Gladys Carlyon De Courcy Misick Morrell was a founder and leading light of the Bermuda Woman Suffrage Society. Morrell and her band of suffragettes were for the most part, the wives, sisters and daughters of the powerful white male leaders who controlled every aspect of business and political life in Bermuda up to the 1960s.
Bermuda’s suffragettes challenged the political system that allowed only male property owners to vote, demanding the same rights for women. They never advocated doing away with the property requirement altogether, which would have led to universal adult suffrage, or full voting rights for all adults.
Despite their limited aims, and a campaign that had international support and local colour, the battle for women’s voting rights, achieved in 1944, took 30 years.
Morrell was descended from a long line of Bermudians with Somerset roots. She was the daughter of Terence Misick, a Member of Colonial Parliament (now MP), and his wife Thalia, who was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) to Bermudian parents.
She was educated at Bermuda High School for Girls, North London Collegiate School and London University, where she graduated with a BA honours degree in English in 1911, becoming one of the first Bermudians to obtain a university degree.
She was unable to proceed on to law school and fulfil her dream of becoming a lawyer because law schools in England did not admit women until 1919.
Her father did not feel a woman’s place was in universityeven at the undergraduate levelalthough her mother believed otherwise.
After graduation and a trip to visit her brother John, who was working in India, she returned to England and became an organiser for the women’s suffrage movement, which was in full swing in England during her university years.
The movement for women’s voting rights began in the latter part of the 19th Century in the US and England. There had even been action in Bermuda.
Anna Maria Outerbridge had persuaded her father to introduce a bill to give propertied women voting rights in Parliament in 1895 and 1896. The bill passed the House of Assembly both times, but was turned back by the Upper House.
By the turn of the 20th Century, two main suffragette groups were leading the charge in Englandand facing a wall of resistance from male-dominated society. Emmeline Pankhurst headed the militant wing of the movement, but Morrell did not take to their tactics, which included arson, smashing windows and hunger strikes.
She joined up with Millicent Fawcett’s more conservative National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In the summer of 1913, the National Union organized a “pilgrimage” throughout England. It began on June 13 and culminated in London about six weeks later.
Placard-carrying women’s rights activists marched from town to town, collecting funds, handing out copies of their magazine The Common Cause and staging public meetings, along the way. Morrell was organiser for the march in the Cornwall region, which lasted 10 days.
In 1914, all fired up, she returned home. Like countless university graduates ever since who have returned to Bermuda with their heads filled with progressive ideas, she ran smack into a wall of complacency. She organised a public meeting in St. George’s and attracted a key supporterprominent businessman and parliamentarian Stanley Spurlingbut the general response was one of apathy.
After the First World War broke out, Morrell, determined to assist in the war effort, made the dangerous journey back to England by ship.
Her family made it clear she would have to support herself. And she did. She found work with an insurance firm in London, and became a Red Cross volunteer. She also worked close to the front lines in Verdun, France, serving food to soldiers and nursing the wounded.
In 1918, she caught the flu and was sent back to England to recuperate. She had her first taste of victory that year with the passage of a law that gave British women 30 years and over the right to vote. Morrell voted for the first time.
In 1919, she was back in Bermuda, where her battle for the vote began in earnest. She re-established links with like-minded women and with Spurling, who introduced a motion in Parliament to appoint a committee to produce a bill. Nothing ever came of it.
In March 1923, Morrell and her friends brought in British physician Dr. Mabel Ramsey to address a public meeting at Mechanics Hall in Hamilton. Ramsey was a veteran of the women’s suffrage wars in England, and had taken part in the 1913 pilgrimage.
The meeting concluded with a resolution to establish the Bermuda Woman Suffrage Society (BWSS). Rose Gosling was elected president and Morrell was voted in as secretary, at its first meeting in April.
In 1925, the suffragettes enlisted Spurling’s help again. He took two bills to Parliament on their behalf. A series of public meetings were organized in advance of the bills’ debate and the militant British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who was visiting Canada at the time, agreed to make a side trip to Bermuda to speak.
