| The Matrix | Rhetoric of Reggae Music | Reggae Links | Dread Library Catalog |


The Woman Who Fathered Me: A Caribbean Woman's Role in the Family

Molly Driscoll

Female children born into low income families in Jamaica and other islands of the Caribbean are burdened with a stereotype that their male counterparts will never know. When faced with the gender oppression their society has constantly been feeding, and the fact that so many women must act as the single financial heads of their families, many women of the Caribbean must settle for low paying occupations associated with 'female' or domestic labor. For women born into families at the bottom of the economic ladder, there is little hope of social mobility or escape from the fist of poverty. In most cases, the cycle continues to feed itself from mother to daughter. In my paper I will demonstrate this cycÀle by examining the Caribbean women's role in the family as head of the household and the education, employment and survival strategies characteristic to many of these women. I will conclude my paper by discussing some of the new organizations and movements that have surfaced in the Caribbean within the past thirty years that are fighting for women's empowerment.

In his highly acclaimed novel In the Castle of My Skin, which he dedicates to his mother, in chapter three George Lamming eloquently describes what is actually a common scene among islands of the Caribbean: women gathered together in a common yard for the purpose of gossip. While it may seem to be an insignificant event, in a region where the responsibilities involved in raising a family fall mainly on women's shoulders, their bond with each other is essential.

Miss Foster. My mother. Bob's mother. It seemed they were three pieces in a pattern which remained constant. Miss Foster had six children, three by a butcher, two by a baker and one whose father had never been mentioned. Bob's mother had two, and my mother one.

Here where the fences penetrated each other and in silent collaboration produced a corner there were three. The three were shuffling episodes and exchanging confidences which informed their life with meaning. The meaning was not clear to them. It was not their concern, and it never would be. Their consciousness"had never been quickened by the fact of life to which these confidences would have been a sure testimony. The sun let it's light flow down on them as life let itself flow through them.

I begin my paper with this excerpt because it says a great deal about life for women, and especially mothers, in the Caribbean. I recently took a travel study course through the English department to study Caribbean literature in Barbados and we were asked to read Lamming's book before we left. Reading it I had assumed that the lifestyle and events he was describing had to be somewhat dated, but after two weeks on the island I realized that things are just now beginning to change as far as women's identity and role in the family. It has only been with in the past thirty years that women in the Caribbean have collectively begun to gain consciousness, unite, and come forward in their pursuit of equality with their male oppressors.

Not only is it beautifully written, but Lammings description brings up two important issues that are crucial to the thesis of my paper. First, as seen through all the different fathers of Miss Foster's six children, the common theme of the absent male in the family setting. Next, in speaking of their lack of consciousness, Lamming addresses the fact that for many women, their domestic duties of keeping the house, putting food on the table, and caring for the children are looked upon as inevitable. Modeling their lives after those of their mothers and grandmothers before them, they have been conditioned to believe that upholding these responsibilities is the natural way of things. For most women supporting a family, it is indeed the only alternative.

Compared to the general female population, and that of ma*le household heads, women responsible for financially supporting their families alone are at a great disadvantage. Despite the difficulties, female headed households are on the rise, especially in developing regions such as the Caribbean. Why is this? Migration, both rural to urban, and international is said to be a major factor. Since the later half of the nineteenth century there has been a steady stream of migrants from the Caribbean seeking job opportunities abroad. Only recently have women begun to join this exodus. The result is a major imbalance of females to males of the reproductive ages back home on the islands. Thus women were forced to raise families and manage households on their own. Many argue that this is how the phenomenon of female household heads took root in the region (Ma-ssiah, pg. 11).

Another factor is considered to be the increased female independence due to the improvement of socioeconomic conditions-- many of those women who are more economically fortunate may simply be choosing to live independently from their spouses, or allow them only a visiting union with their children. None-the-less, the majority tend to lack these advantages and the education required to acquire them. As table 4 shows, most female heads of households tend to only have received an education through the primary level. Male household heads tend to be better educated, and therefore more likely to hold higher paying jobs. While women are just as active in the work force, as I will later show, the pattern of their occupational distribution is significantly different.

