[This is a post-print of an article published in Atlantic Studies/Global Currents



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The limits of maternalist alliance: Una Marson and Amy Bailey before the commission


Harold Stannard was not the only progressive activist just off the boat from Kingston. There was significant solidarity work underway among trade unionists, women’s activists, and leaders of color in London. Among the busiest speakers were Jamaicans Una Marson and Amy Bailey, each working to raise support for a new group, Jamaica Save the Children, a product of the same maternalist child-welfare vision that had driven Belize’s Black Cross Nurses and Guiana’s NPC, now ever-more urgent as economic crisis worsened.48 I will discuss their written and oral evidence to the WIRC at some length, for in their moments of convergence and misunderstanding with Crowdy, Blacklock, and the other commissioners we can see the ways in which British Caribbeans’ uplift ideology and child-saving mission, explored above, intersected with British maternal-imperialists’ claims to expertise and the emerging international model of child development. Marson and Bailey and Blackwood and Crowdy—cosmopolitan, progressive, professional women all—shared many assumptions and goals regarding women’s role in collective progress. Yet their dialogue was sharply constrained by the accumulated history of white racist ideas about black people and sex, a cultural frame unacknowledged and therefore unrenounced.

Una Marson had moved to London in 1932. She worked as Secretary to Harold Moody’s pan-Africanist League of Coloured Peoples, and accompanied Haile Selassie to the League of Nations in 1936 to demand support for Abyssinia in the face of Italian invasion. She had also begun to make a name for herself as a feminist speaker, and was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace.49 But it was not the anti-racist/radical activist side of her resume that Una Marson chose to stress in her cover letter to the WIRC. Rather she described herself (accurately) as a Jamaican journalist, playwright, and clergyman’s daughter: “My father was a minister and I learnt a great deal by visiting and helping the people in our village. […] I am thoroughly acquainted with my country, and I know my people.” (Note again the use of “my people,” claiming up-close expertise and crucial social distance at the same time.) The only mention Marson made of racism was carefully muted, tucked at the end of a sentence that would likely be read as confirmation of Afro-Jamaican backwardness: “I am very anxious about the cultural development of our people and if the Commission regards this as in order I would like to say something about that matter and also on the difficult question of Race Prejudice in Jamaica.”50 The fight against anti-black racism, locally and globally, was at the forefront of Marson’s London life and yet here, if you blinked you could miss it. At a minimum, you could be confident that no one was at risk of being blamed for such a “difficult question.”

Marson’s memo began by denouncing the inadequate education in the island’s overcrowded elementary schools, dominated by rote learning and the strap, where “the true education of the child—the awakening of the intellect to an understanding of things and the birth of a desire to acquire knowledge of all kinds throughout life—is totally neglected.” Here and throughout, her account echoed the vision of integral child development expressed by Dame Rachel Crowdy’s League of Nations Child Welfare Committee, only to underline the cost of its absence: “hunger, flogging, drudgery in the yard or in the field make [our children] resigned and philosophical about the hardships of life before they learn to play and know the joys of childhood.”51 It was mothers’ dire economic straits, Marson insisted, that drove this reality.

Moving on to “Social Conditions,” Marson began, as outside commentators routinely did, with the “illegitimate birthrate in Jamaica,” at 75% “the highest in any civilized country in the world.” Her explanation was culturalist rather than race-based—this was “the result” of the “pernicious” disruption of marriage under slavery—but her description of the results would hardly trouble racist canards: “Still her peasant women breed like animals, still her men folk remain unbound by home ties.”52 As island elites often did, Marson drew a distinction between stable consensual unions and more fleeting alliances. “It is the women who bear children for men who may justly be termed irresponsible nomads who give cause for the greatest concern.”53

Marson’s description of female victimization and societal consequences echoed the internal critique we traced in the interwar black press and reencountered in J.A. Brown’s letter. She described the cycle through which a poor woman entered successive relationships, hoping each time that the man would stay and provide for her (growing) family. “And so when mothers write to me as Organizing Secretary of the Save the Children Fund and start their letters by saying ‘I have six children without a father’, I know exactly wheat they mean. Sometimes the men are anxious to support the children but are unemployed, and often what they earn is too small to support a family.” Not just poverty but cultural practice became ingrained. “Naturally a girl who grows up and sees that her mother alone is responsible for her accepts it as her fate that she too must go the same hard way. A boy who sees that his father seldom comes near his mother and does not support him, expects to treat his woman with the same indifference when he grows up. The idea of building a home is foreign in his mind. To be the father of several children with different mothers is no shame to him.”54 In line with the commitment to collective responsibility that uplifters espoused, Marson suggested a collective rather than individual sanction, in her case via an activist state: a tax on all employed bachelors to subsidize care of children lacking paternal support.55

