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Guyanese Politician Winifred Gaskin (1916-1977)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org

Radical social change is possible. I saw it unfold as a teenager growing up in Guyana, a former British colony caught in the tight grip of the rich and powerful white sugar plantation owners. Such change demands courage, persistence, and self-determination. It means pushing upstream against the flow, ignoring the voices of naysayers, and not succumbing to discouragement and hopelessness when faced with setbacks and defeats. Winifred Gaskin (1916-1977) was a woman who displayed such traits to the fullest measure.

Winifred was born of humble origins on May 10, 1916, into a world engulfed in the First World War (1914-1918). Born in the village of Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara, eleven miles (18 kilometers) from Georgetown, the capital, Winifred shared the indomitable spirit of her African slave ancestors. Seventy-six years earlier in 1840, a group of 128 ex-slaves had pooled their savings to buy an abandoned 500-acre cotton plantation, New Orange Nassau, for an inflated price of $50,000. They renamed it Buxton in honor of Thomas Fowell Buxton, an English parliamentarian and abolitionist.

Buxton Primary School – East Coast Demerara – Guyana – July 2014
Photo Credit: Guyana Chronicle

Winifred’s father, Stanley Thierens, was a disciplinarian. Her mother, Irene Thierens, was a quiet and soft-spoken woman raised with the Christian values of modesty and courtesy. As the second-born child of six children, the young Winifred would have helped her mother with the household chores and caring for her younger siblings, as was common among poor working-class families of the time. Her father, headmaster of St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School in Buxton, encouraged her to excel in her studies. She did not disappoint him. On completing primary school in 1927, she won the government-funded Buxton Scholarship to attend St. Joseph’s Convent High School, run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, in Georgetown.

In the following year, tragedy struck Winifred’s family. Her mother died. To lose her mother at twelve years old must have been a great blow. Her father remarried, but his contentious relationship with a new stepmother may have also added to her grief. Despite this, she won another scholarship for her stellar performance at school. This time, it was a scholarship to Bishop’s High School, the colony’s top secondary school for girls, founded in 1870 by the Anglican Church.

The divorce that ended her father’s second marriage must have brought peace to their household, but Winifred’s Christian upbringing judged divorce a grave sin in the eyes of God. Was this the reason for conflict with her father or was it her failure to win the prestigious British Guiana Scholarship for furthering her academic studies at a British university? She had come so close…in second place. Her dream of a career in journalism was deterred.

The workforce that Winifred entered in the 1930s was facing a serious economic crisis due to the 1929 stock market crash in the United States, leading to the Great Depression (1929-1939) that also crippled Britain and other major economies of the industrialized world. Workers’ unions agitated for relieving afflicted workers. They advocated overthrowing the oppressive and exploitative colonial capitalist economy, dominated by Bookers-McConnel, and replacing it with socialism.

Despite her outstanding academic record, Winifred could not find entry-level work in journalism. Instead, she found work as a librarian and later as a teacher, professions open to women. Neither profession appealed to her. She applied for a secretarial position at the Georgetown General Post Office, then part of the British Colonial Public Service. What audacity for a dark-skinned, working-class woman of African descent! In the majority white colonial civil service workplace, certain jobs were reserved for Europeans or light-skinned people. Objections to her application were immediate and gained public attention.

Winifred’s former white headmistress at Bishop’s High School intervened on her behalf. She confirmed that her former student’s excellent academic record and mastery of English grammar and literature qualified her for the position. Winifred got the job, becoming the first woman to enter the Civil Service.

When she began dating her best friend’s brother, the Afro-Guianese Berkley Gaskin, eight years older, her father did not approve of their romance, creating more conflict between them. Did her father object to the difference in their age or her suitor’s profession as a sportsman? Berkley played first-class cricket, the colony’s most competitive international sport, as a medium-pace bowler and lower-order batsman in the West Indies Cricket Team. Disregarding her father’s objections, Winifred married her cricketer in a simple ceremony in December 1939. They had only one child, a son named Gregory.

On becoming a newlywed, Winifred Gaskin encountered another barrier in the predominantly male workplace. Married women were barred from working in the Civil Service. The wives of the predominantly white ruling class and the wives of the local fair skinned elite did not work outside of the home. Their activities in the public sphere involved unpaid charitable work in religious and social service organizations. As a working-class married woman, Gaskin did not enjoy such a privileged life. She had to secure another job. She returned to teaching, where such restrictions did not exist, and obtained a position at her former high school, the St. Joseph’s Convent High School.

Did this experience trigger Gaskin’s determination for a voice in a society dominated by men? She joined the British Guiana Women League of Social Services, formed in 1941, and resolved to pursue her dream of a career in journalism where she could amplify her voice for women countrywide. In 1944, at twenty-eight years old, she began working as a script writer at the Bureau of Public Information.

