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Enid Bennett — a petite giant of Jamaican politics

Troy
Caine

Sunday, January 14, 2018

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THE passing of Enid Bennett is truly the end of an era in the annals of Jamaica's political history, as well as in the chronicles of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) — under whose umbrella she became the first woman to serve her country for over three decades as an elected Member of Parliament (MP), and the first woman to be elected a deputy leader of a major political party in Jamaica.

Indeed, as an established political pioneer and trailblazer for women to emulate, Enid Bennett left an impeccable record which demonstrated quite succinctly how women can work hard to succeed and to stand tall beside their male counterparts in the rough and tumble world of male-dominated Jamaican politics, without the imposition of some female quota system as advocated recently.

One of the most pleasant persons I have ever known in politics, Enid could disarm anyone with her ready smile and her quiet, amiable demeanour, but she could be just as stern and serious, especially as it related to her principles, to political matters, and the welfare of her constituents. She possessed a great knowledge of the political genre and was a most reliable source for details of political facts, data, events, and personalities who pervaded the political arena.

An outstanding political organiser and an extremely loyal and devoted JLP member since her entry into politics, Enid Bennett served her country, her parish, and her party with distinction, and was still quite active even after her retirement, especially in her beloved St Catherine West Central and her native Linstead, which she never relinquished.

Enid Maude Bennett, OJ, CD, was born right there in Linstead, St Catherine, on May 18, 1931, daughter of James Bennett, haulage contractor and Margaret Gordon (nee Nattoo), housewife and farmer. Her early education at Linstead Primary School led to obtaining the first, second and third year Jamaica Local Examination Certificates, then later at St Helen's Commercial School, also in Linstead, where she qualified as a stenographer, the initial profession that was destined to launch her political career.

It all began when she started working as a stenographer in the legal office of Roy McNeill, attorney-at-law, and subsequently became his personal secretary. Roy McNeill (older brother of the People's National Party's (PNP) Dr Kenneth McNeill and uncle to current MP, Dr Wykeham McNeill) had been the unsuccessful JLP candidate against the PNP's Johnathan Grant in the newly created (first) St Catherine Central seat in the 1959 General Election. But he made amends the following year when he won the Above Rocks Division in the 1960 Parish Council Elections and became the mayor of Spanish Town with the JLP's triumph in the St Catherine Parish Council. In addition, McNeill, as caretaker, was also successful in securing a pro-JLP “No” Federation vote in St Catherine Central in the 1961 referendum.

This engaging surge of political activity involving her boss and, initially, her political mentor, inevitably led to Enid's interest and involvement in the political process, becoming a branch representative, then constituency secretary, especially after Roy McNeill had defeated Johnathan Grant in the 1962 General Election to become the MP for St Catherine Central, as well as the first Minister of home affairs in Sir Alexander Bustamante's first Cabinet of independent Jamaica.

By the mid-1960s, Enid Bennett's budding political potential and bond with the people clearly made an impact and made her the popular choice for selection as the new JLP candidate to tackle the Sligoville Division, a strong PNP area, against veteran PNP incumbent, Harold G Owens in the 1966 Parish Council Elections. At that point, the Sligoville Division was only 10 years old, having been formed out of the Above Rocks Division in 1956 when that area was located in the old (first) St Catherine seat. In the 1956 Parish Council Elections, South Eastern Owens polled 90 per cent of the ballots and crushed the JLP's H S Cruise by 695 votes, then retained the division in 1960 with 61.7 per cent of the poll. It would have taken a lot of courage and self-confidence to attempt such a mighty challenge to unseat Owens, especially for a female candidate, which was rather scarce in St Catherine in those days.

But Enid Bennett defied the odds and created history when she whipped Owens by a margin of 230 votes (13.2 per cent), polling 976 votes to the latter's 746, to become one of the 16 JLP councillors elected in St Catherine that year (to the PNP's five), one of only 12 female councillors elected islandwide, and only the second woman (after Mrs G M Richardson of the Old Harbour Division in 1951) to be elected to the St Catherine Parish Council since adult suffrage. Among the eight first-time winners with Bennett in the parish that year were the PNP's Ripton MacPherson, Keith Cousins, and Baldwin Jackson (Fitz Jackson's dad).

Her impressive 1966 victory at Sligoville would be just the beginning of Enid Bennett's illustrious political career. In 1967, when the second set of constituency boundaries realignment exercise (with the addition of new seats) occurred, Roy McNeill shifted to the new St Catherine Eastern seat and left the (heavily revamped) St Catherine Central seat in the capable hands of Enid Bennett. However, there would be one hurdle to cross before she could get the final nod as the official JLP candidate. The slight hitch emerged when Arthur U King (popularly known as A U King), JLP councillor for the Red Hills Division in the area, the then Mayor of Spanish Town and the longest-serving JLP councillor in the council, demanded that the opportunity to be the party's candidate in the 'new' constituency should be accorded to him, given his record of service.