Table 4:

In most Caribbean societies, the role of the male or father figure in a family is viewed in economic terms. If men can not provide for their wives and children economically, in theory, they shouldn't expect to enjoy comforts such as a cooked meal and a roof over their head when they need a place to sleep. As we saw in Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come, however, denying the fathers of their children these rights is easier said than done. While many aspects of the Caribbean lifestyle are exaggerated in this movie for the purpose of entertainment, the submissiveness we see when it comes to the woman giving in to Cliff's character's plea forï a place to stay often rings true. Cliff's smooth talking, 'you can get it if you really want' persona is also very characteristic of the promiscuous Caribbean male. He comes and goes at his own convenience, and seems to have little concern for her struggles in raising the children. It is also worth noting that the dialog in this scene is based mainly around money, and why he hasn't provided any. With this being said, information from the Jamaican Family Court indicates that over 70% of the cases brought there relate to problems of obtaining child support from fathers (Ellis, pg. 70).

In a region where manhood is largely defined by one's earning capacity, it would make sense that if the male can not supply his family with income, his role in the nuclear family is not a satisfying one. The result of this is what most scholars refer to as the 'marginal or absent male'. As his status deteriorates, it is common for many fathers to stay away from home for indefinite amounts of time, and as a result are looked upon by their children with fear and contempt (Senior, pg. 18) I say fear because outside of providing income for the family, another aspect males are often associated with is discipline and punishment--quite often by means of physical force. I don't deny the fact that women are also considered disciplinarians, but it is usually the male who is looked at as the figure of ultimate authority (Senior, pg.37).

Another excerpt from Lammings novel supports this point. It is a dialog among four boys concerning the role of their fathers.

Fourth Boy: My father don't live in the same father couldn't hit me 'cause he don't support me. An' that's why I all right. my mother won't let him hit me 'cause he don't support me.

Second Boy: Mine don't support me, but if he beat me my mother would say it shows he wus still takin' an interest.

Third Boy: I rather not have a father around, believe me, I'd give anything to have a father out of the house all times of the day. A father in the house is like a bear or a tiger or a lion.

First Boy: I don't see much of my father, but my second father is good. He don't make no difference between us, me and my brother, 'cause he says we is both our mother children. How many fathers you got in yuh family?

While it is common for many women to have children by more than one father, what complicates this issue is the fact that many males also have more than one"baby mother."In the patriarchal movement of Rastafari, for example, it is a well known fact that"most Rasta men like to have more than one queen. (Yawney, 68)"Consequently, polygamous household arrangements are common in Jamaica and among other islands of the Caribbean. While seemingly degrading, being able to share the economic and social responsibilities of child rearing with other women does have it's advantages. While discontent with their social position is currently on the uprise among many women of Rastafari, in the past Rastafarian women have willingly adopted this communal lifestyle. This clipping from an article written by two Rastafarian sistren in 1978 defends this way of life.

"...You will find a man who will show one of his queens that there is another queen and eventually he will introduce them and after that who knows, they may well see eye to eye. In that way all the queens can associate more fully with each other, give each other guidance and understanding, therefore helping their chÈildren grow up in the rightful way. This way a dread can be with all his youths at the same time, and also there are less unmarried mothers about...Why not dwell with all of them in peace and love like the days I and I know before slavery (P. and Bernie 1978:7)?"

Outside of Rastafarianism communal living exists on a similar scale throughout the Caribbean among the 'yards.' The residential arrangement of the tenement yards in Kingston, Jamaica, for example, although leaving much to be desired as far as the conveniences we take for granted such as trash collection, sewerage disposal, ect., actually enable the occupants to form the support systems necessary to survive the hardships of raising a family on a single, menial income. Female-headed households are largely placed among the disadvantaged sections of Caribbean populations (Ellis, pg. 34). With this in mind, it is no wonder that most of the housing units within these yards are rented by women.