Marson then turned to women’s voluntary work in Jamaica, noting that governors’ wives and their like refused to work alongside “those who would be called in England the native women.” Indeed, one “dark” woman who attempted to collaborate was told that she and her kind should “start their own organizations.” Though Marson did not say so, this was precisely what she and Amy Bailey had done with Jamaica Save the Children. Racist hierarchy in the voluntary sector was the unspoken backdrop of Marson’s call to professionalize social work, including “Women’s Institutes” with “paid Officers,” to help “stop the drift to the cities” from the villages: “Money will have to be spent if bad social conditions are to be tackled.” Poor relief must be entirely reorganized. Setting a minimum wage would merely “add to the unemployment of women”; rather, “native industries such as making hats, canning fruit, making pottery” should be developed to provide employment.

In sum, Marson’s testimony combined a brief for leadership roles for women like herself—“Because a woman is wealthy and is the wife of a Custos of a Parish it does not necessarily follow that she is the woman to put her back into uplift work for the peasantry”56—with an activist state agenda centered on women’s experience of motherhood and poverty.

Meanwhile, Amy Bailey—teacher, social welfare proponent, leading member of a prominent family of black educators—was described by WIRC staff to Lord Moyne as simply “in municipal employment in Jamaica.” Nonetheless, with a letter of introduction from Anglo-Jamaican planter Sir Arthur Farquharson to Lord Olivier, she had attained an audience with Assistant Under-Secretary of State Sir Henry Moore, who judged her “a person of sensible opinions, with a good knowledge of the problems of Jamaica from the woman’s point of view.” Writing to the WIRC, Bailey stressed both her professional expertise and her insider cultural knowledge. “As a teacher with 17 years’ experience, a social worker of over 8 years’ work among young people and children, and a writer on social and economic conditions especially for the last 4 years; I know not only my country’s problems, but its needs.” Her memo covered the headings Agriculture, Industries, Education, and Social Work, emphasizing the latter two as “very much needed.” Like Marson, she sought an expanded state role in welfare and development: “[Now] all the work done is voluntary, and the time has come when the Government should shoulder this responsibility. Trained workers are needed for schools as well as homes. Due to poverty there is much ignorance, and malnutrition among the people.”57

More explicitly than Marson, Bailey underlined the economic etiology of the island’s crisis, insisting that poverty drove social ills (illegitimacy explicitly included) rather than vice versa.

The average income of 92% or 184,000 people in 1935 was below 25/- per week: that of 71% or 148,7000 people was below 14/- per week. This means poverty which results in disease, malnutrition and a population unable to give their best services. Thousands of children cannot go to school through lack of food, clothes, and books. 70% illegitimacy is due to economic conditions and ignorance chiefly. The bastardy law must be tightened up so that fathers are registered. England has got to step in and spend a large sum of money on Education and Medical and Social Work, and let Jamaica carry on from there.58

An exchange between WIRC chairman Lord Moyne and Amy Bailey during her oral testimony the following week suggested the partial ear through which the commissioners heard the testimonials before them. After hearing Bailey talk at length about inadequate educational infrastructure, child labor, and the desperate need for subsidized milk to combat malnutrition, Moyne changed the topic. “We have been told by other witnesses that the poverty in Jamaica is due to the fact that there is practically no family life. The father is not held responsible for his children and because he lives as a single man he is willing to take a lower wage. [...] He works three days a week instead of six and so earns sufficient for himself.” Carefully, Bailey attempted to adjust the equation Moyne posited. Although she agreed that “fathers are very irresponsible,” she insisted that this “was both an economic and a social question,” and that the prevalence of part-week wage labor “is not because they are lazy.”59

Questions from Crowdy, Blacklock, and the Welsh Labourite Morgan Jones allowed Bailey to return to the themes of the high cost of schooling, the poverty of dedicated parents, overcrowded classrooms and outdated curricula. Blacklock then reached out to define her and Bailey’s common ground, on the issue of the need for trained (and implicitly, female) experts in the helping professions. “You speak of social work, do you mean infant welfare and medical inspection?” Bailey eagerly concurred there was “great demand” for “Qualified nurses and social development workers.” 60 On the gendered prescription they could agree, masking the fact that on the underlying diagnosis—economic exclusion vs. sexual irresponsibility—Bailey and the commissioners remained miles apart.

