Many of you may not know this, but 63 years ago on 27 May, 1953, Janet Jagan and others founded the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO). The WPO was the first mass political women’s organisation in Guyana that introduced women to politics.
Several years before the formation of WPO, the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO) was formed on 9 July, 1946. This organisation advocated for women to attend meetings and participate in political discourses, for better working conditions for working women, especially domestics. It also advocated for better living conditions for women and for the girl child to be sent to school.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was formed on 1 January, 1950 and it immediately began to struggle for the following:
Universal adult suffrage (the right of everyone to one vote). Prior to 1953, the voter had to own property and certain amount of money in the bank.
For the girl child to be sent to school
Workers’ rights: for improved working and living conditions of workers.
Independence from Great Britain
The first elections held under universal adult suffrage in April, 1953 saw PPP winning 18 out of 24 seats in the Legislative Council. For the first time in the then British Guiana, underprivileged peasant workers had a voice.
For the first time in the country’s history, three women entered the Legislative Council (Parliament) to speak for and represent all women countrywide. They were Janet Jagan, Jane Phillips-Gay and Jessie Burnham.
As History would have it, 133 days later, the British Empire suspended the constitution and fired the legitimately elected government of the PPP and restricted all its Leaders from entering villages and sugar estates. Due to this Dr Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan were jailed for six months each. Other PPP leaders were harassed.
On 27 May, 1953, Janet Jagan, Jane Phillips-Gay, Jessie Burnham, Jessica Huntley and several other women formed the WPO. This organisation produced thousands of political women over the years, most of whom are grassroots’ women. However, many of the WPO leaders emerged as powerful national leaders and they were advisors to presidents, ministers of government, members of boards, etc.
The WPO provided support to the PPP over the years in advocating for women’s rights, for the girl child to be educated, and to have the right to work.
The WPO has participated meaningfully in activities that were aimed at building and strengthening democracy, especially during the 28 years of PNC dictatorial rule. In the struggles for the restoration of democracy women marched and demonstrated for the return of basic foodstuff that were banned, drugs for the hospital, etc.
Over the past six decades, the WPO participated and held membership in several international organisations.
The WPO is proud of its record as a political organisation when it looks at the journey it travelled with the women of this country to get to the place they are today. Today women are seen in every position available, every strata of society. Women are no longer the silent bystander. They speak when they are spoken to and they stand out in every crowd and no longer look on but participate.
The leadership of the WPO salutes every woman who has been part of and made this journey possible. We are proud of who we are and what we have contributed to.