The following year, Gaskin united with other progressive, politically minded women to form the first women’s political organization, the Women’s Political and Economic Organization (WPEO). With Janet Jagan, the white American-born wife of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, as president and Winifred Gaskin as secretary, the WPEO set out to uplift the lives of Guianese working-class women. They also raised women’s political awareness and fought for the removal of restrictions against women in the political arena.

Passionate about women’s empowerment, Gaskin joined forces later that year with Cheddi and Janet Jagan, and others in launching the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) to press for universal adult suffrage. Although women in Britain had won the right to vote in 1928, most women in the colony were still excluded based on property and literacy qualifications. When the Jagans and Forbes Burnham formed the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950, the colony’s first mass-based political organization, Gaskin became an active member. Through the PPP’s activism, universal adult suffrage was finally achieved in 1953.

Considering this victory an opportune time to further her education in journalism, Gaskin obtained a British Council scholarship for internships at The Times and the Daily Express in London. She missed commemorating the PPP’s momentous victory at the 1953 general elections in April and the historical appointments of the first three women to the House of Assembly—Janet Jagan, Jessie Burnham, and Jane Philips-Gay. What a major step forward for the political woman!

Gaskin’s elation must have soured later that year on Friday, October 9th. After only 133 days in office, the democratically elected PPP government was deemed illegitimate with the suspension of the Constitution. Not accepting defeat, Gaskin joined other party members residing in London to facilitate a visit of their ousted leaders, Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, to plead their case before the British House of Commons and the Opposition Labor Party.

On her return to British Guiana in 1955, Gaskin obtained a position at Booker News with countrywide circulation. With determination and excellence, she moved up to become the deputy editor and later the editor of the newspaper. Not a woman of half measures, she also served as president of the British Guiana Press Association.

Gaskin witnessed the 1955 split of the People’s Progressive Party into two factions—one led by the East Indian leftist Cheddi Jagan; the other by the black centrist Forbes Burnham. She aligned with Burnham’s predominantly black People’s National Congress (PNC), ending her years of social and political activism alongside the leftist Janet Jagan. Drawing on her experience as secretary of the WPEO, Gaskin helped to set up the women’s arm of the PNC party, the Women’s Auxiliary Movement which later became the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM) in the 1970s.

In 1961, she was elected as Chairman of the PNC, the first woman to hold this prominent position. As party Chairman, she was the only female delegate to participate in the colony’s independence negotiations held in London.

Winifred Gaskin with Forbes Burnham (fourth from left) – Delegation to Pre-Independence Negotiations – London – United Kingdom – 1965-1966
Photo Credit: People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR)

Burnham’s decisive move following the December 1964 general elections propelled Gaskin into the political forefront. With the blessing of the British government, the PNC defeated the leading leftist PPP by forming a coalition government with the United Force, the third runner-up party led by a successful businessman of Portuguese descent. Winifred Gaskin was elected to the House of Assembly and appointed as the Minister of Education, Youth, Race Relations and Community Development, making her the first Black female cabinet minister in Guyana’s history.

Gaskin’s ministerial portfolio covered vast and complex issues. With a focus on the development of an education system geared to an independent country, she promoted curriculum reform, creation of local textbooks, and the implementation of a multilateral education system for teaching technical skills. She pushed for state control of the denominational church schools and the removal of religious knowledge from the school curriculum. Such proposals rattled militant Christian supporters in the coalition government. She sought too much, too soon.

On completion of her four-year-term in 1968—during which time the colony gained independence in 1966 and changed its name to Guyana—Gaskin was transferred to the Caribbean Island of Jamaica to take up her appointment as Guyana’s first High Commissioner to the Commonwealth Caribbean. For her distinguished diplomatic service, she received the Order of Distinction of Jamaica. She also received the Cacique’s Crown of Honor, Guyana’s second highest national award, for her outstanding public service.

In 1976, when Gaskin returned to Guyana to head the Foreign Affairs and Economic Desk at the PNC headquarters, the PNC government took over all denominational church and private schools, making education free from kindergarten to university. She had lived to see her vision for implementing reforms in the educational system come to fruition. After suffering ill health, she died in Georgetown on March 5, 1977. President Forbes Burnham lauded her as a pioneer in the women’s movement. She was a politician and socialist whose determination and work made her one of Guyana’s most distinguished daughters.

As a ‘political woman’—a derogatory label for the woman in the 1930s who dared to enter the public sphere of men—Winifred Gaskin refused to let the men in her world define her place in society. She did not falter in her commitment to improve the lives of working-class women. Moreover, she rallied women to engage in political issues affecting their lives.

When Winifred Gaskin was appointed as our Minister of Education, I was a junior high school student. Her achievement awakened my own social and political consciousness. I heard her call for political engagement. As women, we must not underestimate our individual and collective power to bring about social change. We should also never forget that we stand on the shoulders of countless courageous women, like Winifred Gaskin, who fought for the rights and privileges we often take for granted. Remember. Believe. Engage.