Having the responsibiliÙties of paying the rent each month, and supporting their children, these single mothers often depend on their neighbors, extended family and close friends to care for their children while they are at work. It is common also for meals to be shared among the extended family units of the yards, along with the emotional support they depend on from one another. One women interviewed for the WICP (Women In Caribbean Project) described the relationship between her neighbors in the yard as follows:"Sometimes you see children, you don't even know them, but they are going with their clothes tear down and so you call them and fix them up, especially girls...There's a lady right now living down below me there and If I is sick, I can go and tell her things rough with me and she would say, I have this and I wonder if it is of any use to you , and I would do the same for her. That is how we live. (Senior, pg. 140)"

Mothers also frequently depend on a male other than the father of their children for a portion of their income. As we saw in Dance Hall Queen, this can present a number of problems, especially if this male becomes attracted to any of her daughters. I personally found it abhorrent that Marcia seemed to dismiss Larry's harassment of her daughter on the grounds that he was providing them with income.

As children grow older, they are also expected to care for their younger siblings. A survey done in Jamaica shows that in most low income families children in the age range of 9-14 had care of their younger brothers and sisters while their mothers were at work (Ellis, pg. 10). Teenage girls in particular are forced to grow up quickly when raised in families with many children because of the demands made on their time. This proves that

children's roles of being household assistant are sex-differentiated from an early age. These young girls are forced to put their own education and aspirations for the future on the back burner to accommodate the present needs of their mother and siblings. Another woman interviewed by the WICP had this to say on the issue:"Every year my mother have a baby, she had 14 in all. I have to stop from school to let her go to work...if I didn't have to look after baby, baby, baby, I wouldn't get pregnant so early (Powell et al. WICP; Ellis, pg. 10)."This is exactly how the cycle begins.

Another Barbadian woman had this to say of her childhood and contributions to the family:

"My mother was a very hard working woman. She had thirteen children. I was the eldest of them all... I has to go out early and work, in the third class, and when I work I would bring all my money to her. So she used to say I was her husband, yes (Shepherd et al. pg. 98)."

In a recent study conducted among secondary schools in Jamaica, students were asked to discuss what types of jobs women and men should hold. Responses concluded that most students felt men should be lawyers, technicians and electricians, while women should be teachers, clerks, secretaries and nurses. As the statistics show, these kids are right on target with the reality of occupational patterns for male versus female household heads. This should be a indication that women and young girls in particular should be encouraged to stay in school and pursue their interests in math andS the sciences so that they have a better chance of finding work in the fields of science, agriculture and technology versus having to settle for jobs involved in service.

Tables 8 and 9:

According to figures supplied by the International Labor Organization, Caribbean countries actually boast a higher rate of female economic productivity. It is important to keep in mind however, that out of these working females, about 70% are working in low paid, low skilled, marginal jobs in domestic and other related services (Ellis, pg. 33). In Jamaica only 12% of the jobs in administration and management are held by women, and that is one of the highest percentages in the region. Likewise, unemployment rates for women in the labor force in Jamaica and Barbados are twice as high in comparison with men's. In Jamaica, 32% of the female labor force was unemployed compared to 12% of the male's (Ellis, pg.34). And in some rural parishes in Jamaica, this figure jumps to almost four times as high, as the lack of opportunities for employment in these areas affects women more severely than men. With this in mind it is no wonder so many emigrants from rural to urban areas are women.

In seeking employment, it is important to remember that the prospect of finding work for even those females who are educated is bleak. When asked if she thought passing the exam (our equivalent to graduating high school) would have increased her chances of getting a job, this unemployed 22-year-old Barbadian claimed:"Yes. But my cousin, she got certificates too, right. And she was home for a long, long time until her mothÇer found her a job in a hotel. (Senior, pg. 119)."Female employment in 'service' occupations such as the hotel industry is overwhelming. Statistics from Jamaica show that over ten times as many women than men are working in the domestic labor field (Senior, pg. 120).

