Epic Jamaican Women

Women have played a vital role in Jamaica’s history and development over the years – they are even referred to as the ‘backbone’ of the society. We have made a list of influential women in politics and public service, the arts, sports, the sciences and more who have stood out over the years. This is not a exhaustive list, so feel free to share information about other standout Jamaican women with us in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

The Arts

1974: Olive Lewin, leader of the Jamaican Folk Singers addressing a conference.

Ivy Baxter – Born in Spanish Town on March 3, 1923, Ivy Baxter was best known for her pioneering work in Jamaican dance. The Wolmerian fostered the development of creative dance in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, and was also actively involved in education up to the time of her death. Baxter, who studied ballet and modern contemporary dance, sought to fuse these classical styles with Jamaican folk movement, creating her own dance vocabulary which was taught at her school, the Ivy Baxter Creative Dance Group, founded in 1950. Dance and cultural icon, Rex Nettleford, was an early member of this group.

Louise Bennett-Coverley – Miss Lou was born in Kingston on September 7, 1919. Growing up, she always had an irrepressible sense of humour and a flair for dramatics. Her first dialect poem was written when she was 14 years old. Over the years, she grew to become one of the island’s most beloved icons, proudly elevating the Jamaican dialect from something to be ashamed of to something to be highlighted and celebrated. Miss Lou worked in a number of areas, including broadcasting, with the popular children’s programme Ring Ding and authored a number of books in her lifetime, but the most popular ones are Jamaica Labrish (1966) and Anancy and Miss Lou (1979). Read more about Miss Lou here.

Erna Brodber – Dr Erna Brodber is an accomplished author, historian and social scientist whose creative and academic works have been published to wide acclaim. Her novels include The Rainmaker’s Mistake (2006), Louisiana (1994), Myal (1988) and Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980). She was born on April 20, 1940 in Woodside, St Mary. In 2013, she was appointed by the UWI, Mona as writer-in-residence for the academic year. Dr Brodber has won numerous awards. In 2011 UWI, Mona, conferred on her the Honorary Doctor of Letters, and in 2004 she was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander Class) for exemplary public service by the Government of Jamaica. Read more about Brodber here.

Laura Facey Cooper – The daughter of late business tycoon Maurice Facey, she has been a sculptor for more than 40 years. Facey was trained at the Jamaica School of Art. In 1976, while creating sets for the pantomime, she Facey discovered her passion for working on a large scale. More than 20 years later, her grand passions became a reality with the 1999 completion of ‘Earth to Earth‘ for the University of Technology, a life-size mahogany carving of ‘Christ Ascending‘ in 2000 for the St Andrew Parish Church, and the 2003 unveiling of ‘Redemption Song‘ at the ceremonial entrance to Emancipation Park. Their Spirits Gone Before Theman installation of a 16-foot cottonwood canoe housing hundreds of the miniature resin figures of the Redemption Song monument, is also a significant work. Facey was awarded the silver Musgrave Medal in 2006 and in 2010, she won the Aaron Matalon award for best in show at the National Biennial, The National Gallery of Jamaica.

Leonie Forbes – Leonie Evadne Forbes was born on June 14 at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, daughter of Roderick Wedderburn and G Forbes-Wedderburn. She was educated at St George’s Girls’ School, Kingston Senior School and Excelsior High School. Adopted and raised by her aunt and uncle, Forbes was a standout student, always in the top five at school. Her teachers encouraged her writings and poems and she greatly admired Miss Lou, but had her own dreams. She has appeared in 20 films, including Milk and Honey (1989), What My Mother Told Me (1994), Glory to Gloriana (2006), A Winter Tale (2007) and Small Island (2009). She is also an acclaimed stage actress, starring in 12 national pantomimes and numerous plays – both locally and overseas. Perhaps her most iconic role is in Old Story Time, where she played Miss Aggie alongside Charles Hyatt as Pa Ben. Forbes is also an experienced broadcaster, having worked as an announcer with the JBC. She released her memoir, Leonie: Her Autobiography, in September 2012. Read more about Forbes here.

Lorna Goodison – Lorna Gaye Goodison was born in Kingston, where she attended St Hugh’s High School. She began writing poetry as a teenager, submitting some of her early work to the Gleaner anonymously. Today, she is one of the most recognised Jamaican names in literary circles as both a poet and an author. Her books of poetry include Tamarind Season (1980), I Am Becoming My Mother (1986), Heartease (1988), To Us, All Flowers Are Roses (1995), Controlling the Silver (2005) and Supplying Salt and Light (2013). Her three short-story collections, namely Baby Mother and the King of Swords (1990), Fool-Fool Rose is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah (2005) and By Love Possessed (2011). The memoir, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (2007) received one of Canada’s largest literary prizes, the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Goodison has received numerous awards, including  the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), the Musgrave Gold Medal from Jamaica, and the Henry Russel Award for Exceptional Creative Work from the University of Michigan, where she lectures. Read more about this creative genius here.

Dr Olive Lewin – The late musicologist and one of the island’s most prolific folklore researchers, was born in the small town of Hayes, Clarendon in 1927. She attended the Hampton School before heading to the Royal Academy of Music in London on scholarship, where she completed her studies in music and ethnomusicology. She became a teacher upon returning to Jamaica, but in 1996, she answered the call of her performance roots and founded the Jamaica Folk Singers. Dr Lewin held positions as Director of Arts and Culture at the Office of the Prime Minister and Director of the Jamaica Institute of Folk Culture. She also wrote cultural pieces for The Gleaner. Dr Lewin received many honours in her lifetime, including the Order of Jamaica, the Order of Distinction, Commander Class; the Gold Musgrave Medal and an award by the Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (London). Dr Lewin also wrote a few publications, including Rock It Come OverForty Folks Songs of Jamaica and Messengers. She received the Order of Merit, Jamaica’s fourth highest honour, posthumously in 2013. Read more about the cultural icon here.

Edna Manley – Edna Manley was born in Yorkshire, England in 1900 to a Jamaican mother and an English father and died February 2, 1987. She studied at various art schools in England including St, Michael’s School of Art, London and privately with Maurice Harding, the animal sculptor. She married Norman Manley in 1921 and in 1922 moved to Jamaica with him. Manley is credited as the mother of Jamaica’s modern art movement. She was a teacher and co-founder of the Jamaica School of Art, which paved the way for many who went on to excel in Jamaican art. Some of her most notable and enduring work are Negro Aroused (1935 – 1940), The Dying God Series (1941 – 1948),The Public Year and Public Commissions (1949 – 1969) and ).designed the People’s National Party’s Rising Sun logo. Manley died in 1987. Her awards include a 1943 Musgrave Gold Medal and the Order of Merit in 1980. Read more about this pioneering artist here.

Marjorie Whylie – Described by the late Rex Nettleford as a “multitalented musicologist, pianist, percussionist, jazz singer and academician,” Whylie is indeed a national treasure. She made her debut at age 15, giving a concert at the Institute of Jamaica presenting the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. Whylie spent many years as the  musical director of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) and leader of the NDTC Singers. A graduate of the UWI, Whylie also pursued a diploma in Music Education from the Jamaica School of Music (now incorporated into the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts) and would eventually serve as Head of the school’s Folk Music Research Department. She has received many honors for her work in music and music education, including the Order of Distinction. In 1997, she was inducted into the Jamaica Jazz Hall of Fame and, in August 2004, she receives the Prime Minister’s award for Excellence in Theatre and Music.

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