived a life of purpose and when she died, she was buried in Highgate Cemetery in a plot to the left of Karl Marx.
Imagine that, a Trinbagonian WOMAN was so influential and revered that it was seen as only right that she be buried next to one of the most famous philosophers of all time.
Calypso Rose- Queen of Calypso!
Like Claudia Jones, she is an activist in her own right. She has often used music to address societal issues like sexism and racism. She is considered to be the “mother of calypso” as her influence in the genre paved the way for more female singers in the male dominated calypso genre. In fact, she was the first woman to win the title “Calypso King” a fact which led to the renaming of the competition to “Calypso Monarch” to encompass the fact that more females were gaining traction in the competition. She was also the first female to win the Road March Title with the song “Give more Tempo”.
Some of her most notable songs include “Abatina” which addressed the issue of domestic violence. In the song, she highlighted the realities of being in a such a relationship where the victim is often not taken seriously or believed -”Harry was a charmer, No one believed he could harm her” and that these cases often end tragically- “In the end Tina was buried, By the church where she got married”.
Furthermore, “Fire in Meh Wire” went international and was the first calypso to ever run two years in a row at Carnival. In fact, her songs have been so influential that another track, “No Madam” is credited for urging the government of Trinidad and Tobago to insert a minimum wage for civil servants.
With her gift for calypso and music, it comes as no surprise that Calypso Rose has won many awards for her music both in the Caribbean and internationally with the most notable being the French Grammy Award “Victoire de la Musique” in 2017. She was also the first calypso performer to perform a full set at Coachella in 2019, and simultaneously became the oldest performer to date.
This remarkable woman was even named a Goodwill Ambassador for former child soldiers. Armed with her voice and lyrics drenched in pleas to highlight and fight social injustices, Calypso Rose has definitely made her mark in Trinbagonian history.
Audrey Jeffers – Mother of Trinbagonian Philanthropy!
Yes, I know you are thinking about the highway in town and yes it was named after her!
Audrey Jeffers was a pioneer for social work and community development in Trinidad and Tobago. During WW1, she assisted West African troops and upon her return to Trinidad, established a West African Soldier’s Fund and a Cigarette Fund. She then went on to establish her own school called, “The Jeffers St. Clair Home at Briarend”.
Then in 1921, she established The Coterie of Social Workers (COSW) as a way to combine everything that she fought for: women’s rights, improvement for the less fortunate and rights for persons of African descent with their motto being “We lift as we climb”. COSW was even responsible for hosting the first ever women’s conference in the English- speaking Caribbean in 1936 called “First Conference of British West Indies and British Guiana Women Social Workers”. Under the COSW, underprivileged students were provided free lunches and in 1926 she established a “Breakfast Shed” in Port-of-Spain and in other areas. The organization even founded homes for the blind, elderly, “women in distress” and day nurseries to assist working women.
Audrey Jeffers even has a remarkable political career as she was the first woman to ever be elected to the Port-of-Spain City Council. She was also the first woman to be appointed to the Legislative Council and then was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1959. Audrey Jeffers’ legacy continues to this day as many of the institutions and methodologies she established are still helping those in need.
To my fellow women, I sincerely hope that this article has helped you, even a little bit, see that you are more than just an “island girl”. You are strong, you are influential, you have the power in you to change one person’s life, to change an institution, to change society, to change the world!
Whatever path you take in life, whatever purpose your life has for you, know that you walk on a strong foundation built by Trinbagonian women just like you! I hope the knowledge from these three Trinbagonian women prove that you are capable of so much more than what society expects. To the rising activists, feminists, academics, career women, mothers and so forth in our society: You are all important in your own way and don’t you ever forget it. Embrace YOUR power, own YOUR version of what it means to be a woman and live YOUR life according to YOUR standards. Remember that their legacies are just the beginning for the women of Trinidad and Tobago. We each have a role to play and I do hope that we will continue to support and uplift each other and be our sister’s keeper because if not us, then who?
Happy International Women’s Month!