What Were you Expecting from Minister Le Gendre?

By Corey Gilkes
July 10, 2008

Esther Le GendreI just had to comment on last Sunday’s Express article by Ms Sheila Rampersad in which she expressed her great disappointment over Education Minister Esther Le Gendre’s attack on Mickela Panday in Parliament.

With all due respect to Ms Rampersad, I found her expectations of Ms Le Gendre and indeed the whole idea of women’s solidarity in our political context were naive to say the least. To any person who really looks at the political culture in Trinidad, the rest of the Caribbean and the North Atlantic – from where we have aped our political models and institutions – it should be quite clear that simply having women in the corridors of political power (a la the “Put a Woman in the Parliament” campaign) would not have amounted to much. Such naivete is right up there with the view that simply having a black man as President or Prime Minister means that now we have someone with Africentric values in a position of power that was created by the Eurocentric power structure.

It’s not that I find that women’s solidarity itself to be nonsense or the idea of having more women in Parliament – I would not dream of being so disrespectful or dismissive. To the contrary I myself expressed in this space the need to have more women in Trinidad and Tobago becoming politically conscious and occupying parliamentary positions. And Elma Francois remains one of my all-time heroes. But if indeed we look at Elma Francois and use her life as a model, we can see that an Esther Le Gendre – and for that matter a Mickela Panday – is not fit to even touch the hem of her dress. Note, however, that the fault does not necessarily lie with them; they are but products of a carefully crafted system of indoctrination that is older than Trinbago as a country. It would have been better if Ms Rampersad had a clear understanding of our political culture and the social culture from which it stemmed; perhaps then she would not have been so disappointed in Minister Le Gendre.

The late Dr John Henrik Clarke used to say that we live in a European-conceived intellectual universe. I’d extend that even further to include Euro-centred concepts of how a society is structured as well. Once we understand that, we can understand why the Ms LeGendres of the world exist and will continue to exist in this space.

Our political and social constructs are firmly embedded in European-centred patriarchal worldview. This means that the values, orientations and stratified levels are in keeping with masculinist or male-centred ideologies and the interests associated therewith. Now I do not subscribe to any view that certain behavioural traits are exclusive to one racial group or gender – apart from women giving birth and even that is apparently being redefined of late. But while the human species does have the amazing ability to defy those convenient little categories some people try to assign everyone, for the purposes of this essay I follow the categorising outlined by Marilyn French in her book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals. She separated certain behaviours and values into “masculine” and “feminine” categories (and even she put them in quotation marks because of her own opposition to such narrow classifications). However, for convenience, certain behaviours such as communalism, openness, sharing, nurturing, love, intuitiveness and gracefulness are seen as more “feminine” behaviour while individualism, exclusiveness, selfish competitiveness, emotional repression, cold rationalism and aggressiveness are seen as more “masculine” traits.

The predominance of masculine traits in our political and social culture can be traced back to primitive hunter-gatherer tribes in Eurasia many thousands of years ago. The centrality of such aggressive traits were by no means universal; patriarchal impulses exists in all cultures but in most of them were effectively counterbalanced by equally powerful matrifocal practices and philosphies. The seemingly universal patriarchy is as a result of the European expansionist exercises that began in the 16th C and their colonising of the history books and social sciences ever since. As I was researching for material for a book that I am currently working on I came across the works of Nigerian-born sociologist Ifi Amadiume and so learned about something that exists in Africa that has never existed in European political constructs to this day: the presence of not just women in politics but what I call women’s politics. In many traditional pre-Islamic and pre-colonial African societies, there were powerful women’s groups and support structures that often had the final say in the direction a community or territorial-state was to go. These political groups virtually began in the home – where the gardens at the back of houses were controlled by women and passed on to their daughters – and extended to the marketplaces (also usually controlled by women) where they gathered, sold produce and pooled together ideas, resources and became quite politically powerful. In these cultures activities related to self-sustenance were associated with women and femininity, in keeping with their maternal and nurturing capacities. In other words entrepreneurial activities that went with maintaining a household and ultimately the wider community, was usually associated with and under the control of women and it was here where one found the seat of their immense political and economic power – at least in Africa and parts of Southern Asia. To be sure there were quarrels and squabbles among women, but there was an underlying solidarity that was very hard to break particularly as most of these bonds were familial bonds.

By contrast stood patriarchal Eurasian societies; long periods of frigid winters, huge expanses of barren land, scarce food stocks and roving predators and rival tribes influenced the elevation of behaviours that better guaranteed survival in this hostile climate. Hence the leaning towards militarism, xenophobia, individualism, the idealising of control as a value in its own right, material possessions and acquisitions and the valuation of killing/destroying as a means of asserting permanence and progressiveness.

