On the 19th of March 2018, retired judge Paula-Mae Weekes was sworn in as President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Weeks prior, on the 6th of February, Trinidad Guardian journalist Joel Julien published an article confirming that Weekes was “not a lesbian.”
On the 25th of May 2018, career politician Mia Amor Mottley was elected Prime Minister of Barbados. Three days prior, former Speaker of the House Michael Carrington demanded that Mottley clarify her sexuality so that the people know “what [they] are getting as Prime Minister,” according to Barbados Today.
Weekes and Mottley are both in their 50s, have focused greatly on their professional lives and are recognised as authorities in their respective fields. They are the first women in their native countries to hold such positions. They are also unmarried and childless. And they both have had their private lives questioned.
The Woman in Caribbean Society
Female leadership in the Caribbean region is by no means new in 2018 and many women leaders have established families. Hence, while they have pursued their professional lives, they have also fulfilled their roles within their societies.
Overall, however, Caribbean societies are patriarchal. In other words, they consider men – the primary holders of power – to have certain privileges such as access to education, pursuing full and uninterrupted professional development, and holding positions of power and influence.
The region can also be defined as matrifocal, viewing the woman as the central and anchoring figure in the family. She is responsible for starting a family, raising children, and passing on social mores. Caribbean societies praise the importance of the mother and wife, while social failures (like juvenile delinquency) are often attributed to the woman.
Dame Eugenia Charles, however, led a career and personal life that defied said social expectations.
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, MBE
In July 1980, Eugenia Charles, founder and leader of the Dominica Freedom Party, was the first woman to be elected Head of Government in the Caribbean, and the second woman ever to hold that position in the region when she became Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica.
An attorney by profession, she dedicated her life to her practice and professional development. She was 61 when she was elected Prime Minister. She never married and had no children. Politicians and media used this information to try to undermine her and her politics.
According to Caribbean historian Carmen Hutchinson Miller, Charles was called “the eminent professional virgin” by Minister Ronald Armour when Charles protested legislation in 1968. Armour would continue to attack Charles throughout her political career on the basis of her age, her single status, and being childless. Political sciences lecturer Cynthia Barrow-Giles noted that in 1974, Dominica Labour Party (DLP) leader Patrick John demonised her as a “Danger Lady” for the same reasons.
In 1989, Barbados’ Sunday Sun newspaper questioned Charles on her family life, citing public curiosity as their justification. In 1995, Charles stated that her being “single and childless seemed to [the media] a particularly good field for abuse of [her]self.”
Same Battle, New Turf
During the 1990s, the topic of sexuality entered public discourse in the Caribbean. It brought to the forefront the fact that two or more women – lesbians – could desire and prefer each other.
Patriarchal structures in Caribbean societies were threatened by lesbian affection and its increasing visibility – similar to that of career-driven women who choose to be single and childless. Moreover, it tapped into the homophobia that characterises the region.
At the turn of the 21st century, a new parallel emerged in the media between career-driven women and their sexuality in an attempt to question their suitability for positions of power, formally linking lesbian affection and Caribbean women’s dedicated pursuit of their profession.
Finally, the use of the word “lesbian” by men in positions of power continues a culture that downplays lesbians’ struggle for equal rights in the Caribbean, while attempting to diminish women’s independence and decision making abilities.
Being “Lesbian” and a Leader
Both Weekes and Mottley addressed the questioning of their sexuality. Weekes emphasized the importance of her ability to get the job done while affirming her view that no citizen should face discrimination based on his or her sexual orientation.
Mottley did not respond to the questioning. Instead, she let her career and activism speak on her behalf. She has publicly advocated for LGBT+ rights in Barbados for a long time and her professional evolution in politics was one of the main reasons why she defeated the opposition 30-0.
Both statements toward Weekes and Mottley have not been retracted since Julien and Carrington used public curiosity as justification to question the personal lives of these high-ranking women leaders. Paradoxically, citizens of both countries have made it clear that what these women do in their personal lives is of no concern, as long as they can serve the public well.