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A window on worthy ‘right to vote’ struggle

‘Womanish Ways' is a worthy film about a worthy struggle — one which resulted in the women of the Bahamas winning the right to vote by 1962.

It tells in impressive detail the story of those who fought for female suffrage from 1948 onwards, weaving together old footage and photographs, re-enactments of pivotal moments in the campaign and interviews with supporters of the cause.

The campaigners were active during a turbulent time in the Bahamas' history, when workers were striking and citizens were battling to challenge the racial discrimination that permeated society.

The parallels with Bermuda — and there are many to be drawn — will fascinate anyone with an interest in local political history.

From the acronyms of the two main political parties (the UBP and the PLP) to the descriptions of a deeply segregated country, much will chime with Bermudians.

The differences are interesting too: women who owned property won the vote here in 1944, 23 years before universal suffrage was adopted under the constitution. In the Bahamas, a law for full male suffrage was passed in 1959 and for female suffrage in 1961, with an election the following year.

This film won't necessarily appeal to all: its subject matter, ultimately, is quite narrow and its pace a little slow.

In theory, it should be a riveting tale, but unfortunately ‘Womanish Ways' doesn't contain quite enough drama to sustain a 73-minute documentary and, on occasion, strays into dry-as-a-bone history lesson territory.

The story of the global women's suffrage movement is one packed with riots, hunger strikes, violence, prison and even death, as in the case of Britain's Emily Davison.

The Bahamian effort, while just as vital in terms of that country's democratic progression, was less eventful, happily, and centred mainly on letter writing, petitions and speeches.

It was a successful strategy and the five women who orchestrated it deserve every ounce of credit they receive from the interviewees in this film — but it's not always edge-of-the-seat stuff.

It is an honest and thorough account of what took place, though, and director Marion Bethel should be praised for that.

Her film doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable truth that one of the five suffrage leaders got involved in the movement purely to help her politician husband win more votes.

Facts like that and the genteel nature of the Bahamian campaign suggest that, strictly speaking, Bethel's heroines were suffragists, rather than the suffragettes she terms them.

Nonetheless, they were remarkable and brave women whose actions changed lives — and this documentary is most compelling when it explores that impact.

One interviewee in particular gives such an exuberant and articulate description of going to vote for the first time in 1962, that it's hard not to feel some of her excitement.

‘Womanish Ways' may not be packed full of drama but it is definitely worth a watch for anyone interested in people power and progressive social change.

‘Womanish Ways' will be shown on Thursday, October 17, 8.30pm at BUEI as part of the Bermuda Docs festival.

Protest movement: A scene from ‘Womanish Ways.'

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Published October 16, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 15, 2013 at 8:40 pm)

A window on worthy ‘right to vote’ struggle

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