Breaking down barriers yet still ahead of her time
Hilda Aitken was one of the first two women elected to serve in the House of Assembly.
She and Edna Watson earned their place in history when they broke through three centuries of all-male control of the House to win seats in the 1948 General Election. Their success at the polls came four years after women in Bermuda won the right to vote.
A former suffragette, Aitken was a 56-year-old married mother of two when she stood for Parliament. Long active in public life, she was at the time of her candidacy Central District Girl Guide Commissioner, a member of the Board of Health and an executive member of Smith's Parish Welfare Society. During the early years of the Second World War, when food rationing was in effect, she served on a government nutrition committee.
Aitken was no political progressive — she was opposed to universal adult suffrage and was lukewarm about free education and school integration — but she had a keen interest in women's and youth issues, public health and social causes. She spoke often about the need for housing for lower-income Bermudians, supported the then controversial issue of birth control, and called for the establishment of a bureau to help seniors prepare for their declining years.
During her tenure as a Member of Colonial Parliament — now Member of Parliament or MP — she was chairwoman of the Social Welfare Board from 1951 to 1953, was a member of the first Treatment of Offenders Commissioners Board, and also served on the 1948 parliamentary Beaches Committee and the 1950 Census Committee.
Aitken was born in Smith's Parish, the daughter of farmer Gilbert Smith and his wife, Clara. The eldest of six children, she traced her ancestry through the Smith line to the first permanent settlers who arrived in Bermuda on board the Plough in 1612.
Clara was an adopted daughter of Emily Webb (née Cox), and little is known of her origins. Caroline Boyd, Gilbert's mother, spent much of her childhood in a London workhouse and came to Bermuda in 1849 as an 11-year-old indentured servant. (The little-known story of scores of workhouse children who were brought to Bermuda in 1849 and 1850 was unearthed by author Jocelyn Motyer Raymond.)
Aitken attended Whitney Institute and went to work for the post office after leaving school. On December 12, 1914, she married ship's engineer Robert “Robin” Aitken (1891-1970). The couple had two daughters Jean Elliot, born in 1917, and Joan Willard, born in 1922.
Although a stay-at-home mother, Aitken was active outside the home. She led a Brownie pack for 23 years, and was also a longtime member of the Bermuda Women's Suffrage Society, which, under the leadership of Gladys Misick Morrell, campaigned for more than 25 years for voting rights for women.
Aitken's decision to run for Parliament was a direct result of her involvement in the suffragette movement. After Bermudian women won voting rights in 1944, she remained politically active as an executive member of the Bermuda Women's Civic and Political Association, which evolved from the BWSS. Of the four female parliamentary hopefuls who ran in 1948 — the others were Alice Scott, Frances Fox and Edna Watson — Aitken was the first to throw her hat in the ring. She went public in April, telling The Royal Gazette that although she lived in Devonshire, she would be standing in Smith's, the parish where she was born.
Stating her reason for running, she said: “I have always been interested in the activities of the House of Assembly and I felt that if no women contested the election it might look as if we were not accepting the responsibilities which go with the privileges of voting.”
She added she was particularly interested in public health and said there was a “crying need in Bermuda today for adequate housing. It is a pity that so many young couples cannot find a home.”
The election took place from June 2 to 4. Voting was restricted to property owners, and elections were held over three days so that voters could cast a ballot in each parish where they owned land.
When ballots were counted in Smith's on June 2, Aitken was declared a winner. The Royal Gazette headline on June 3 said it all: “Mrs. R. Aitken Made First Woman Parliamentarian Here”.
Aitken attributed her success to the “unswerving determination” of those who had worked hard to ensure women had the opportunity to take part in the island's political life. Edna Watson, meanwhile, won in Paget on June 3. Both placed third out of four in their parish poll.
When the new Parliament convened on June 9, Aitken and Watson took their seats on opposite sides of the House. In the Throne Speech delivered two days later, the Governor, Sir Ralph Leatham, departed from tradition in congratulating the two women on their “unique and meritorious successes”.
