This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the August 1948 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
The cause of women’s suffrage in Bermuda has been fought long and ardently by a small, undaunted band of enthusiasts.
As long ago as 1898 it was first mooted, and indeed a bill permitting women to vote was passed unanimously through Assembly, only to be vetoed by the Legilsative Council on the score, apparently, that women being unduly influenced by the Church, their franchise might result in a priest-ridden Bermuda. In 1916 a similar attempt again failed, this time the excuse being that it hardly became our House of Assembly to grant a measure that had just been thrown out at Westminster… a rare and touching instance of our sturdy individualist hastily seeking refuge in the Mother of Parliament’s skirts against the bogy of women’s suffrage. It was moreover, just too bad that women in Great Britain were granted franchise less than two years afterwards, in recognition of their magnificent war service.
So it took one world war to get women their vote in Great Britain, and another to obtain similar privilege for Bermudian females. After forty-six years of spasmodic but obstinate agitation women’s suffrage was passed in 1944, and its supporters may preen themselves that at the very first general election held in Bermuda after the bill’s passing, two women gained seats at the polls. Especially gratifying is the fact that neither crept in at the foot of the respective candidate-lists, but stood fairly and squarely third in their elector’s choice. Moreover, their triumph now firmly established, our suffragists may reflect with pride that in the long and sometimes bitter struggle, at no time did they resort to any form of militant violence.
The electorate of Smith’s and Paget Parishes are to be congratulated on their new women Members—Pioneers blazing, it is hoped what will prove a long, honourable, and progressive trail.
Mrs. Robert Aitken has the honour of being the first women in Bermuda entitled to M.C.P. after her name, the Smith’s poll having preceded Paget’s. Two days afterwards her many friends and supporters were rejoicing in the election of Mrs. Edna Watson. Both successes were auspicious for Bermudian legislature. The two ladies concerned form a happy contrast and complement each other. Apart from the general principles and ideals common to all men and women of good intent, Mrs. Aitken and Mrs. Watson diverge in special interests as they do in background and experience. Thus the range of feminine representation will be wide from its inception, and all possibility of our women M.C.P’s being perniciously ‘typed’ avoided.
Mrs. Robert D. Aitken
Mrs. Aitken’s predominant characteristic is gentleness. She is fair of skin and hair, neither tall nor short, stout nor thin. She has a disarming smile, a charming manner, and a dovelike voice. I imagine that under her gentleness is a good firm layer of principles to which she would hold fast through thick and thin. She certainly has ‘a way’ with children, witness her own two well-brought-up daughters and her close association, for twenty-five years, with the Girl Guide movement. Mrs. Aitken only relinquished her own pack of Brownies reluctantly two years ago, through pressure of other affairs, but she still takes an active interest in the association. Her capacity to see other viewpoints than her own, and to consider the rights of others over her own inclinations, is well demonstrated in her younger daughter Joan’s career, of which more hereafter.
Mrs. Aitken is a true-blue Bermudian born. She was Miss Hilda Smith, of a family she settled here for upwards of two centuries. She was born in Paget Parish, daughter of the late Mr. Gilbert Smith, and her mother—slim and active at 86—lives just below her own pleasant house in Devonshire.
She had the good fortune to attend the Whitney Institute while Mr. McLaughlin– first-class classical scholar and a born teacher—was headmaster. Mrs. Aitkin worked her way up the school in company with a rather exceptional group of scholars that included Mr. William Zuill. Her fist job on graduation was at Hamilton Post Office, and her interest in the Guides and other social services developed early. Significantly enough, she was an enthusiastic member of the Bermuda Women’s Suffrage Society, whose particular occupation was gone in 1944 with the passing of women’s franchise. The association’s resources were wisely transferred, under the title of the Bermuda Women’s Civic and Political Association, to the excellent object of instructing women in the responsibilities they have incurred. Classes for the study and teaching of civics are held, lectures and courses in public speaking given. Through its members, it is hoped to develop understanding of public questions and a consciousness of citizenship, and to encourage active participation in social welfare and the legislative machinery of Bermuda.
Mrs. Aitken married a second generation Bermudian, and of their two daughters Jean, the elder married a U.S.N. officer stationed here during the war. He now attends the Harvard School of Business and there is an attractive small grandchild. Joan, the younger, after taking her B.Sc. at McGill, went through the accelerated course of the Montreal School of Social Service and sailed overseas with the British Women’s Volunteer Service to Germany. Now back at Bermuda, she is already agitating for a return to fields where her intelligence and enterprise can find wider scope than in Bermuda. Naturally enough, Mrs. Aitkin feels certain misgivings at the idea, but she would not frustrate the ideals with which she sympathizes.
Her particular interests include the question of health—(she has been on the Board of health)—social security and welfare of women and children.
