In Defence of Women Leaders

by Dr. Annalee Babb

I was out of the island for most of October and returned to what appeared to be a royal rumpus in the Opposition Barbados Labour Party over what some have characterised as a question of fitness for leadership.

Notwithstanding the protestations of those who claim to understand better than most exactly what is going on, I urge Barbadians and those following this fascinating turn of public events not to “get it twisted”.

This issue is not about the leadership qualities or lack thereof of any one individual.  I wish it were that simple.

This issue really is about the character and heart of a nation.

More than 23 years ago, on May 28, 1986, the Rt. Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, then leader of the Opposition Democratic Labour Party, gave a speech at a political rally which has since become known as The Mirror Image Speech.

At what many saw as a pivotal moment in Barbados’ development, Mr. Barrow posed a series of soul-searching questions to his fellow Barbadians.

What kind of mirror image do you have of yourself?” he asked.  “Do you really like yourselves?

Because you can never really like anybody unless you first like yourself. There are too many people in Barbados who despise themselves and their dislike of themselves reflects itself in their dislike of other people … people who live next door to them, members of their family, husbands, and wives, and the ox and the ass and the stranger within the gates.”

Today, at what is presenting itself as another pivotal moment in the evolution of our country, I would like all of us as Barbadians to ask ourselves the question asked of us by the Father of Independence more than a generation ago.

What kind of mirror image do we have of ourselves as a nation, as a people?

What do we see when we look in the mirror?

Do we like what we see?  Do we like ourselves?  Can we even bear to see ourselves?

The answer will likely differ depending on who is doing the looking and the circumstances under which they are looking.

But were I to use the events under consideration as a large mirror and the dominant character of this nation as that mirror’s quiet reflection, I would see a people deeply fractured by the idea of female leadership and the power of the feminine in the world.

I would see a nation skilled at paying lip service to the equality of women, proud of the numbers of women in “high” positions in government, industry and society but ironically shackled by an antediluvian determination to keep women silent, in their place, and under control.

Paradoxically, many of the chief offenders in the latter regard are women.

“…What kind of mirror image would you have of yourself?” asked Mr. Barrow.

In answer to his own question, he revealed a perspective that is really quite instructive.  He said, “If there are corrupt ministers in Barbados tonight, you have made them corrupt.” 

Clearly, he was speaking to a specific issue that had emerged at that time.  But to locate his observation in the present moment, if there are those among us happy to have women assume the titles, offices or responsibilities of leadership but who resist women’s right to strategically wield the power and make the decisions their titles and offices demand, then we are the ones who have made that situation possible.

In matters related to women in positions of leadership in Barbados, the reflection I see when I gaze into the mirror of this nation’s character as we have formed it is one with which I am personally acquainted.

I grew up in the church in Barbados.  My father is an ordained minister and my mother currently a pastor.  I have always said my father is the first feminist I ever knew.

I was raised by two individuals who never tried to put the notion in my head that I was less capable of achieving anything I dreamed of because I was born female.

But this has exposed a paradox.

The church in Barbados has shown itself to be deeply conflicted concerning the position, power and role of women within its ranks.  Women have always been its bedrock, the stable foundation on which all of its ministries have been built.

Women are the ones who do the work.  They organise bake sales and fund-raising drives, they collect food and clothes for the needy, they minister to the sick and shut-in, they cook and deliver food to the elderly.  They are the prayer warriors, the healers, the Sunday school teachers, the preachers, the musical directors.

They clean and decorate our churches.  They are the nurturers, the counsellors, the secretaries.  They are the church!

Demographically, women outnumber men in most of our churches, in some by more than four to one.  Yet how many women have we placed in positions of executive leadership in our churches?

Jesus is recorded in Matthew 18:18 as saying to His disciples: “…whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

If the picture I have painted of the church in Barbados is true, and if we believe the words of Jesus, it should be no surprise there is a spirit loosed in this country that seeks to belittle the role and authority of women; a spirit that questions their ability to wield power strategically and to lead; a spirit that seeks to sideline the remarkable work women have done in building this country and shaping this nation.

I have had a close-up view of our national schizophrenia on this matter of women and their exercise of power.  I see this schizophrenia in our churches, in our schools, in our governmental and quasi-governmental institutions, in the private sector, in the wider civil society, and even in our psyches.

It is so pervasive we do not even acknowledge it is there.  We hear voices in our heads but we pretend they are not speaking.  We see a reflection in the mirror showing us who we are, but we imagine it is not there.

At this moment in Barbados’ evolution, I do not believe it would matter what woman presented herself as capable of leading this country.

I don’t care if she was Mother Teresa, Michelle Obama or me.  We would find something about her to despitefully disparage and denigrate.   

Yet, more than a generation ago the father of our nation asked us “what kind of mirror image can you have of yourself?” 

Researchers tell us there are two energies at work in the world which they classify as “masculine” and “feminine”.  They are represented in human physiology by the “masculine” left brain and the “feminine” right brain.

As Sir Jonathan Sacks explains, “The left brain is analytical, detached, linear and logical. It splits things into their components. The right brain is holistic, integrative, even intuitive. It is good at recognising patterns and handling personal relationships, including nonverbal expressions. It plays a big part in emotional intelligence. The neuroscientist Robert Ornstein calls it the seat of creativity and the soul.”

What is female gestates, gives birth, nurtures, and heals.  If we destroy the female, we destroy the nation … we destroy our own ability to create, to restore and to renew.

Only when each of us, male and female, acknowledges the damage we do to ourselves when we despoil what is female can this country birth a complete image of itself that is worthy of approbation and that becomes a real and lasting reflection of who we truly are.

As Mr. Barrow remarked, “Is that the mirror image that you have of yourselves?” 

Guest Column published in the Barbados Midweek Nation of Wednesday, 4 November 2009 – pages 8A-9A.

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