It also saw the devaluation of women and womanly traits. There is much evidence that the earliest Eurasian tribes were very much matricentric – which should not be surprising given that these were tribes that culturally and physically came out of Africa thousands of years before – but as ecological realities caused the values to be shifted towards patricentricity, their once high status fell away. In the highly mobile and militaristic cultures of the ancient Eurasian steppes, women, especially those who were pregnant or nursing babies, became virtual liabilities and hindrances.

Coming out of this erosion of femininity and feminine values was a strange contempt for things associated with femininity. We may never know for certain why this contempt came to be so deeply entrenched in patriarchal ideologies – it may have been intertwined with the teachings encouraging the espousal of the newly ascending patriarchal order. Whatever the reason, by the time Eurasian societies became larger and more settled the masculinist worldview was the bedrock upon which their politics, economics and social arrangements were based.

Therefore, whereas in Africa there were powerful women’s political groups, no such thing existed in Europe. In fact in ancient Greece, touted as the birthplace of democracy (which it was not), men ran the marketplace and women were all but barred from even entering. And so while in Africa the marketplace was the centre for women and their political movements, and where issues relating to maintaining the home and community were discussed, in Greece, the marketplace was the domain of men. So too were the halls, arenas and squares where politics – that is politics as defined by men’s interests – were further discussed. Women, specifically those of Athens, were virtually sequestered in their homes and their opinions were practically non-existent. There was little chance of any solidarity or large gathering of women either; girls were married off at a very tender age and went to live in the household of the husband where she may often be put in the care of her mother-in-law who, seasoned in the male-centred ideologies of the household was often as oppressive and hostile as her husband and son. Neither was the young bride allowed to venture out anywhere unless she was accompanied by a slave or some trusted male relative who monitored her every movement. The Greek model diffused in various forms to the civilisations that came after it all over Europe finding especially fertile ground in Rome – including Roman Christianity and the Christian empire that emerged out of the ruins of Imperial Rome.

It is vital that we understand that no matter how many thousand of years may have passed, certain cultural beliefs and prejudices have not changed. If anything they only changed form and in many ways are upheld by the very people who have been marginalised by those prejudices. It is no secret that even with the gains made by the feminist movement – which itself was Euro-centred anyway – in the business and political world most of the successful women became that way by essentially “setting aside some of our femininity in order to make it in these Old Boys Clubs”. Many a woman has had to be as ruthlessly competitive as the men in order to gain respect. To even attempt to inject feminine values is often met with rolled eyes, knowing winks and quiet chuckle, followed by subtle and often not so subtle elbowing-out of the offending ‘oman.

Trinbago, of course, has since its beginnings been oriented in the political and philosophical outlook of Western Europe with all of its misogyny. There have been some attempts at re-creating matricentric model and focussing on things associated with matricentric interests as evinced by the efforts of Elma Francois’ NWCSA. Overwhelmingly, however, our political and economic cultural orientation is nothing more than a continuation of what patriarchal Europe was during the Industrial Age. Therefore, given that the political elites are upholders of Eurocentric masculine interests – which in our case mean smelter plants, industrialisation, concretising agricultural land, rapid rail and so on – the only way women could find themselves in Manning’s cabinet is if they are certain to maintain – and as Esther Le Gendre did so well, defend – his notions of progress.

So Ms Rampersad, her attacks on Mickela are perfectly in order. And as long as we remain married to the European social model there will be no meaningful women’s movement let alone women’s solidarity. It is alien to Western political constructs. Perhaps now is a good time to re-investigate the workings of these ancestral cultures we so routinely spurn and ignore.

8 thoughts on “What Were you Expecting from Minister Le Gendre?”

  1. Corey, an intersting piece. You know the two words that put down women that are at the heart of western culture and democracies? Seminal- A serious groundbreking study- (can only be done by men, of course,only they produce semen) Women therefore, cannot do serious research, or draw serious conclusions from research.
    Testimonial: As in bering witness to the truth- From Testicles, which women do not have. In ancient rome, men giving evidence in court, had tio swear by holding their testicles, that they were telling the truth. The penalty for perjury was castration-thus they held them to swear to the truth. Because women lacked them, they could not give evidence. Thus it came to be assumed that women were unreliable witnesses.

    While teaching, and strengthening my women students, we used to have a lot of laughs while contemplating how these two words affect the perception of women in the west.

