Viola Burnham: Aspects of a life
By Claudette Earle
October 12, 2003
From schoolmarm to First Lady, Vice-President, farmer and the guiding spirit of a militant, but controversial women’s political organisation, Viola Burnham’s life paralleled, and even at times, influenced and helped to shape a critical social and economic period in this nation’s history.
WHEN the news of her passing flashed on television screens last Friday morning, hundreds of persons in and out of her homeland called friends, relatives and senior executives of the People’s National Congress/Reform to utter words of sympathy, and also to seek more information on her illness, and about the funeral arrangements. Viola Victorine Burnham, the first activist First Lady of the Cooperative Republic and widow of President Forbes Burnham, the Founder-Leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), succumbed in a Miami hospital after a long battle with cancer.
Approximately one year ago, Mrs Burnham was featured in a local television interview in which she spoke eloquently and lovingly of her husband’s vision of a Guyana in which the troubling problems stemming from ethnic insecurities would be overcome; and of the time when Guyanese skills and technical prowess would be employed in the process of intelligently exploiting this country’s wealth of natural resources for the eventual prosperity of the nation. With her face framed by her long dark brown tresses - a hairstyle she had adopted in recent years, Viola Burnham looked her usual composed and gracious self, soft-spoken yet assertive, unerringly confident of the rightness of her husband’s dream.
Perhaps, that television interview would come to be seen as the last bracket signifying that period of her life as a public citizen. To locate the first bracket, we must take a few steps back in time to the early days of her betrothal to the newly divorced Prime Minister of the newly Independent nation of Guyana. Then, the 30-something Viola Harper was a lovely, but reserved Latin teacher, who dressed impeccably if conservatively, and was sometimes just a bit peeved by newspaper reporters, who in those days were wont to report on the fashionable ensembles of society’s elite.
However, after devoting the next few years to marriage and motherhood, the wife of the nation’s Prime Minister was ready to enter political life. And she did so with energy and purposefulness. Mrs Burnham took as her first task the resuscitation of the Women’s Auxiliary of the People’s National Congress and transformed that body from its traditional supportive role as helpmate to the PNC into a vibrant and militant organisation in its own right. The PNC women’s arm was renamed the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM) in keeping with the guiding philosophy of the Forbes Burnham government that had professed itself to be “in transition to Socialism”.
Not only did the WRSM move from the proverbial “strength to strength” under Viola Burnham’s innovative leadership, but the group also marched, sang and mobilised the grassroots for participation in resounding rallies, PNC General Councils and Congresses, as well as government functions and national celebrations. It was true that the over-zealous and abrasive behaviour of some sections of the WRSM engendered annoyance and even silent hostility among Guyanese on both sections of the political divide. The image of this women’s body was not further burnished, when, in the economic crunch and the resultant banning of certain food items in the early 1980s, members were afforded the privilege of purchasing items on designated days from the WRSM headquarters on Public Road, Kitty.
It was also true that Viola Burnham, who was affectionately known as “Comrade Vi”, shared with her husband President Burnham and Prime Minister Dr Ptolemy Reid a fervent devotion to the creed of food self-sufficiency. They all continuously preached the virtues and economic good sense of buying and utilising locally produced items. So much so that when wheat flour was restricted early in 1982, there was launched a great campaign to promote rice flour. It was a most unpopular development and one, which visited great economic hardships on the working class in the ensuing four years.
One significant aspect of Mrs Burnham’s tenure as leader of the WRSM was her emphasis on the economic advancement of the uneducated and unskilled women. In the late 1970s and early 1980s during the construction of huge projects like the Sanata Textile Mill in the Ruimveldt area and the glass factory at Yarowkabra, Soesdyke-Linden Highway, Mrs Burnham used her clout as First Lady to persuade contractors to hire women on the worksites. Some ordinary female heads of households were encouraged to do away with the little mango and “sweetie” trays at the street corners and to acquire skills that would earn them the level of wages paid to men. As a direct result of her advocacy, many women became painters, carpenters, plumbers, steel-benders, welders, mechanics, dump-truck drivers and masons.
Once, when asked by a reporter what she thought of situations in which women were forced into sexual relationships in order to keep their jobs, Mrs Burnham urged that all working women should strive to be qualified for their jobs and should always be efficient in their fields of competence. She explained that if women were competent performers, they would not be ‘blackmailed’ or intimidated into unwanted relationships. Although this would seem an obvious explanation or solution today, two decades ago, sexual harassment was neither acknowledged nor identified as a form of aberrant workplace behaviour. Besides, some women never complained about male supervisors, who routinely groped and fondled them as they went about their tasks. For these women this was a hazard of the workplace that they had to endure. Further, for some women, this was an assurance of job tenure.
Unlike other Guyanese heroines, whose feminist activism evolved from their understanding of Socialist doctrine, or was shaped by historic concern for the downtrodden, Mrs Viola Burnham came to feminism as a function of her status as the wife of a Prime Minister, who was a political leader. And her approach was informed by economic realities. Basically, it was to empower poor, ordinary women to advance themselves in social and economic terms so that they could contribute to the development of their homes and communities while lifting themselves from a low level of existence. For her, the struggle for female emancipation was intrinsically linked to women’s economic independence and earning power. While homemaking and childcare were indivisible imperatives, Mrs Burnham felt that these should not necessarily deny women the opportunity of gaining income-earning skills training or establishing themselves as small entrepreneurs.
When one reflects on her career, it becomes obvious that Mrs Viola Burnham was ahead of her time in some of her ideas for women’s development. After leading the Guyana delegation to United Nations Women’s conferences in Mexico in 1975; to Copenhagen, Denmark in 1980; and to Nairobi, Kenya in 1985, Viola Burnham apparently came to the conclusion that a great many women in Third World countries were unschooled in the theatre of international caucuses. Almost every country’s delegation to the world meetings was co-headed by a male or had a male diplomat playing a prominent role in advising and guiding the women delegates when it was necessary to vote on various resolutions.
Mrs Burnham resolved to have WRSM officers gain as much international experience as possible, and during the run-up to a Biennial Congress of the ruling party, she sought and obtained permission from the hierarchy of the PNC to have a WRSM representative sit as an observer on every planning committee so that they could acquire certain negotiating skills and conference protocols.
As leader of the women’s body, Mrs Burnham initiated a number of economic projects specifically for the training and employment of women. These projects included: Vanceram, the ceramic facility on the East Bank of Demerara; Rice-Van, the bakery and food outlet in the East La Penitence Municipal Market; and the fabric designing and garment-making facility, South Road, Georgetown.
Intimate friends as well as formal acquaintances of Forbes and Viola Burnham were usually astonished at the chemistry and level of intellectual duelling of this power couple. Theirs was a bond of profound affection allied to mutual respect. Their social engagements sparkled with penetrating wit and riposte and indicated how much delight they found in each other’s company.
On Tuesday, August 6, 1985, when President Burnham entered the Georgetown Hospital for what was scheduled to be a simple medical procedure, Viola Burnham was at his side. She even donned surgical gown and mask in order to observe the procedure at close hand. Mr Burnham died on the operating table. Moments after the surgeons and nurses had laid out his body and left, Viola Burnham sat near to her husband’s body and silently mourned his passing. It would be the very last time they would be together alone.
When Viola Burnham drew her last breath on Friday morning surrounded by her children and other relatives, it was in some ways, the final chapter in the Burnham leadership legacy. May her soul rest in peace!