"The Feminist Movement" by Myriam J.A. Chancy, Ph.D.

Chancy is Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (1997) and Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (1997).

Although women have always been involved in acts of political resistance in Haiti from the period of the Revolution onward, participating as well in internal battles for agency and emancipation such as in the grassroots movement of 1844 know as the "Piquet Revolt," led by Louise Nicolas, what can properly be called a feminist movement in the modern sense of the term begins under the United States occupation of 1915-1934. Market women served as insurgents, assisting the underground guerilla movement against the United States marines that took place across the Haitian-Dominican border by smuggling arms and intelligence. As the brutality of the occupants towards Haitians, and especially women of all classes became clear, women of the middle to upper classes organized to denounce the infractions of human rights which took place during this period. Members of that class took part in reporting these infractions in a report made in 1927 by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

As a result of these first efforts to represent women’s interests politically, in 1934, a broader group of concerned women organized the "Ligue Féminine d’action sociale." The women organized under this umbrella fought for solutions to a number of inter-related social problems. They founded the Association des femmes Haitiennes pour l’organisation du travail/Association of Haitian women for the Organization of Work to confront issues of women’s equity and rights in the workplace in 1934 and an organization to work on behalf of children’s rights in 1939. The children’s rights organization pursued legislation for the protection of children and published a journal entitled "L’aube" (Sunrise). The organization also worked on the issue of poverty, creating a fund for social assistance in 1939 with the support of President Sténio Vincent’s wife, Résia Vincent. The Ligue’s two most prominent achievements were the passing of constitutional amendments that validated and protected women as fully emancipated citizens of the State and protected their children’s rights, and the promotion of cross-class unity through the literary/political journal Voix des femmes. Begun in 1935, Voix des femmes has the distinction of being the first feminist women’s publication in the Caribbean.

Though the Ligue has rightfully been criticized for its elitism (evidence of which are bountifully represented in the pages of its journal), like the suffragist movements in Europe and North America, they suffered from an inability to recognize their own privileges within the struggle for female emancipation against patriarchal elements. It is nonetheless true that they believed that the rights for which they were fighting should be secured for all women, whatever their class; they also took part in international women’s meetings and lent their solidarity within the pages of Voix to international resistance movements. They acted as a bridge between the global and the local and achieved some notable milestones during their initial years of activity: in 1934, they lobbied for legislation to provide an equal minimum wage and three weeks paid maternity leave for women; in 1943, their efforts resulted in the opening of a high school for young women in Port-au-Prince; by 1944, girls were admitted to traditionally male high schools in the area. In the countryside, the Ligue worked on increasing rates of literacy and contributed to the grown in functional literay amongst the peasant class. Also in 1944, the Ligue’s efforts to have women’s political rights recognized in the Constitution resulted in women being granted the right to be elected to political office, but not the vote, which resulted in a student revolt led by Léonie Madiou, injured and arrested during her participation. As a result of the revolt the right of eligibility was revoked and women’s suffrage denied, rights they would have to wait until 1950 to see realized. Despite its elitism, the roots of Haitian feminism can be found in the Ligue’s early efforts; it is to these roots that Haitian women who re-organized Haiti’s feminist agenda in the late 1980s and 1990s returned to, re-envisioned, and enlarged.