Aitken's maiden speech on June 21 was greeted with warm applause, according to The Royal Gazette. She rose to speak “in defence of my sex” and to express her support for an amendment to the Married Women's Protection Act, which gave judges more latitude when awarding alimony payments.
During her five years in Parliament, Aitken considered numerous Bills on a wide range of subjects — and she was put to work almost immediately.
On July 2, 1948, she was appointed to a six-member parliamentary committee established to consider a beaches report that had been commissioned the previous year to assess the state of the island's public beaches and to assess where more were needed. That committee approved all but one of the recommendations of the Beaches Commission. The report was adopted by Parliament in August 1948 and resulted in more beaches being acquired by the Government.
In 1952, Aitken backed a Bill to delay the construction of a residence for the Colonial Secretary at Church Bay, Southampton, on the grounds it would have cut off access to the beach for locals. The residence was never built.
A Bill giving women access to birth control at the government health clinic in Hamilton had the most far-reaching consequences for Aitken. In January 1949, just six months after being elected, she proposed that a clause for birth control be included in a public health Bill that was winding its way through the House.
Birth control was one small aspect of the Bill and Aitken received support from a majority of MCPs. But the ensuing controversy delayed its passage. The Roman Catholic Church was opposed and the Upper House sent it back to MCPs after member Goodwin Gosling voiced strong objection. The 1949 Public Health Act eventually passed the House in April 1949. When Aitken lost her re-election bid in 1953, she attributed it to her support for birth control.
Other Bills she had to consider included daylight saving time. In 1951, she voted to repeal it because it was unpopular. Aitken, who was Methodist, also voted against a Bill to allow alcoholic drinks to be served at the airport — and found herself on the losing side.
In 1951, she was appointed chairwoman of the Social Welfare Board, succeeding Edna Watson, the inaugural chairwoman who had quit in frustration.
In July 1951, Aitken, in her role as chairwoman, was successful in obtaining parliamentary approval for £2,000 in additional funding for the Lady Cubitt Compassionate Association to assist people needing medical treatment overseas. She told the House at the time: “I feel the Bermuda Government owes the LCCA a deep debt of gratitude for the work it is doing. I submit that if it did not do its work as it now does, it would be necessary for government to set up a special committee with a legal adviser to carry it out because it is urgent.”
Aitken later said opening beaches and Ports Island for public use was one of her greatest achievements.
She said: “When I was chairman of the Social Welfare Board, we got Ports Island. We sponsored a playing fields scheme. Everything the Social Welfare Board is now accomplishing was in planning when I was there.”
But other desperately needed initiatives that the board called for year after year, such as homes for delinquent boys and girls and children with mental disabilities, and low-cost housing, never got off the ground because Parliament refused to approve funds to pay for them. In June 1951, Aitken visited several homes in New York for delinquent girls and mentally disabled children, but to no avail. Nevertheless, summer camping and playground programmes, children's swimming classes and training courses for youth leaders, all implemented under her watch, were highly successful.
Both she and Watson failed to win re-election in 1953. Aitken said her only regret was that she was not being replaced by another woman. Not to be deterred, she contested a by-election in Smith's in November 1954, but was again defeated.
Speaking to author Colin Benbow years later, Aitken's daughter, Jean Lyles, said: “She was too outspoken for many of her contemporaries and was replaced by Mr Thaddeus Trott, who said nothing for the next five years ... She was very proud of the fact that, with Mr Reginald Ming's help, she was able to secure some of the beaches for public use.”
After her defeat, Aitken, who was awarded a Coronation Medal the same year, continued to work with volunteer organisations, among them the Girl Guides, the Pilot Club and Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. Aitken, whose husband was supportive of her political career, was widowed in 1970. Active in retirement, she travelled widely and to places far afield, as both daughters lived overseas. She was a sought-after speaker at church groups, and as a judge for gardening competitions and hat shows.
The media occasionally sought her opinion about women in politics: in one newspaper interview, she said that white women in particular were “very backward in coming forward politically”. Her status as a pioneering MCP ensured front-page coverage for her 90th-birthday celebration and her obituary, six years later.