Una Marson testified ten days after Amy Bailey. After discussing her ideas on education, Lord Moyne shifted gears to marvel at the portrait that was emerging of domestic life in the West Indies: “You tell us [in your Memorandum] about the social conditions. It is very extraordinary that there is practically no marriage.” He fastened on to Marson’s descriptions while systematically dismissing her prescriptions. When she proposed to legalize co-residential unions after ten years, Moyne replied tartly, “You would not be changing the morals of the people by putting on paper that they were married.” “Perhaps not but at least it would make it better for the children,” she replied, holding her ground. But debating these issues before this audience was clearly painful. Asked, apropos of her written proposal, whether “it would be a good thing to tax the bachelors?” Marson replied “I have worried myself ill over it. It is the women who suffer, the men do not care very much. Sometimes it is just carelessness but sometimes it is wickedness.”61

If questions of sex and parenting were fraught for Marson, they were apparently magnetic for the commissioners. After lengthy discussion of school curricula and fees, Dame Rachel Crowdy stepped in to turn “back to the question of illegitimacy,” asking about the possible impact of registering fathers.62 And after later discussion of nursing and domestic service led by Dr. Mary Blacklock, another commissioner once again turned the topic back to illegitimacy, doubting Marson’s claim that common law marriage was needed to end children’s stigmatization.

Q: Yes, but if three quarters of the people are illegitimate who is there to despise them? I do not see how it can be so difficult for them.
A: But it is.

Q: Lord Olivier told us that the women would not get married because they do not want to be tied.
A. That may be true of some of them but you cannot generalize and say that none of them want to get married, because they do.

Q: You are not suggesting that their way of living is a higher ideal that the institution of marriage?
A. No. You will not find the people in the upper classes having illegitimate children. It is looked upon as a disgrace. It is only in the poorer classes that you get this. When the young women reach the age of 20 to 25 years they feel they would like to get married and look around to find a man to suit them. If the man is not already married they may marry, but the probability is they will have children.63

These were tricky shoals to navigate: defending female virtue while recognizing that the women you are defending would defend their men and attack you instead; reiterating the emotional pain of distant children before a British magnate who cannot believe that a group can be in the majority yet be despised for who they are; generalizing about “the African people” while refusing to generalize about poor mothers and marriage; being forced to clarify your own class position by averring the value of marriage, even when you have somehow reached the age of thirty-three with nary a husband in sight.

Maternalist social reform, based on the claim to special female insights into the domestic lives of immigrants and slum dwellers, had been an important route into public life for middle-class women activists in Great Britain and the United States in the Progressive Era. But for Afro-Caribbean women to execute this strategy in 1938 required them to place their special knowledge into a discursive frame where the bond between black skin and black sin was deeply limned, necessarily hampering the activists’ efforts at self-articulation. To blame Negro parents for the sufferings of black children in testimony before Lord Moyne in London was very different from doing the same on the pages of the black internationalist Panama Tribune. The presence of two English women commissioners, each committed to maternal and child welfare and feminist internationalism, provided female activists like Marson and Bailey with an eager audience. Yet this alliance, on these terms, carried real costs for these Jamaican women for whom black political self-determination was a long-standing ultimate goal.

Veronica Gregg has summed up Amy Bailey’s life’s work: “To reorient the civic foundation by recognizing the people who existed at the edge of intelligibility, especially poor black Jamaican women and children.”64 What we hear in the WIRC chambers is that Bailey’s recognition could not make those women and children intelligible to the commissioners on Bailey’s terms. Over the course of the WIRC’s first months in London, Afro-Caribbean women and children gained visibility in its emerging agenda. But there were clear signals that the result would not be the socio-cultural reorientation Bailey sought.


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