    Those who think I am mkaing up these could check the dictionary. The power of words!All western women are affected by these perceptions, in addition to being hammered into place by al the great religions.

  2. This was an interesting article, and as usual a sound first response. I too made a comment on the young female MP as well in response to her maiden speech. My critique was more to the fact that I expected a new generation like hers to attempt to meander in a slightly different direction and not simply be a clone of her dad. Instead all I heard was the same lamentations, anti PNM rhetoric and blame game for every ill that fell upon this country since 1962. Of course no attempts were made to lay some blame on the actions of her illustrious father and his party for any of the problems that occurred or still is affecting us today. Makes you wonder what these folks are really learning in college today in North America and Europe – since that is where they all prefer to run to.

    Somehow the very foolish and equally naïve misconception exist, that since you do not hold political power you are somehow exempted from blame and can wash your hands like ‘Pontius Pilot’. Remember past empty debates about -Horses before houses? I wonder what that cost our country? What exactly did it cost our country to defend to the hilt rouges, vagabonds, and terrorist, pseudo / religious thugs all the way to the Privy Council after the events of 1990? Who had the stupid grin on the face while hiding/ vacationing in the Grenada, but is pretending to be dumb today and not recognize the correlation between such acts and the high crime levels presently? Yes, the then high price lawyer/ com AG/ Chief Whip.
    To stay on point, I have always felt that gender or race is of little consequence when it comes to leadership and power. Once minorities and formerly weak groups assume some power, they’ll function in exactly the same way as their former oppressors if such existed. In the political arena, Ms. Gandhi advocated sterilization of Indian women, and her initial policies and action eventually led to the death to her two sons; Ms. Boutto did absolutely nothing for Pakistan women. As a matter of fact she came home with her Oxford/ Harvard education and settled down in an arranged marriage with totally corrupt (10%) husband. Sri Lanka is still in a mess after the long rule of PM/ President -mother and daughters for years, and likewise Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia were in no more favorable position as a result of similar elite rule that happened to be women. Unlike this nepotistic charade, the Caribbean thus far has shied away from this type of power transfers and perhaps it is for the best. You were a smart one Erica.

  3. “Unlike this nepotistic charade, the Caribbean thus far has shied away from this type of power transfers and perhaps it is for the best.”

    This is so true! We have seen it in the Manleys of Jamaica, the Duvaliers of Haiti, Birds of Antigua, and Castros of Cuba. Jamaica and Haiti have definitely not benefitted from such poltical inbreeding, and the Antiguans have moved on….so let’s see how it plays out in Cuba.

    As for Ms. Panday, she is very young, and I can’t imagine it being easy to settle into a political persona with such an overbearing, nationally disliked persona (dear old dad)as a mentor!

    Having a vibrant opposition is critical for a democraticaly run country, but when spouses and kids are brought into the picture (especially when not elected), we really need to ask ourselves if this is healthy for the state of our politics, and national wellbeing.

  4. Good retort, but my point was that the replication of this habit of electing wives and daughters as saviors because the country holds some fixated obsession with the old guard leader was counter productive. All forms of nepotism should be eradicated and is not a healthy trend to encourage whether for males or female as the examples that were given so illustrate. Thank God the manning boys aren’t interested in school whether in Europe or the US even after all the money that is spent on them. The fall out is too much to bear already from the political shenanigans of this first family.

    I share this view strongly as to the importance of a vibrant opposition, and strongly believe that we as a nation are the losers because the PNM did not experience some more time in the opposition. Notice for example the absence of tangible, substantive debates in the house on Tobago fishing problems and the fictitious resource grab claims by Barbados- a country whose dollar value is stronger than ours, when they are the comparable size to Tobago- a matter of national interest. Instead our energies are wasted on finding a Commissioner of Police.

    As for the young Miss Panday, her success would depend on different strategic thinking and operations devoid of her Dads meddling. What must be done is for her to build her own political foundation. Contrary to what some of the experts think, it can be done. The citizens of our country are not as dumb as some think. Many are hurting and struggling across the board, yet recognize that together we are better than divided. They clamor for change and new visionaries that are prepared to take them to another level.
    As for Cubans, and Latin Americans as a whole, you just won’t find a more confusing paradox in the world. Those crazy Spanish conquistadores as well as Portuguese sex maniacs that settled in Brazil really did a number on indigenous Indians and African slaves’ transplants. How else could you explain the domination of these European castoff and degenerates for so long?
    Without Cuban peoples physical help half of Africa today would still be under white colonial subjugation .What surprises me is the lack of any fighting spirit at home? When Raul took over from his senile and sick 90 year old brother Castro, which should have signaled the end of the stupid 60 year old socialist experiment .There should have immediately followed a people’s revolution, as everyone should have known finally that the sacrifices were all in vain in support of a fake ideology. But then those fat cat republican Cubans in Florida and their Washingtonian benefactors would have hated the end of their privilege and influence. But, I digress. Trinidad is nice, yes?