Most parliamentarians remained opposed. The archconservatives who ruled the roost in Parliament were not about to surrender a smidgen of power, even to their wives. Similar initiatives were defeated in 1928 and 1929.
Morrell adopted a new tactic in1928. Following a heated meeting in which she was nominated to be a member of Sandys Parish Vestryparish vestries were forerunners of parish councilsshe decided to test the wording of a new Parish Vestries Act, which did not specify the sex of voters.
She lost the case in Supreme Court. Attorney General Col. Thomas Dill brought an amendment to Parliament that left no room for ambiguity. It said: “No person, not a male, shall be registered to vote.”
Morrell had married British Navy officer Lt. Commander John Morrell on April 20, 1926. Their only child, Rachel, was born in 1928.
Marriage gave John Morrell instant voting rights because as head of the household he became the technical owner of the property that actually belonged to her. But he chose not to exercise that right. Morrell’s husband supported the suffragettes. Her parents and brother Frederickbrother John had died in India before the First World Warwere in her corner as well.
During this period, she founded the Somerset Lawn Tennis Club. In 1925, she founded with fellow suffragette Henrietta Tucker and Mrs. J.P. Hand the Bermuda Welfare Society, which established the district nursing service. Women, infants and children were the major beneficiaries of the service. It put a nurse-midwife in every parish to provide home health care, including delivering babies, around the clock.
A major success, the Society reflected suffragettes’ concerns for the shortcomings of the health care system. With only four per cent of Bermudians having the right to vote, parliamentarians could afford to be indifferent to the social concerns and health needs of its citizens.
In 1930two years after British women received full voting rightssuffragettes took their fight to London. They drew up a petition, in which they appealed to the British government to set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the lack of voting rights for women.
They backed up the petition with factsout of a population of 30,884, only 1,377 men could vote. To add insult to injury, they could vote in each parish where they owned land.
On a trip to England in 1931, Morrell met with Lord Passfield, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The British asked Bermuda’s parliamentarians to consider giving the vote to women, but they continued to drag their heels.
In 1930, Bermuda’s suffragettes, taking a page from the book of suffrage campaigns in the US and Britain, began a campaign of civil disobedience. They refused to pay taxes on property they owned on the grounds it was “taxation without representation.”
Henrietta Tucker and May Hutchings were the first to appear in court in November 1930 for non-payment of taxes, but they settled their debt.
Morrell did not back down when she went to court the next month. Faced with the prospect of a jail sentence, she packed a suitcase and threw a pre-prison party, but the authorities blinked. They opted to seize her furniture and auction it off to clear her debt.
On December 18, 1930, Morrell and her supporters arrived at Mangrove Bay police station in Somerset in a horse-drawn bus decorated with suffragettes’ colours of red, white and green. British women activists had staged similar theatrical events to draw attention to their campaign. Morrell had learned her lessons well.
Hilda Sullivan, wife of the St. James’ Anglican Church rector, placed the winning bid of £20 that got Morrell her cedar table back. The day ended with a rally where there was a call to abolish the property vote altogether.
The auction made headlines in Bermuda and overseas. But male parliamentarians, who considered another bill in 1931, remained unmoved.
By now, women were winning voting rights in other countries and Bermuda’s suffragettes kept the pressure up. Their auctions were an annual event during the 1930s. In 1932, dressed in black, they placed wreaths at Mangrove Bay police station to mark “the passing of justice.”
High-profile visitors to Bermuda including American writer Hervey Allen, Dudley Field Malone, an American lawyer who served as assistant secretary of state under US president Woodrow Wilson, and Nancy Astor, who was the first female to take a seat in the British House of Commons, lent support by speaking at rallies. In 1935, parliamentarians continued to stick to their gunsthey rejected a bill that would have allowed women to vote in parish vestry elections.
