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Women’s suffrage movement documentary honors Bahamian history

If you were asked to name five people who were central to our move to independence, would it include any women?  Though they too marched with men during the Burma Road Riots and helped move the country towards Independence, the important story of the women’s suffrage movement has been subdued.

Now one Bahamian writer, Marion Bethel, is bringing back to life a major documentary she began almost a decade ago with the working title “The Women’s Suffrage Movement in The Bahamas”, that brings the stories of those major figures in the women’s suffrage movement to the forefront—fitting especially during National Women’s Week this week.

“The 1950s and 1960s are the most dynamic part of our history and we always see it through the lens of men,” she points out. “So what I want to do is look at the period of the 1950s and 1960s through the lens of the women’s suffrage movement and have the other narratives as the backdrop to honor those women.”

The decision also holds a personal note for Bethel.  Having grown up on the top of the hill on Nassau Street, Bethel was connected to the very people in her documentary through her childhood community.

On her way to Western Junior School, she would pass the homes of women suffragists like Mildred Donaldson and Althea Mortimer, and nearby sat Bethel Baptist church and St. John the Baptist Church, which were central meeting places for the movement.  As a young child, little did she know she was square in the middle of major history in the making.

“All the people who helped to shape The Bahamas lived in my community.  I was just a child then but what I know now is I breathed in what these women breathed out,” she says.

“My move to make this documentary is to embrace and honor these women and their major contributions to this contemporary Bahamas.  It’s very important to me on a personal level.”

The documentary examines this narrative in three ways: By  focusing on the five women who were central to the women’s suffrage movement (Dame Dr. Doris Johnson, Mary Ingraham, Georgiana Symonette, Eugenia Lockhart, and Mabel Walker); by giving voice to the women who stood shoulder to shoulder with these leaders (such as Dr. Willamae Saunders, Ethel Kemp, Gladys Bailey, Mildred Moxey, Madge Brown, Mother Mildred Donaldson and Althea Mortimer); and by including interviews with those women who voted for the first time on November 26, 1962.

The sixty hours of footage thus far includes interviews with family members and close friends of the major figures in the women’s suffrage movement, as well as perspectives by both male and female politicians, religious and social figures.  Now that the story that is so often silenced has a platform upon which to speak out loud, Bethel wants to ensure as many voices are heard as possible and that it speaks to its diverse audience.

“I think a lot of this information will be new to people, even if they know some of it, it will be new in the way I’m putting it together,” she says.  “I hope it helps us as a people to see ourselves – how we have been shaped and who we are as a people in the world, and inspire us to think about possibilities for the future.”

The project initially began in 2001 when Bethel brought Maria Govan and Erica Robinson on to help.  They conducted 40 hours of interviews and then, admits Bethel, life got in the way, scattering the team.  The project remained dormant for almost a decade when, a year ago, Bethel realized that in 2012 it will be the 50th anniversary of votes first cast by women in The Bahamas.

Not wanting to let such a momentous occasion pass her by, Bethel reconnected with Maria Govan – who over the decade had made her award-winning film “Rain”, and brought another award-winning director and filmmaker, Kareem Mortimer (“Children of God”) on board.  With such a stellar team, Bethel is confident that the film will be finished in time to mark 50 years of the right of women to vote.

“It’s a gift that these ten years passed because it has allowed this documentary to mature and now it’s coming at the right time,” she says.  “Working with two young internationally-acclaimed  filmmakers is very energizing for me. “

However Bethel points out that though they are aiming for the film to be complete by the middle of next year, she does not want it to be screened during election time, allowing the film to exist as a beautiful and important narrative in Bahamian history, free of partisanship.

Indeed, she hopes the film fills a hole in the Bahamian history taught today to students, as well as to the public, making it both historically and culturally informative – not only to Bahamians, but to the world.

“I’d also like it to have an impact on women and how we see ourselves in this Bahamian community – what our possibilities are, what our strengths are, our alliances and what we might want to shape with our agenda for today and tomorrow,” she says.

“These women had a very specific agenda and they worked together for the right to vote when the odds were against them in an entrenched patriarchal society, so for these women to overturn the status quo took great courage and collaboration,” she points out.  “So there are many lessons we can learn as women from these women suffragists.”

To fund this important documentary, a direct contribution can be made to the RBC main branch under the client name High Tide Ltd. Company.  Alternatively, donations can be made to Marion Bethel by calling 326-3481 or e-mailing missma@coralwave.com.

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