  5. Mikela Panday ran for public office and won. That is not nepotism. Mrs Manning was appointed by her husband. She , like many in Manning’s cabinet has never faced the electorate. That is nepotism.The traditions of our parliamentary system demands that members appointed to cabinet should face the electorate asap. T&T is being run by a cabinet of mostly appointed members.That is not healthy for any democracy.

  6. “T&T is being run by a cabinet of mostly appointed members.That is not healthy for any democracy”

    That may be so, and your point taken, T. but this is not nepotism, per se. The constitution does allow for a certain percentage (or is it number?) of members to be appointed through the Senate. Mr. Manning has exercised the Government’s right in bringing them in, hazel inclusive.

    Whether it’s fair to do this and not appoint an elected member (remember Fitzgerald Hinds?)as a Minister is another question…but the constitution does allow for this too.

    Could the law be an ass, sometimes?

  7. Thanks Kerry for enlightening our dear friend T.Man as to our constitution.The behavior might be morally reprehensible to many of us , but perfectly legal.
    I don’t want to go out on a limb here, but will do it nevertheless as in keeping with my nature. However it be fair to say that Mikela and her uncle Subhas were selected by Dad/ big brother Bas to run in what most in these circles like to call “safe seats.” This in essence assured them of victory in the election. It is no different than the case of the PM selecting his wife to run the ministry of education and local government. Because one was elected and is in the opposition and the other selected and placed in a government post, does not make it less nepotism. Here are two interesting take on nepotism, which shows clearly that it means different strokes for different folks .You decide if ours are a sign of progress as we perhaps emulate our more accomplished and much admired foreign cousins across the globe.
    I have attempted to be as objective as I can on this forum in both my praise and condemnations and fervently believe it is the best policy to adopt as a second step forward. Please note that I can also appreciate why others might not share that attitude.

  8. It is hard for one to fully comprehend the gist of this suthor’s essay on WOMEN and “POWER” in OUR ancestral cultures after being programmed by/in these Euro-Centric societies. The thought of women having such organization and “POWER” in society without compromising their sexuality, but rather celebrating their womanhood.


    Images of Women in the IFÁ Literary Corpus


    1 W. E. B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, Harvard University, 26 Church Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

    In conclusion, these few examples of women in the Ifá literary corpus clearly demonstrate the ambivalent attitudes of Yoruba men to women and the powers women possess. There is a love-hate relationship in the attitude of Yoruba men to women. On the one hand, they rely on women for love, support, and protection, yet in contrast, they do not completely trust their women who they regard as deceitful. This love-hate attitude probably arose from the supernatural and financial/economic powers that women wield, since women alone can belong to the society of àjé from which all men are excluded.

    There are many other images of women in the Ifá literary corpus which time and space do not permit us to examine. For example the image of woman in the marketplace in Yoruba culture. Every Yoruba market from ancient times to the present is controlled by women both in terms of their sheer numbers in the market and the day-to-day administration of the market which is under the authority of Ìyálájé (mother who keeps Ajé. More than seventy percent of people buying and selling in any Yoruba market are women.

    Whether as human being endowed with supernatural powers, or as a mother, or as wives or as market women, the image of woman which one can see in the lfá literary corpus is that of power and authority rather than helplessness and subservience which is the contemporary image which anthropologists tend to paint of African women. Even though Yoruba society is still largely dominated by men, the women folk have always held and are still holding their own. Yoruba men may have a love-and-hate attitude to their women. They may even secretly fear and envy their women because of the possibility that any woman may be an àjé, but no king, no noble man, no chief or village head can hold a successful council without authentic representatives of women, in order to sustain a balance in the universe and to maintain the all important connection with the supernatural.

    On top of the crowns of Yoruba kings are found bird images in different and varying motifs (FIG. 2). At the apex of the Òsùn iron staff of the babaláwo we also have the image of a pigeon. The iron iconography of Osanyn (divinity responsible for herbal medicine) contains a multitude of birds resting on the top. All these are images of women as àjé, with which persons in authority must make contacts, connections, and reference, even obeisance in order to legitimize their authority and in order to sustain the balance between the two halves of the universe.


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