Her funeral was held at Wesley Methodist Church and her ashes were interred in the Methodist cemetery on Cemetery Road, Pembroke.
She was survived by her daughters, Joan Metcalfe and Jean Lyles who are both now deceased, and grandchildren Terence Metcalfe, Aromanus Lyles, Nea Dixon and Jeanie Flath.
In 1994, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the women's voting rights Bill, Aitken's portrait was hung in the House of Assembly by the Business and Professional Women's Association of Bermuda.
The failure of Aitken and Watson to win re-election in 1953 was considered a loss because they were women of considerable ability who contributed much to the House. But their defeat was overshadowed by another development — the 1953 Parliament included the largest number of blacks elected to that point. Nine in a 36-seat House.
The next ten years would result in a concerted push by black MCPs to end segregation and abolish the property vote to achieve universal adult suffrage.
Aitken was in some aspects, ahead of her time, and in other areas, she clung to conservative views. Still, because of her achievement as a pioneering MCP, she will always have a place in the annals of Bermuda's history.
“You have heard the story of the ‘Forty Thieves' and perhaps they do grab a lot for themselves; but they grab a lot for the rest of us as well.” — The Royal Gazette, May 18, 1948
“It is said that the mixing of a woman's intuition with man's reasoning is an almost unbeatable combination — vote for me and I'll show you.” — speaking to voters on the eve of the Smith's Parish by-election, Bermuda Recorder, November 13, 1954
“If there are no women in the House during the next five years, perhaps we will do better at the next election.” — reaction to her defeat in the 1953 election, The Royal Gazette, March 26, 1953
“Some of the men were very bitter about women going into politics. One reason was that they thought women would want a welfare state. But they treated us with gallantry.” — Bermuda Sun, September 24, 1966
“Definitely women have come a long way since the days of the suffragettes. They have the vote and almost equal pay, but I will say as I have said all along that women are their own worst enemies. They have progressed every way but politically.” — Mid-Ocean News, February 8, 1968
“I'm glad that I lived in the old Bermuda. It was such a peaceful existence. We never locked our doors when we went out. We only shut our doors when there was a hurricane.” — The Royal Gazette, July 20, 1981
• Courtesy of bermudabiographies.com and Meredith Ebbin
July 17, 1891: Born in Smith’s Parish
December 12, 1914: Marries ship’s engineer Robin Aitken
1917: Gives birth to her first child, Joan Elliot
1922: Second child, Jean Willard, is born
1930s-1940s: Raises her daughters; is leader of a Brownie pack; becomes a prominent suffragette
1944: Bermudian women win the right to vote after a long campaign
1946: Women vote for the first time in a by-election
April 1948: Announces she will stand for Parliament in the upcoming election; three other female candidates later announce their candidacy
May 1948: At a public meeting in Smith’s, expresses support for housing for young Bermudians, birth control and higher salaries for teachers, but is opposed to universal adult suffrage
June 2, 1948: Wins a seat in Smith’s
June 3, 1948: Edna Watson wins a seat in Paget
June 9, 1948: Aitken and Watson take their seats in the new Parliament
June 21, 1948: Maiden speech in Parliament
July 2, 1948: Appointed to a parliamentary committee to review a report of the Beaches Commission
January 28, 1949: Makes a controversial motion to include birth control in a Public Health Bill; the Bill passes in the House in April
January 1951: Appointed chairwoman of the Board of Social Welfare
June 1951: Visits homes in New York for delinquent girls and children with disabilities
January 1952: Joins a majority of MCPs in backing a Bill to postpone building a residence for the Colonial Secretary at Church Bay, which secures the beach for the public
June 1952: As chairwoman of the Board of Social Welfare, attends a press conference to announce an expanded summer playground and camping plan for young people
March 1953: Defeated in the General Election; awarded the Coronation Medal
November 1954: Stands as a candidate in a Smith’s Parish by-election and is defeated
February 1968: Tells the Mid-Ocean News that women have progressed in every way but politically
November 1970: Husband Robert dies
July 17, 1981: Celebrates 90th birthday
July 30, 1987: Dies at age 96 after a brief illness