In Bermuda, as in other countries, the great reform movements are inextricably linked to the personalities who played key parts in bringing them about. The powerful politician and businessman Sir Henry Tucker, who pushed Bermuda into the twentieth century, is considered the architect of modern Bermuda, while Dr. E. F. Gordon always comes to mind when you think of the labour movement. Mention the thirty-year battle of Bermudian women to get the vote on the same footing as men and Gladys Misick Morrell has to be recalled, almost immediately.

Mrs. Morrell, a landowner from an old Somerset family, waged a long, tenacious and tireless battle to obtain for women the right to vote in parish, city and general elections.

She and a hardy band of suffragists such as Mrs. W. E. Tucker and Miss May Hutchings were at the center of a unique and colourful image of the Bermuda battle – auctions at which their furniture was sold off to pay the tax man.

In the 1930’s, the suffragist’ refusal to pay taxes on property they owned – ‘taxation without representation’ – became a major strategy of their campaign.

Mrs. Morrell, who was born in 1888 and died in 1969, began her fight for women’s suffrage in Bermuda before World War I. She was a leader of the Bermuda Women Suffrage Society, which was founded in 1923. She risked jail for refusing to pay taxes. She also took the Sandys Parish vestry to court after it disregarded her vote in a parish election.

In a move that was to be repeated almost to the letter in 1946 by Dr. E. F. Gordon in his fight to improve social and political conditions for black Bermudians, Mrs. Morrell asked the British Government to intervene. The Suffrage Society drew up and sent off, in December 1929, a memorial to Lord Passing, the Secretary of State for Colonies in London, asking him to set up a Royal Commission to examine the question of women’s suffrage.

The Mid-Ocean News called the document history and said its submission marked a new era in political development. In 1931, a year after Lord Passing replied that the matter was up to the legislature, Mrs. Morrell went to London to see the Secretary of State in person.

Though Mrs. Morrell and her fellow suffragists were members of Bermuda’s ruling class and despite the restricted franchise, which gave the right to vote only to men who owned property worth sixty pounds, the suffragists movement would not achieve victory until 1944. In an action that foretold his contribution to the racial and political reforms of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the bill was piloted to the House by young M. P. Henry Tucker (Sir Henry). The historic twenty to thirteen vote in the House of Assembly had only come about after male parliamentarians had rejected nine previous bills for women’s suffrage since 1925.

In January 1950, in the first of a two-part feature, The Bermudian magazine said of Bermudian suffragists: “Here, as in England, they met, not only with implacable hostility, but ridicule, deliberate malice, hope deferred, and that most fatal of elements, sheer apathy.”

A February 1968 Mid-Ocean News article about the suffrage campaign, said that the first record of a woman trying to get a vote in Bermuda occurred in 1785 when Elizabeth Smith of Smith’s Parish had “several influential people sign a piece of paper, backing her right to as many votes as she liked.” It is not known whether the petition was successful.

In 1895 and again in 1896, a bill to enfranchise single women passed the House of Assembly by a large majority, but was rejected in the Legislative Council by the tie-breaking vote of its president, Sir Joseph Reece. He didn’t put forward the main arguments against women’s suffrage – that women didn’t really want to vote, that women’s place was in the home or that women wouldn’t know what to do with the vote if they got it.

Said The Bermudian magazine: “He simply held that since women were unduly dominated by the clergy, their enfranchisement would lead to a priest-ridden Bermuda.”

The key figure associated with the first parliamentary battle was Anna Maria Outerbridge of Bailey’s Bay, who had impressed upon her father, a Member of Colonial Parliament, the injustice of a law that would not allow land-owning women to vote, but required them to pay property taxes.

When this battle was going on, the women of New Zealand had already been enfranchised. They got the vote in 1893. Women in Britain got the vote in 1918, while American women were enfranchised in 1920.

The success of the suffrage movement in England led to renewed efforts to get women on the voters’ rolls in Bermuda. Enter Gladys Misick, who attended the Bermuda High School before completing her education in London. She really wanted to be a lawyer, but had to settle for an English degree because higher education for women was the exception rather than the rule in her youth.

After graduating from London University in 1911, she travelled to India and on her return to England began channeling her thwarted legal ambitions into another area – women’s suffrage.

In a March 1968 interview with Mrs. Morrell in the Bermuda Sun, Margaret Fishley wrote: “She joined Mrs. Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In 1913, Mrs. Morrell was organising branches of the National Union in south-west England. A great rally was planned in Hyde Park, London, and Mrs. Morrell led a 100-mile march from Lands End to Taunton.”

Mrs. Morrell was aligned with a less radical faction of the British suffragette movement, although it was the leader of the more militant group, Emmeline Pankhurst, who addressed suffragists in 1925 while she was on holiday in Bermuda.

In 1914, Mrs. Morrell returned home and turned her attention to organising Bermudian women. The first official meeting held for women’s suffrage occurred in St. George’s in 1914. Anna Maria Outerbridge was among those attending.

The meeting, according to The Bermudian magazine, “revealed two significant allies, Sir Stanley Spurling and the local press.” Sir Stanley was among a number of prominent Bermudian men who were strong supporters of women’s suffrage. It was he who presented, in 1919, a motion to the House that a committee be set up to draw up a women’s suffrage bill.

