When I left Haiti in 1964, I was certainly aware of social and economic inequalities, as well as of those between men and women. I do remember, for instance, the enthusiasm of young people of my generation for projects of assistance and support to the needy, visits to the sick, and help in evangelization and literacy. But I have no recollection of ever having taken part in any discussion on the status of women, especially their status as second-class citizens, or worse, whatever their social rank might have been.
The sad truth is that there were none, or, rather, there were no more. In the Haiti of the time, women’s voices, as well as those of anyone who dared voice an opinion contrary to that of the state, had gone silent for reasons of prohibitions, repression, disappearances, elimination, exile or simply—albeit, all things considered, not that simple—fear of the above. Years later, I still had anxiety attacks just thinking about it.
As a result, those—the women in particular and some of the men—who could have taught us about that were no longer around or had gotten accustomed to being afraid of talking the “incorrect talk,” and knew nothing or very little about the long struggle of Haitian women, especially those of the Ligue Féminine d’Action Sociale (Women’s Social Action League), for their rights. Yet it is through the League that the movement for the emancipation of Haitian women had begun.
I have no recollection of ever having taken part in any discussion on the status of women, especially their status as second-class citizens, or worse, whatever their social rank might have been.
The year was 1934. It is surely not by chance that this date coincides with the end of the U.S. occupation that began in 1915 and lasted nearly 20 years. In this newly liberated climate, everyone dreamed big, including women for equal rights with men. One can therefore imagine the enthusiasm that must have moved them and propelled them to action. One can also imagine what threat they represented for the status quo.
Among the founders were League president Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau (cousin of Alphosine Sylvain Rigaud, my paternal grandmother), first vice-president Alice Garoute, and officers Fernande Bellegarde, Olga Gordon, Teresa Hudicourt, Marie Covington, Alice Teligny-Mathon, Esther Dartigue, Maud Turian, and Georgette Justin, all capable and determined to achieve their goals, no matter the costs.
The League’s first objectives, conveyed in its statutes, were to contribute to the physical, intellectual, and moral progress of the Haitian woman and to raise her consciousness regarding social responsibility; to solve the problems of child protection; and to bring about recognition of the civil and political equality of the Haitian woman.
Those objectives led the government of then-president Sténio Vincent to ban their activities, which they then modified to contributing to the “physical, economic, and social improvement of the Haitian woman,” but their intentions didn’t change, as their actions demonstrated.
From day one of the League’s foundation, it published a journal, The Voice of Women which, in 1937, obtained a silver medal at the Paris Exposition for the high social significance of its achievement. The League established branches across the country, Port-de-Paix and Saint-Marc in 1935, Les Cayes in 1936, Jacmel in 1937, then Pétionville, Léogane, Gonaïves, Cap-Haitien, and elsewhere, broadening the scope and number of members. It also undertook awareness campaigns and civic education for women, organized evening classes for workers of working-class neighborhoods, petitioning for the increase of the number of schools, among many other activities.
The League’s first objectives…were to contribute to the physical, intellectual and moral progress of the Haitian woman.
Progress was slow, but Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau was confident. “We believe in success,” she stated. “What does it matter if it shines only for those who will follow us, provided we contribute to establish justice and democracy in our country.”
Meanwhile, she was accumulating important academic and educational studies on Haitian women, including Haiti and Her Women (1941); Women’s Education in Haiti (1944), for which she won the Susan B. Anthony Prize of Byrn Mawr University; Women’s Rights and the New Constitution (1946); The Middle Class in Haiti (1950); On Resources for the Study of the Middle Class in Latin America (1950), published by the Pan American Union (now Organization of American States) in Washington; a two-volume history of the Renaud family; newsletters for rural teachers; and, Haiti, Portrait of a Free Country, published in German in 1954.
Alice Garoute was just as resolute: “The conquest of our rights is only part of our program,” she declared. “Our league is primarily educational, and even if our brothers never raise us to the rank of citizens of Haiti, we will continue our work of compassion, and of solidarity towards peasant women and those of the lower classes. We will fight with courage and perseverance until justice triumphs; we will fight to overthrow the barriers that limit our field of action until they disappear.”
“We will fight with courage and perseverance until justice triumphs; we will fight to overthrow the barriers that limit our field of action until they disappear.” —Alice Garoute
A few hours before she died, on October 30, 1950, she said with conviction, “We will win. I would like that the day women vote for the first time, a delegation lays flowers on my grave.”
The memory of Alice Garoute lives on through the Foyer Alice Garoute organization, founded by Madeleine Sylvain Bouchereau for “the training of rural girls.”
Two of the League’s other great achievements included organizing the first National Congress of Haitian Women, chaired by First Lady Lucienne Heurtelou Estimé and bringing together delegates from 44 Haitian women’s groups and 32 delegates from 17 foreign and international organizations, and the publication in 1954 of Femmes Haïtiennes (Haitian Women) to mark the 150th anniversary of Haiti’s independence and to “take stock of women’s achievements in the past centuries and clarify their contribution to the national heritage.”
Haitian women finally obtained the right to vote on November 4, 1950, but they had to wait until 1957 to truly exercise it. That year, Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau became the first Haitian woman to run for the Senate. She was not successful, however, and Haitian women had to wait until 1987 to have their first woman senator in the person of Mirlande Manigat.
Since then, there has been a lot of progress and successes through faith and hard work. The valiant efforts of the Women’s Social Action League will never be in vain.