There was an elephant in the room this month when the territory celebrated International Women’s Day amidst the ongoing election campaigns.
In recent decades, Virgin Islands women have increasingly taken a leading role in public life. Currently, they hold many of the most senior positions in the public service, including attorney general, director of public prosecutions, speaker of the House, permanent secretary, department head, and many others.
They have seen similar success in the private and non-profit sectors, and they also appear to be outdistancing men in higher education given that they make up about two thirds of the graduates at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College each year.
But there is at least one area where women are still dramatically underrepresented. In VI history, no more than three have ever simultaneously held a seat in the 13-member legislature. And before 2019, the maximum was two.
Indeed, it was only relatively recently that women were elected to the legislature at all: Ethlyn Smith and Eileene Parsons became the territory’s first two female legislators in 1995.
To be sure, the situation is improving. The record three women elected in 2019 was a big step in the right direction, and multiple women have served as ministers and even deputy premier in recent years. Additionally, 10 of the 27 current candidates for the coming election are women, suggesting that this year will break the previous record (12 of 42 candidates in 2015, which dropped to 11 of 41 in 2019).
These numbers represent important progress, and kudos are due to all the women who have helped chip away at such a sturdy glass ceiling. But there is a long way to go.
We don’t mean to suggest that voters in the coming election should pick candidates based solely on their gender. They shouldn’t. They should choose the best candidates for the job.
But before they do, they should also think hard about the reasons for the dearth of VI women in the legislature and consider whether they harbour any unconscious prejudices or other unfair notions.
When the late United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked how many of the court’s nine members should be women, she always gave the same answer: nine.
If one were asked the same question about the VI House of Assembly, it would not be unreasonable to answer 13.