Her maiden speech, greeted by welcoming applause from fellow-members, was made within four days of her taking her seat in Assembly. Appropriately enough, it concerned legislation governing the protection of married women.
Mrs. Robert Beverly Watson
Mrs. Watson, M.C.P. for Paget, is Canadian-born and hails from Montreal. She is tall and fair-haired, with a friendly and humorous authority of manner. It is not surprising to learn that she has had long association, not exactly with the nursing profession, but something near akin to it—physiotherapy. She first visited Bermuda with her husband in 1924. Both of them were entranced with the peaceful beauty of the islands, and in 1929 they returned and bought the tract of rising land in Paget, on which they built the large, comfortable house that is still Mrs. Watson’s home. They farmed the land, and Mrs. Watson—whose chief interest is in agriculture—still farms it with mixed stock and produce.
Mrs. Watson has had two ‘ordeals by water’ which prove her of a gallant and sturdy spirit. The first was in January 1939, when she was flying back to Bermuda on the Imperial Airlines flying-boat Cavalier. Three hundred miles from land the engines failed, and despite the pilot’s excellent handling the plane came down, fortunately onto water just off the Gulf Stream though still much too cold for comfort. It sank in ten minutes leaving passengers and crew clinging onto life-belts. The Captain gave his to Mrs. Watson, but in the water she discovered that he himself could not swim. He probably owes his life to her efforts, which were fitly rewarded with the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal. For many hours they hung on, in the cold and the dark, keeping moving as much as they could, partly to sustain circulation, partly to discourage the attentions of an interested shark. After one bitter disappointment, when approaching lights faded off, they were finally picked up by the S.O.B that with others had been searching for them.
At the outbreak of World War I, Mrs. Watson was at McGill, where, after graduating in Physical Education, she joined the St. John Ambulance Corps. By the time of her graduation in 1917, so many wounded Canadians were returning home for care that Mrs. Watson worked in her own country, and in 1918 was teaching at the Hart House Government School in Toronto. On the outbreak of World War II, Mrs. Watson—now a widow—took a refresher course and volunteered in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. She spent three years in England at Hortley, Birmingham, Lady Astor’s converted Clivedon, and elsewhere. Then, in 1943, she went to Italy, where the Canadians lost no time in establishing hospitals in the conquered areas. The U.S. convoy of 80 ships had passed the perilous Malta area and was forty miles off Phillippevil- (Algeria)—when it was attacked by the first rocket aerial torpedos to be used at sea. They were German, and had obviously taken off from occupied France. Four ships of the convoy were hit, including the Santa Elena on which Mrs. Watson and 99 other nursing sisters were sailing with their wounded patients. A U.S. destroyer that took a direct hit was sunk in ten minutes. Fortunately the Elena only got a glancing blow in the hull, which gave the 1500 troops aboard time to get into lifeboats. They were picked up subsequently by the rescue ship Monterey and—as in Mrs. Watson’s case—by an attendant destroyer. According to persistent report her behavior throughout was entirely gallant during the incident.
After this the unit went to Caserta, then on to Perugia and in 1945 Mrs. Watson went back to Canada where she was placed in charge of the Department of Physical Medicine in the Military Hospital in Montreal. There she stayed till 1946, when she returned to Bermuda with the ribbon of Associate of the Royal Red Cross and a fund of anecdotes as mementos of her war service.
I wish I had room for some of the latter, and could reproduce her racy way of recounting them. The time, for instance, when a Highland regiment invited the sisters over for a party. The sisters’ regulation uniform included long khaki trousers, an anti-mosquito measure. SO the fair guests turned up thus attired, to find, of course, their gallant hosts sporting the kilt… Then the Christmas, far from any regular source of supply, when somehow every ward was gaily garlanded and had its decorated tree—contrived of oddments of paper and spun glass scrounged from here and there, and full Yuletide fare contrived heaven knows how…The ingenuity of the R.E.M.E. boys, who transformed empty kerosene drums into baths for wounded limbs, shell-caps into medicine-‘glasses,’ dixies of hot sand into ‘hot water bottles,’ and heavy waxed paper into waterproof sheets.
Every Novemeber 6 a ‘sinking party’ is held in Montreal by survivors of the ordeal in the Mediterranean, and whenever possible Mrs. Watson attends it. Meanwhile she does faithful , unadvertised work at our garrison hospital here, and for such of the Navy as need her care.
In these days when objectivity of view, altruism of ideal, mental honesty and clear thinking are so urgently essential in the management of our islands, it is reassuring that women’s suffrage has resulted in the election of two women whose integrity and intelligence are unquestioned. It only remains to wish them courage, conviction, inspiration, and Luck who—herself a lady by popular repute—can hardly withhold her patronage from our two new M.C.P.’s.