Perhaps the mayor might have forgotten that in politics, memories and feelings regarding party loyalty and image can last a very long time. A U King, who had represented the Red Hills Division since 1947, first won as an Independent in 1947, before joining the JLP in 1951 when he was re-elected. He then left the JLP to join the Farmers' Party, and in the 1955 General Election he was that party's candidate in St Catherine, Western, who campaigned against JLP incumbent Tacius Golding (Bruce Golding's father). Fortunately, his performance couldn't quite match his ambition, as he mustered only 750 votes (5.2 per cent), which hardly affected Golding's poll, but in the 1956 Parish Council Election he was not allowed to run on the JLP ticket and the division went to the party's C G Thompson. King regained the division in 1960 and 1966, and retired in 1969, when he was replaced by Lincoln Ferron.

Enid Bennett had no such political baggage, no such chequered history, and at 36 she had the freshness of youth in her favour and was ready for the bigger challenge. As her opponent, the PNP selected their Bog Walk Division Councillor Keith Cousins, a man with a gift for gab that far outweighed his political substance, who played to the media and even placed a public wager on how badly he was going to beat Enid Bennett. But, after the dust had cleared on Election Day, February 21, 1967, Enid Bennett emerged with a very comfortable victory, polling 3,496 votes (55.2 per cent) to Cousins' 2,589 (40.9 per cent), and with Artiz Z Chambers of the Jamaica United Party (JUP) getting a paltry 113 votes (1.8 per cent) in a 79.4 per cent voter turnout. Her victory margin by 907 votes (14.3 per cent) silenced an embarrassed Keith Cousins who, like A U King, retired from politics when their term as councillors ended in 1969.

Politically, Enid Bennett had truly arrived. Her victory was significant to the JLP, which swept all five seats in St Catherine when they consolidated power under Donald Sangster who had succeeded Sir Alexander Bustamante, and of significance too to the women in politics, as she became an instant role model for women of all ages who ventured on the political landscape.

She was one of the 20 newly elected Members of Parliament who entered Gordon House in 1967. Among them, the JLP's Dr Neville Gallimore, Victor Grant, E C L Parkinson, Billy McLaren, Esme Grant, Alva Ross, Arthur Williams Sr, Talbert Forrest, Dr Adrian Bonner, David Lindo, Emile “Bully” Joseph, George “Harry” Atkinson, Dudley McKenley; and the PNP's Michael Manley, David Coore, Noel Silvera, A U Belinfanti, Howard Cooke, and Dr Ansell Hayden. Except for Dr Gallimore, Enid Bennett outserved them all and, until her passing, only Enid Bennett, Dr Gallimore and Billy McLaren survived to be with us 50 years later in 2017.

In 1967, Enid Bennett and Esme Grant became the first pair of women to be elected to Parliament's Lower House (a trend that would expand in later years) and, in those 23 years after adult suffrage, only the JLP's Iris Collins (1944) and Rose Leon (1949 & 1955) and the PNP's Iris King (1959 & 1962) had preceded them as elected members. Enid Bennett also became one of the 11 female parish councillors who stepped up from councillor status to become an elected MP, and was actually the third woman after the two Irises (Collins and King) to make that transition.

Indeed, the political life and achievements of Enid Bennett seemed to parallel that of female pioneer Iris Collins, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives (for St James North Western) in 1944 when Enid had just turned a teenager. They were both members of the same party and, like Collins, she worked initially as a stenographer, served as parish councillors in their respective parishes prior to their entry into parliamentary politics, and both remained lasting residents of their beloved rural towns — Collins in Cambridge, St James, and Bennett in Linstead, St Catherine.

In 1972, when the PNP returned to power by a landslide under Michael Manley, Enid Bennett retained her seat when many other JLP giants were falling around her, defeating the PNP's Seymour Green by a reduced margin of 311 votes (4.1 per cent). In 1976, when the third major boundaries realignment exercise took place, both St Catherine Central and St Catherine Eastern became defunct and the areas structurally became parts of two new constituencies — St Catherine West Central and St Catherine East Central, which precipitated Roy McNeill's departure from politics. In the 1976, General Election, Enid Bennett scored a decisive victory in St Catherine West Central, trouncing the PNP's Melvin “Cutter” Woodfine by 3,478 votes (36.4 per cent), then battered Woodfine by 7,073 votes (67.1 cent), the ninth-highest margin in their 1980 sequel when the JLP tsunami swept all but nine seats islandwide and made Edward Seaga Jamaica's fifth prime minister.