Through the socialization process that occurs while young girls are growing up, and throughout their school years, they are primed for the role of housekeeper and child rearer. Women working as domestics dates back to the time of slavery, when African women were brought over in large numbers to work the sugar cane fields. Some of these women were taken into the homes of the more wealthy planters and merchants to cook, wash, and mind their children. It was quite common for these domestics to play the role of a nannies in addition to their daily chores. The hardest thing for Isabel Sealy, a 100 year old Barbadian Ñwomen who worked for one family for over 45 years, was to"adjust to the fact that she had to live in another persons home and take care of their children while hers were at home with out her (Haniff, pg. 213)."

Jobs in this category are usually associated with housework, which has been branded as 'non-work,' and tend to have very low wages and oppressive working conditions. Minimum wages for domestics are set below minimum wages for other categories of workers; nearly none have day-care centers for their workers children--who are predominantly working mothers; they are excluded from workmen's compensation laws and very few are unionized. (Senior, pg. 121)

A study done in Trinidad also showed that relations between employer and employee in the domestic labor field tend to be unfavorable."There exists a strong element of distrust between employer and employee, one which is rooted in the class differences between these women (Mohammed, pg. 121)."A letter submitted to the Trinidad Guardian titled"A Maid's Eye View"complained of the ill treatment of employers to their domestic workers and the practice of people hiring domestic servants as a symbol of status when financially they couldn't afford one. This results in an even lower pay for someone who is already being discriminated against in terms of pay. This was in response to another letter a female employer had sent in claiming domestic workers were"already over paid and over indulged (Mohammen, pg. 45)."In a time where women's efforts should be united to achieve their equality, this kind of tension should not persist.

In comparison with the high number of women train

ed for cottage and hotel industry employment, very few are enrolled in institutions as agriculture students. At the former Jamaica School of Agriculture, in 1979, females accounted for 164 enrollments (31.1%) while males numbered 363 (68%) (Ellis, pg.40). Women especially were also affected by the mechanization of the labor-intensive tasks they performed agriculturally in the fields. Therefore their has been a strong decline in the number of female agriculturalists; from 30% in 1946 to under 10% in 1980 (Senior, pg. 123). In this field there exists wage inequality as well. In St. Lucia the guaranteed minimum wage for general agricultural labor for females was EC$9.36, and for males, EC$10.41. Likewise, in 1982, a Vincentian female worker earned EC$10.00 while her ma*le co-worker earned EC$13.00. While their is current legislation that supposedly guarantees equal pay for equal work, women are generally looked at as a means of cheap labor. Considering the large number of female headed households and women responsible for the financial support of their families, women are in an exploitable position.

Another problem is the fact that among women agriculturalists few have been active in unions. The story of Saheedan Ramroop, a cane-cutter from Trinidad, is a rare but inspiring story of a woman who is.

"...Managers are afraid of Didi ( a nickname given to her by her sister) because of her power. They say that if she were to walk in the cane-field and say 'put down your cutlass we goin on strike,' that without question all cutlasses would fall with one resounding clink (Haniff, pg. 44)."Didi can be seen as a worker, union organizer, and as a advocate for women. After becoming outraged at a union meeting of a group of cane-workers on strike being run by a group of men, Didi jumped from up from her seat. Her words portray her passion for equality the best:

"All you man only study to go inside the rum shop. All you who want to go, go because all you is is worms feedin' off the union. We suffer so long here and we must sacrifice before we go back to the condition we was in...if we have to eat grass we will eat grass."

After saying this she bent down and angrily ate a clump of grass. Looking back on the incident she said,

"Look like you put a blaze a fire in me, it burnin me to know that we trying to get betterment and these man them breaking all the rules(Haniff, pg. 41)."

