Activism ranging from the smallest act of support of another woman, or at the level of mass movements, or legislation, is needed from all females to bring about the change for equality needed in society.
This is the means through which Justice Jacqueline Cornelius sees women asserting their role in the community and overcoming obstacles placed in their way.
“The only way that women can create a society in which their needs are met, in which their humanity is honoured, in which their body autonomy is respected, is through activism.”
She subscribes to the credo that “power concedes nothing without a demand”, and argues: “It is not generally, as far as men are concerned, in their interest for society to change. So it is important that women see themselves as activists.”
“Unless women are prepared to demand that a society changes, and work towards that change, it will not change,” said the High Court judge of ten years.
“It is certainly incumbent upon women who have the voice, the financial freedom and who have the time, who are aware of the issues, to be activists in some way.”
She believes advocacy for women is not restricted to action on a grand scale. “Even if your activism is in the form of trying to relieve the poverty of another woman with children she cannot support, even if it is saying ‘let me help you buy these school clothes because that is going to take the burden off of you’, you have to do something.”
Such is the outlook of a woman who was her parents’ only child but grew up in company because her mother also raised her male cousins.
She ventured into the world with the strengths of a household characterized by a mother working round the clock outside the home but backed up by a grandmother, aunts and close friends who filed in with chores from cooking to taking her to Sunday school.
“We never felt neglected or shuffled aside because of work. That’s because there were so many people helping raise [the] children,” Cornelius explained.
The concept of male domination did not exist then. And after leaving New Pine Primary – now Wilkie Cumberbatch Primary School – for Queen’s College, she received further grounding in the idea of equality regardless of gender.
“There was no concept that any area of endeavour was closed to me. We were being trained to be head girl of the world. Anything you went into you had to aim to reach a level of excellence and authority,” she said.
“Certainly that is what I understood Queen’s College to be about. And when I look around, I certainly think I am not the only person who got that lesson.”
Cornelius went on to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill Campus, the Hugh Wooding Law School, and Cambridge University. She practised as an attorney for 18 years, during which time she also lectured at UWI for eight years before taking the appointment as a judge.
Those formative high school years shaped the Jacqueline Cornelius of today – a mother, wife, and jurist.
The suggestion that Barbados’ legal profession is male-dominated draws the cutting response: “That is an example of how people’s perception and reality don’t always mix.”
“There are far more female lawyers than there are male lawyers, and every year there are more female lawyers than male lawyers [entering the profession].”
But she said society’s bias flies in the face of facts.
“Generally, in our culture, people perceive law to be the preserve of men. And no matter that there are very many female lawyers, it is still not seen a natural career choice [for women]. Certainly there are more women than men on the bench in Barbados.”
What she is equally certain of is that there is no “shift” from being a judge then going home to be a mother.
“Women in Barbados have always worked, especially black women. We rarely have had the privilege of staying home. So it isn’t something that is unfamiliar to me. My mother always worked. I don’t know anyone, growing up, who didn’t work outside the home. It is something that has to be done.”
“A lot of times something has to give. For me, a lot of it is my sleep, social life,” she added.
She conceded that it is “very difficult to almost impossible” to raise children and work outside the household without help.
“I’m sure it does drive women who sometimes find themselves in that situation to desperation,” Cornelius said.
Among the varied goals of women, she suggested, is good compensation for work done, and “for nearly every woman with children, proper childcare and affordable childcare, can allow them to access that proper well-paying work”.
“For other women, [the goal] is access throughout the workplace to the highest levels of promotion, without discrimination, harassment or any impediment that they should not face as a citizen.”
Justice Cornelius added that being bold for change – the theme of this International Women’s Day – does not require a lot.
“It is easier than most people think to have a strong view, to participate in a process of change in whichever arena you wish. You could be in politics, the labour movement, social work, a parent-teacher association, a scout leader.
“A lot of the times we see change as something huge that is going to happen up there, by somebody else who is somehow in control of our destiny. But change happens as well in incremental steps that an individual can take.”