The motion represented the suffragists’ decision to take advantage of social and political changes that had occurred after World War I. Mrs. Morrell had spent some of the war years in England and France. On her return home, she was urged by Sir Stanley “to strike while the iron is hot.” His motion was approved by the House, but the committee never reported.

Recalled Mrs. Morrell in the Bermuda Sun, “Meanwhile there was the post-war boom, and the men’s attitudes began to harden. It was the time for prohibition. The men thought: “We had better leave the women out of this,’”

Two years after the Suffrage Society was formed, two bills were introduced in the House. The first, which would have given women the right to vote was rejected, and the second, which would have enabled women to serve as jurors, was never proceeded with. Suffrage bills introduced in 1928 and 1929 met with no success either. The second bill was greeted with laughter by the male parliamentarians, then thrown out without debate.

That led to the suffragists’ decision to petition Lord Passing. A draft petition, drawn up in 1929, pointed out how limited Bermuda’s franchise was. It said that out of a population of 30,000, there were 1,701 votes, because a man could vote in each parish in which he had the land qualification. Many of the men qualified only by reason of their wives’ property.

The draft petition added: “The number of different individuals who can vote is only 1,377. If women were given the vote on the same terms as men, there would be 785 of them added to the registry.”

In 1930, Lord Passing gave his response to the memorial. Despite going to London the following year to see the Secretary of State face to face, she met with little success. Mrs. Morrell later said that Lord Passing believed that the movement “emanated from a small group of well-to-do women and was not representative of all classes.”

“I protested against this assumption, but he appeared unconvinced.”

In 1929, Mrs. Morrell, who by this time had married Commander John Morrell of the Royal Navy, brought a case against the Sandys Parish Vestry after it disregarded her vote, but she lost the Supreme Court hearing, which received international exposure.

The 1930’s saw the suffragists enter a new phase of tax resistance. Had Mrs. Morrell not been so prominent, she probably would have been thrown into jail in December 1930 when she refused to pay her taxes. She had even packed a suitcase and her fellow suffragists held a pre-prison party. Auctions won out over jail. Parish constables removed her furniture, which was bought back by her fellow suffragists.

Despite the setbacks – bills would continue to be thrown out of the House in the 1930’s – the Suffrage Society became more influential. Visitors to Bermuda such as the poet and novelist Hervey Allen and Lady Astor, the first female member of the British Parliament, addressed local suffrage meetings. Auctions were held every year – one year the suffragists carried funeral wreaths – and questions were asked in the British Parliament.

As the battle continued into the 1940’s, Mrs. Morrell enlisted support from black Bermudian women. In 1942, she addressed a forum at Pembroke Hamilton Club, and when asked why she had never enlisted support from the blacks before, she said, according to The Recorder, that “colour prejudice was not in any way responsible for the apparent slight. It was just another case where the problem was approached from a different angle.”

The Recorder, the black newspaper, was decidedly cool to the issue of women’s suffrage. Its editor David Tucker, who was also a Member of Colonial Parliament, wrote that black women were indifferent because they were “discriminated against in every avenue of life.”

Mr. Tucker was among the dissenting voters against the suffrage bill, which passed the House on April 21, 1944. One week earlier, he had written: “Women’s suffrage must come, but it should wait until far greater wrongs are righted.”

Ironically, it was a black woman who was the first beneficiary of the successful suffrage bill. When she cast her vote in a Paget by-election in 1944, Edna Williams Tucker became the first woman in Bermuda to cast her ballot in an election. In the same year, Mrs. Morrell became Bermuda’s first vestry woman, when she was elected to the Sandys Parish Vestry.

In the 1948 general election, Hilda Aitken and Edna Watson became the first women elected to the House of Parliament.

The election that would correct what David Tucker said was a far greater wrong – the disenfranchisement of landless people in Bermuda – came twenty years later in 1968.

In the Bermuda Sun interview which took place two months before that election, Mrs. Morrell expressed concerns about the new constitution and the vote at twenty-one coming at the same time. She also admitted that she had become more conservative with age.

Asked to recall Mrs. Morrell’s contribution, her only child, Rachel Bromby from Somerset, said: “She had a good mind. She was a good speaker although she might be considered long-winded by today’s standards. She was not a person who you would describe as warm. It was just her mannerism. She was involved in good causes. She was involved with the Welfare Society, which instituted the first district nurses.”

Bermuda College history lecturer Jolene Lavela (in 1990’s) highlighted a little-known fact about Mrs. Morrell – she spoke out against a 1930’s Government proposal to have Bermudian women compulsorily sterilised.

“I think she was a fascinating woman,” she said. Her activities took place during an era of reform in Bermuda when other groups, blacks, small business owners and workers were “truly dissatisfied with the oligarchy.”

The late Walton Brown Jr., who taught politics at the Bermuda College, said that the women’s suffrage movement showed what could be achieved politically if people “were organised and pursued their objectives with some degree of fervour.” 

He said: “It was not an attempt to democratise the franchise. The women were basically women of middle-class background who were crying out for the same privileges of men in the middle class.

He added: “It was the first organised attempt at bringing about some type of electoral reform for Bermuda. That is where its significance really lies.”