Like Didi, many women of Rastafari are also voicing their discontent with the gender discrimination they have been subjected to. The double standard these sistren have been held to includes a dress code that requires them to keep their locks covered at all times, and restrictions on cooking during menstruation--as they are considered unclean during this time. The most ironic double standard is that they are not allowed to join in the Nyabingi circle and share the chalice and reasoning along with their brethren. Nyabingi was a woman-led movement centered around a female healer, Muhumusa, who was said to be possessed by the spirit of Nyabingi -a legendary 'Amazon Queen' (Yawney, pg. 22). This woman healer and warrior is responsible for organizing armed resistance against German colonial oppression in Southwestern Uganda during the nineteenth century. I'm sure she wouldn't be too pleased that her fellow sisters are seldom allowed to participate in a ceremony marking her honor. and they aren't pleased either.

"If Rastafari shares with the social system to which it is so opposed the fundamental oppression of women, how can it represent in the final analysis a genuine alternative soc4ial form (Yawney, pg 67)?"New Rastafari seems to be the answer to this dilemma. While this Jamaican movement has emerged from and adheres to many of the principals of Rastafarianism, it denies the biblical reference to Leviticus that claims,"Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as fit to submit to the lord.(Campbell, pg. 199)."While many Rastas use this to justify their treatment of women, these new Rasta women simply won't take it anymore. With the initiatives of exploited black women as the focus of this movement, followers are adamantly opposed to the structural adjustment programs initiated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank during the 1970's (Yawney, pg 36). Issues they are currently concerned with include land rights, ecology, peace and human rights.

Other movements surfacing in Jamaica concerning the rightful role of both Rasta and the Caribbean women include Sistren and the Queen Omega Movement. Both disclaim the belief in Haile Selassie as the king of kings, and instead believe in a"mistress of creation,"claiming Queen Mennen was also crowned empress of Ethiopia on the very same day the king himself was. As Babylon has oppressed them and broken the bond between male and female, they feel that by making their presence known, they can reattain stabilization.

"The black woman has awakened and it is time for her to take her rightful place."claimed Judy Mowatt in an interview with the Toronto Star."Time has stepped up where the woman has to move. She can't stay in the background anymore."Agrees Sister Carol. As we have learned this semester, reggae music can undoubtedly be used as a weapon of revolution. The social and political impact Bob Marley made both in Jamaica and internationally is proof of this. Now it is the sisters turn to use the power of reggae music as a weapon against the sexism imprisoning women worldwide. While many have already paved the way, such as Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley, Sisters Carol, Sister Audrey and Princess Sharifra, I believe we are only seeing and hearing the beginning of women in reggae. Future discussions of their contributions to the empowerment of women, and to the realm of reggae in general will undoubtedly require more than one lecture period, I would in fact argue that it already does.

The tensions between men and women in the Caribbean grow out of economic and social issues but need to first be addressed at the family level. Attitudes about male-female relations are taught to children through their parents and how they interact with each other. It is through this socialization process that the stereotypes are passed from generation to generation. In order for this cycle to be broken, there must be a greater male involvement in family and domestic activities. Likewise, women must be given the support and encouragement necessary from their school years on to pursue their own academic and occupational interests. By articulation of their discontent through these new organizations and the medium of reggae music, hopefully the days of the Caribbean woman being labeled as quiet, barefoot and pregnant will soon be over.


1. Campbell, Horace. Rasta and Resistance: from Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney. New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1987.

2. Denolyn, Carroll."The Rastafarian Woman."New America News Service

03 Jan. 1997 Online. 10 Apr. 1998.

3. Ellis, Pat. Women of the Caribbean. New Jersey: Zeb Books Ltd., 1986.

4. Haniff, Nesha Z. Blaze a Fire. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1988.

5. Lamming, George. In the Castle of My Skin. USA: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

6. Massiah, Joycelin. omen as Heads of Households in the Caribbean: family structures and feminine status. Colchester: Unesco, 1983.

7. Senior, Olive. Working Miricles: Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean. London: James Currey Ltd, 1991.

8. Shepherd, Verene. Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

9. Walker, Susan."Rastafarian Women Speak Out"The Toronto Star 12 Aug. 1994: Pg. D12.

10. Yawney, Carole D. Moving with the dawtas of Rastafari: from myth to reality. pgs. 15--23; 33--55; and 65--73. (excerpts from Teresa Turner's New Society.)