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In praise of Betty Kawaley on her 100th birthday

Betty Kawaley at the 1981 general strike

Dear Sir,

On behalf of my fellow former presidents of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, I would like to express best wishes to our most senior former president, Elizabeth Kawaley, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Saturday.

I’m sure that we share these wishes with those across Bermuda who have had the pleasure to engage with Betty Kawaley over some of that century. She has always maintained a quiet but courageous spirit that harboured a joie de vivre.

Her courage was evident when she became the second female to assume the role of president of the BUT in the early 1950s; a time when women were still second-class citizens. Women had only gained the right to vote in Bermuda in 1944.

During the transformative Theatre Boycott in 1959, Betty refused to remain as simply a bystander while that movement was challenging the powers that be. Betty Kawaley wrote the first Letter-to-the-Editor of The Royal Gazette, providing unqualified support for the boycott, which was signed by the author. Her demonstration of courage offered extra leverage to that iconic movement, since by that time she was a highly respected teacher at the Berkeley Institute – a role that had something of a “conservative” cache across the Island.

At the time, Betty was unaware that she was also playing an indirect role in the boycott. It just so happened that two of her best friends, colleagues from Queen’s University, visited Bermuda just before the boycott and stayed with Betty’s neighbours, Gerald and Izola Harvey – members of the Progressive Group. In light of the Progressive Group’s need for a Gestetner (copier), Izola, knowing Betty’s sound character, assumed that her friends would be likewise. Izola invited the Canadians – maintaining secrecy – to buy the equipment.

The two Canadian teachers – BFFs of Betty – surreptitiously bought the copier and the Progressive Group was able to run-off hundreds of flyers supporting the boycott. The friends maintained the secret from their Bermudian best friends for four decades, until “all was revealed” at the 40th Anniversary of the Theatre Boycott.

In 1981, Betty Kawaley’s retirement year in teaching, the BUT teachers made the unprecedented step of voting to stage a one-day strike on the next day – May 5 – in solidarity with the hospital and government members of the BIU, who had been involved in a protracted strike. During that tumultuous period, instigated by high inflation, other sectors of the BIU had undertaken sympathy strike action and some – such as hotel employees – had been “fired”.

These circumstances had proven precipitous and were potentially explosive. Those of us in the “trenches” sought to ensure sustaining a non-violent campaign to effect a peaceful resolution. This required a reasonable showing of BUT members marching to Union Square and this was brought about when a number of the union’s elders, with Betty Kawaley, front and centre, made their appearance – walking their talk of quiet courage. The iconic episode indicated a seismic shift in the social fabric of the Island.



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Published April 25, 2022 at 8:11 am (Updated April 25, 2022 at 8:11 am)

In praise of Betty Kawaley on her 100th birthday

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