(For The Punch – Issue 20 January 2011)
One Saturday in the summer of 1969 when she was serving as the first female cabinet minister in the Progressive Liberal Party government of the late Sir Lynden Pindling, the late Dr. Doris L. Johnson assembled a modest group of persons for the purpose of discussing and eventually publishing a history of the Bahamian people’s stride and struggle to majority rule.
Dr. Johnson had apparently secured financing fro the project from Juan Trippe, who was at the time owner of Pan American World Airways, which flew direct flights between Rock Sound, Eleuthera and New York City. The White Boy was privileged to be part of that team, and his duties were essentially to research, assist with and write several of the informative chapters of the work.
At the end of the day, the refreshing and satisfying result of that summer’s effort was “THE QUIET REVOLUTION IN THE BAHAMAS”, and Doris Johnson was extremely proud of the accomplishment, which was, in fact, the very first chronicle of the political struggle which led to the successful elections of January and a precursor of Bahamas independence in July 1973.
Doris Johnson, who in 1979 was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II, was a truly amazing Bahamian woman who over the years had refused to be pigeon-holed by male chauvinists in The Bahamas, especially by those she may have been aware were her academic and even political inferiors.
- The White Boy first came to know Doris Johnson when he was a student at St. John’s University and she was a doctoral candidate at New York University, where former cabinet ministers Charles Carter and Sir William Allen also studied.
- Prior to her studies in New York, the former Doris Sands from Masons Addition attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, McGill University’s MacDonald College of Education, Ontario College of Education at the University of Toronto, where she obtained a master of education degree in Administration and Supervision
In New York Doris Johnson also became the supreme catalyst in the movement to establish the Bahamian Students Association, with the late Ernest Strachan, then employed in the French Department of the United Nations, who became the group’s first president.
Doris Johnson, even before she travelled abroad for higher education, was a social and political fighter, particularly with regard to the rights of Bahamian women.
Determined to bring to Parliament the issues of Universal Adult Suffrage, but not allowed to speak in the precincts of the House of Assembly, she was able to persuade House members to assemble in a nearby Magistrate’s Court to hear her impassioned plea for women’s rights to vote. That was in 1959.
The following year the House passed an Act granting that right. In 1961 the former Ruby Ann Cooper became the first Bahamian woman to register to vote, and all Bahamian women were eligible to vote in the general elections of 1962.
That was the same year Doris Johnson completed her doctoral studies in New York, and she was back at home in time to accept the Progressive Liberal Party’s nomination to contest one of the House of Assembly seats in Eleuthera, thereby becoming the first Bahamian woman to run for Parliament.
She lost that bid, but an important historic point had been made.
Three years later Doris Johnson was part of a strategic PLP delegation which travelled to New York to address the UN’s Committee of 24 on the issue of parliamentary imbalance in The Bahamas. It was there that she encountered the president of her alma mater, Virginia Union, who enticed her to become a teacher at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
She accepted the challenge, and taught there for fewer than two years, until duty called early in January 1967 when majority rule prevailed and the PLP became the government.
The new premier, the late Sir Lynden Pindling, caused Doris Johnson to be appointed the first female senator in the history of the colony. Following the 1968 elections which the PLP won by a tremendous landslide, she was not only re-appointed to the senate but was made leader of government business in that chamber.
Doris Johnson subsequently became the first female cabinet minister, eventually Minister of Transport. She resigned from the cabinet in 1973, the years of independence, and was elected president of the Senate.
The fervour of her a seemingly unquenchable thirst for education and more education with a view to imparting to others was matched only by her fierce and fiery devotion to the cause of the rights and privileges of Bahamian women, and on that mission she was able to inspire thousands of sisters around the islands to kindle similar flames.
In her time Doris Johnson had made her mark as the first Bahamian female candidate in an election, parliamentarian, the first female to become a cabinet minister, and the first elected president of the Senate.
Back in November of 1973, after her appointment to the top senate post, in an editorial the Nassau Guardian gushingly wrote:
“The tread is firm, the smile serene, and the torso buxom. Medium of height, in ample sturdiness, stands the new president of the Senate. At 52, this may well be her crowning glory in a long, varied and tempestuous career.
“Ten years ago the appointment of DR. Doris Johnson to be President of the Senate would have been absolutely unthinkable. Yet time marches on, and today we do live in changed and changing times.
“Dr. Johnson, probably now at the pinnacle of public achievement, has reached there through unrelenting involvement with public causes, sheer hard work to improve herself educationally, and a dogged determination to press on when those of faint heart and less resolve would have stopped and turned back.
“Way before the pre-1967 days of booming prosperity and political deprivation, when the progressive and liberal forces took counsel and then action to hasten the downfall of that consortium knows as the Bay Street Boys, Dr. Johnson was, as it is said, in there doing her bit.
“As a result she experienced some trying times – as did others engaged in the same endeavour. Her interests in many cases stretch beyond mundane politics to arcane matters. For she is equally at home leading a gospel meeting, or professing the tenets of Moral Rearmament. And she has been an untiring worker for women’s rights in The Bahamas.”
The mother of one son, Gerald, Dr. Johnson was an avid Baptist, attending Bethel Baptist Church on Meeting Street, where she cultivated special spiritual and political relationship with the pastor, the late Rev. Dr. H.W. Brown. Indeed it was she who often impressed upon Dr. Brown the need for him to lend his supportive voice to the PLP’s cause during rallies on the Southern Recreation Grounds.
In many ways Doris Johnson was woman before her time, a renaissance Bahamian woman whose entire life was one of upward mobility. She was sort of an embodiment of Robert Browning’s line that “a man’s reach much exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
She totally understood the cause and the mission of the Progressive Liberal Party, perhaps better than some of the front line movers and shakers, and in that regard, particularly in the earl;y days, had a special bond with Sir Lynden Pindling. She was easily among the most classical of the party’s speakers both before and after the quiet revolution.
For example, in 1972, the year before independence, when she was invited to address the Tiger Bay Club of Miami, this was how she summed up that revolution:
“The peaceful revolution of 1967 and 1968 has become the subject of discussion for many students of history. We have shown the world that physical violence is not the only force which changes and overturns corrupt and undesirable regimes, and that armed might and gangsterism ought not to be condoned as a way of life in our impatience to bring about change.
“There is another and more potent factor which men must take into account and deal with effectively, and that is the factor of the human spirit in the ultimate quest of freedom, and it is perhaps in this area that The Bahamas, the birthplace of the new world, might eventually play a role in the world of today.”
That was almost four decades ago, and that was vintage Doris Johnson, a truly, truly remarkable Bahamian woman . . . for what it’s worth.