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A salute to women during Women’s History Month

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Fri Mar 13, 2014

by Clari Gilbert RN, MA

President of the SVG Retired Nurses Association Inc

Jane Austen (Catherine Morland) in 1817 stated: “History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in; I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of Popes and Kings, with wars and pestilences in every page, the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome.”{{more}}

So much has changed for women since then. President Jimmy Carter of the United States of America in 1980 declared the week of March 8 as “National Women’s History Week” and in 1987 the United States Congress expanded it to a month, following many lobbying efforts. Each year International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8th with events to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. This year, 2014, the IWD’s theme was “Inspiring Change”, while the National Women’s History Project chose for their theme “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment.”

Having celebrated this month since its inception, I wish to highlight a few women, as I pay tribute to countless women who have made great sacrifices, torn down historic barriers of prejudices to chart a course that so many enjoy the benefits today. However, Silma McLean, vice president of the National Council of Women reminds us that the struggle is ongoing and must continue “to overcome the shackles of inequality and discrimination”. So, as we continue to pioneer the future we must never forget the incredible women of the past.

First and foremost, I pay tribute to my mother, Lesline Dublin Mercury, who worked the lands alongside my father to ensure that her children were able to get an education. She was very strategic in developing friendships throughout the island, so that an exchange of goods was assured. Her friends in Canouan sent dried fish and peas; those in Barrouallie sent black fish and Calder Ridge sent potatoes. She, in turn, would send plantains, yams and dasheen. I was the first one in the family to be afforded secondary education and the fees of $14.88, plus transportation and lunch were not easy to come by but she persevered. Now, as I run for cover at the stinging midday sun, I often wonder how she was able to bear the blazing heat as she planted arrowroot, sugar canes, bananas, and many other crops to ensure that my tuition was paid. I am grateful for her sacrifices today.

Bessie Coleman, born in Texas in 1892, was denied admission to America’s aviation schools, but became the first African American to earn an international pilots license. She refused to be slowed by racism and after being sponsored by an African American newspaper, she attended aviation school in France and obtained her license. She in turn, then opened a school for aviators of any race. She, died in a tragic air accident in 1926. Later, she achieved status as a hero in early aviation.

Clara Barton, born in Massachusetts in 1826 experienced several discriminatory acts during her work life; however, that did not deter her from acting when the civil war began. She brought medical supplies from her home to tend to the sick and wounded and assisted the doctors during the war, even though she had no medical training. This act started a long-lasting career of aiding people during conflict and disaster. She established a distribution agency and was given a general’s pass to travel with the army ambulances to distribute her supplies and to nurse the sick. After the end of the war, she assisted in locating missing soldiers, marking thousands of graves and testified in Congress about her experiences. Her work attracted national attention and she formed the American Red Cross in 1881. She resigned as its head in 1904. She then established the National First Aid Association of America, an organization that placed emphasis on basic first aid and instruction, emergency preparedness and developed first aid kits. We know the impact these have had on the world.

Beverly Bonaparte, born in Jamaica, was one of my favourite nursing instructors during my early years of training. She gained her PhD in Nursing from New York University. She has held many positions of influence including head of the Corporate Nursing Division of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the largest public hospital system in the United States, with over 11,000 nurses. In 2010, she was named St George’s University Dean of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences. She has affected changes both in Jamaica and internationally in the health care delivery system, government and academia.

Mavis Harney of Antigua and Barbuda was one of the founders of Caribbean Nursing Organization (CNO), along with our very own Vincentian nurse, Mrs Doreen Richards. CNO was founded in 1959 and is the oldest regional organization in the Caribbean. It has concerned itself with the improvement of basic nursing education; supported university education for nurses; instituted biennial awards to recognize nursing excellence and encouraged the establishment and growth of national nurses’ associations. It provides a link to international organizations such as the International Council of Nursing and Caribbean American Nurses Association. Mrs Richards is the only founding member still alive.

Many of you have your own personal stories of women who have influenced your personal life and career. Therefore, you have a responsibility to continue the cycle of influence, amidst the challenges, to encourage the development of the next generation of women. We may at times get discouraged, as some may even reject what we are offering; however, the Bible reminds us that we must not be weary in well doing, for in due time we shall reap, if we stay the course.

Clari Gilbert RN, MA is President of the SVG Retired Nurses Association Inc and Vice President of the Knowledge Institute & Conference Center Ltd.

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