In 1942, facing accusations that her group was white and upper class, Morrell addressed a forum at the Pembroke Hamilton Club to enlist support from blacks. Some blacks did join, and Sandys Parish nurse and community leader Alice Scott became a member of the BWSS management committee.
In 1944, Morrell and her suffragettes finally achieved victory. Parliament passed the bill enfranchising women on April 21, after a three-hour debate.
Powerful banker and parliamentarian Sir Henry Tucker, who early in his political career had argued against women’s franchise, changed horsesas he would do with segregation and political parties in the 1960sand piloted the bill through Parliament.
Among his arguments for passage was women’s contribution to the war effort during the Second World War. Author Randolf Williams also speculates Tucker had angered his male constituents with his bid to institute income tax and may have needed a new base of support.
The women’s suffrage bill became law on May15, 1944. Sandys Parish Member of Colonial Parliament Dr. Eustace Cann helped turn the tide. He broke ranks with fellow black parliamentarians, who believed that giving women the vote would not advance the cause of universal adult suffrage.
In a 1946 by-election, Henrietta Tucker, one of the first presidents of the BWSS, became the first woman to cast a vote in a Bermuda election, and Edna Tucker was the first black female voter
The same year, Morrell was elected as a member of the Sandys Parish Vestry, but said she would rather have seen a younger woman trying for a seat.
In the general election of 1948, Hilda Aitken and Edna Watson became the first women elected to Parliament.
Though she earns a place in Bermuda history as the leading suffragette, Morrell was interested in other women’s issues, including education, health care and child support. As far back as 1928, the BWSS listed a long list of social ills, including a "distressingly high" infant mortality rate, the lack of college scholarships for women and the lack of technical education for young people in general. She once spoke out against a proposal for forced sterilisation of women.
She was also an environmentalist who donated two acres of land in Somerset to the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire, which turned the Gladys Morrell Nature Reserve over to the Bermuda National Trust after her death.
Morrell did not take on the abolition of segregation as a cause. The district nurse system she helped establish was criticized by labour leader Dr. E. F. Gordon during his first years in Bermuda because of its whites-only hiring policy. The first black district nurse, Leonie Harford, was not hired until 1963.
Still, Morrelll did reach across the racial divide to establish friendships with black Bermudians among them Dr. Cann, Alice Scott and educator Dr. Marjorie Bean. The BWSS membership was always open to both races and Morrell nominated Alice Scott as a candidate for Parliament in the 1948 election. And the district nursing system enhanced health care for Bermudians, and black Bermudian women and infants, in particular.
Morrell said that Bermuda’s leaders were so opposed to the vote for women because they feared it would lead to universal adult suffrage.
But in 1968, on the eve of the first election to be contested under party politics, Morrell expressed concern about the new constitution and voting rights for all adults over age 21 coming at the same time.
“We always are surprised when we find ourselves being regarded as conservative, “ she said in a Bermuda Sun interview. “Because we thought we were very advanced and very revolutionary in our day. I suppose we end up living our period and becoming back numbers.”
Morrell was buried in the family tomb at St. James Church, Somerset, where six generations of Misicks are interred.
The suffragettes’ movement represented the first organized challenge to Bermuda’s voting system. Fifteen years after the BWSS drew up its petition, labour leader Dr. E. F. Gordon took a page out of its book with the 1946 Bermuda Workers Association petition.
Just as Bermuda’s reactionary male parliamentarians had feared, the suffragettes’ hard-fought victory would pave the way for full voting rights for all adults that would be achieved two decades later.
On November 14, 2014, Morrell was the posthumous recipient of the fifth annual Peace and Justice Award given by the Roman Catholic Church. Her granddaugnter Kathy Bromby gave a presentation about her life. Suffragette campaign artefacts—including furniture that was put up for auction and banners—were on display. Other family members in attendance included: her 86-year-old daughter Rachel Bromby and other three grandchildren Thalia, John "Bo" and Peter Bromby, the Olympic sailor.
Gladys Misick Morrell and Sir Edward Richards were named National Heroes in June 2015.