In 1983 when the PNP ducked the 10th general election, Enid Bennett was elected unopposed by acclamation. She defeated her fourth PNP challenger, attorney-at-law Enoch Blake by 1,090 votes (9.4 per cent) in 1989 when the PNP returned to power and was hardly fazed by the occasion. But she became a very fortunate beneficiary of PNP's uncharacteristic blunder with their candidate for the 1993 General Election, when they withdrew first choice Dr Elliott and replaced him with Dr Trevor Dewdney. This apparently angered Elliott's wife Marlene, who entered the contest as an Independent, polled 1,685 votes (21.6 per cent) and became the spoiler who soaked Dr Dewdney's chances in what had become a very tight contest, and Enid was able to slip home by her lowest margin of only 85 votes (1.1 per cent).

At the end of her seventh term, in December 1997, Enid Bennett retired from active politics at age 66, after 30 years and 10 months of unbroken service as an elected Member of Parliament — a tenure she jointly shared with former party colleague, Dr Neville Gallimore. Together. They currently rank seventh on the national all-time list of 376 members elected since 1944, and are also the sixth longest-serving members of the JLP. Enid was the first woman to win a parliamentary seat in St Catherine and in the county of Middlesex and, even after 20 years since her retirement, she is still the longest-serving member for the parish of St Catherine by two years ahead of former PNP Chairman, Robert Pickersgill (see chart). For many years she led in elected female longevity in both Jamaica and the Caribbean — a record eventually surpassed by former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in November 2007.

In six contested elections, Enid Bennett polled a total of 32,164 votes at an average of 5,360 (58.7 per cent) per contest, with a total of 21,081 votes polled against her at an average of 3,503 (40.6 per cent), and an average victory margin of 2,157 (22.1 per cent). Her polls ranged from a high of 8,771 (83.2 per cent) in 1980 to a low of 3,040 (31.8 per cent) in 1993.

Enid Bennett served as minister of state in the Ministry of Local Government, 1980-1983; as minister of state in the Ministry of Social Security, 1983-1988; and as Acting Minister of Social Security. June 1988-February 1989. She was a deputy leader of the JLP, 1988-1997; a long serving member of the party's Standing Committee and Central Executive, a former trustee of the party since 1978, she served as office manager of the party headquarters while on retirement, and she was Life Member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, who represented the Jamaican Parliament during several visits to the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, and some of the Caribbean islands.

For her outstanding achievements, she was awarded Jamaica's fourth-highest national honour, the Order of Jamaica in 2012, and earlier the Order of Distinction (Commander Class) by the Government of Jamaica. She was also bestowed the Golden Bell Award from the JLP, Women of Great Esteem Award (New York, USA), Ambassador for Peace (IIP World Peace), and she was selected as one of 2,000 outstanding intellectuals of the 21st Century (IBC, Cambridge, England) in 1994.

Enid Bennett has been a remarkable inspiration to other women who entered the political arena, and apparently none more so than those who became elected members in her parish and her county. Of the 39 women elected since 1944, St Catherine and St Andrew are joint leaders with nine members each, and 18 of the 39 women have been MPs for various seats throughout Middlesex. Interestingly, the parish of St Catherine has produced Jamaica's two longest-serving women elected to Parliament — Portia Simpson Miller and Enid Bennett — and the third longest-serving woman, Olivia “Babsy” Grange, represents a seat in St Catherine.

For someone whose thoughts of getting involved in politics was something that was never on her mind while growing up in Linstead, the Enid Bennett story is an amazing one, motivated by a genuine desire to serve her constituents, to cement a lasting bond of trust and confidence in their relationship, and an enduring quest to improve the quality of their lives. She was loved and admired by everyone, even by members of the opposite side, and her concern for education as a major vehicle for the enhancement of lives was legendary.

For those reasons, and for her years of representation in the parish, this present administration should consider naming, or renaming in her honour, an educational institution in her constituency, the Enid Bennett High School. Or it could be the re-branding of the Bog Walk High School, an institution for which she was relentless in her pursuit to have built in that town in the early 1970s when it was located in her previous constituency of St Catherine Central.

But with Bog Walk presently located in neighbouring St Catherine North Central (formerly St Catherine East Central) since 1976, wouldn't it be a great gesture of political unity, especially for women in politics, and as a reflection of the close parliamentary margin in the House if the current member for that constituency, the PNP's Natalie Neita-Headley be the one who moves that motion in Parliament for the Bog Walk High School to be named the Enid Bennett High School? That would be an auspicious and a real healthy start to this new year and manifest a more peaceful and quieter approach to the politics that was so symptomatic of Enid Bennett's life and her style of representation.

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