Remembering Phyllis Coard, unsung hero and champion of women’s rights in Grenada

Liberation, Phyllis Coard and Grenada’s New Jewel Movement

On 6th September, Phyllis Coard, who rose to the leadership of Grenada’s New Jewel Movement (NJM), passed away in Jamaica.  She was a social worker, teacher, and writer. The author of Unchained – A Caribbean Woman’s Journey Through Invasion, Incarceration and Liberation, Phyllis lived and worked in London before joining the revolution led by Maurice Bishop in Grenada in 1979. She became the passionate Minister for Women in the People’s Revolutionary Government and represented Grenada’s women’s movement at the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and was the driving force behind significant gains in the position and status of women. 

Liberation supported the People’s Revolutionary Government (1979-1983).  After the illegal US invasion of Grenada and overthrow of the government, 17 leaders of the NJM, including Phyllis and her husband, Deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard, were arrested.  Liberation joined the international campaign against the death sentences passed on the former leaders and their imprisonment.  The sentences on Phyllis and Bernard were communed to life imprisonment. She was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2000. 

Women, Grenada and Cold War Politics: An Obituary of Phyllis Coard

By Jacqueline McKenzie*

Phyllis Coard, credited with being one of the women who contributed to the upliftment of and equality of women in Grenada during its revolution of March 1979 to October 1983, has died in Jamaica aged 76. 

Phyllis was born in Jamaica on the 2 November 1943 into what Jamaicans describe as a brown skinned middle strata family, the Evans’.  Her father’s family could not afford to send him to university but he qualified as an accountant whilst her mother worked as a clerical officer.  Jamaica was characterised by segregation along colourist and class lines with many of those with lighter skins occupying the higher echelons of society.  This condition had its roots in slavery and colonialism with some of the country’s post-independence rulers and elites having been descendants of enslavers and colonisers.  Though she would have had advantage and is the niece of  Ken Evans who founded the renowned Tia Marie coffee liqueur company, her family’s income was only modest. Stopped from playing with darker skinned children, her early life must have been filled with the contradictions inherent in faux privilege and the pervasiveness of this may well have informed her lifelong opposition to racism and colonialism and her quest for the upliftment of marginalised groups.  She graduated from Jamaica’s St Andrew High School in 1961 and in 1962  having obtained a scholarship, she enrolled on a degree in philosophy and English at Reading University before undertaking post graduate qualifications at the University of the West Indies and the London School of Economics.  Qualifying as a psychiatric social worker in the UK, she joined the child guidance team at the London Borough of Walthamstow.

In the UK, Phyllis met Bernard Coard, a Grenadian economics student and Brandeis scholar who was studying at the University of Sussex.  They met at the Albany Institute in Deptford where volunteers ran a programme of activities for young people. One of the volunteers, Jane Ritchie, a friend of Phyllis’ at Reading University, invited her along.  The couple described theirs as love at first sight and they were married in London in 1968.  Jane  remained a lifelong friend to them both, supporting Phyllis throughout her imprisonment and after her release and being instrumental in the establishing of the UK based Phyllis Coard Support Group.  Phyllis assisted Bernard in his seminal work, the 1971 publication, How the British Educational System Makes the Black Child Educationally Subnormal in the British School System, regarded as having  led to the development and growth of the supplementary school movement amongst African Caribbean parents in the UK who feared that their children were failing in traditional schools and being a seminal and much quoted work in the struggle against racism in education to this day. 

Phyllis and Bernard left the UK and travelled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean before taking on teaching jobs at the University of the West Indies in both Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica; Phyllis taught sociology. The couple started a family with the birth of their daughters Sola in 1971 and Abiola in 1972; a son, Neto, was born in 1979. Despite being resident outside Grenada, Bernard was closely connected to the politics in Grenada. He maintained close ties with his friend Maurice Bishop  and was in and out of Grenada. Bernard was one of the founders of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) being a member of its first political bureau when the party was formed on 11 Mach 1973. Together with Bishop and George Brizan, like Bishop a future prime minister of Grenada, Bernard wrote what became the famous NJM Manifesto. In 1976 Bernard and Phyllis moved to Grenada fulltime to facilitate Bernard’s participation in politics and his campaign for a parliamentary seat in the December 1976 elections. Phyllis taught Spanish at the Anglican Girls High School, helped start a community nursery in the River Road area and with Bernard, she got subsumed in political campaigning to end the reign of prime minister Sir Eric Matthew Gairy whose era had morphed into one of abuse. Though Gairy was widely accredited with being a champion of the poor at his entry into politics and at the time of Grenada’s independence in February 1974, his reign became categorised by excess and brutality leaving most of the country’s inhabitants without basic rights and services, with women regarded as second class citizens. Along with Bishop, Bernard was elected in December 1976 to the 15 member Grenadian Parliament as a trio of NJM leaders which also included Unison Whiteman.

In December 1977, Phyllis became one of the founders of a national women’s committee of the NJM.  Other founders and organisers of this committee included Claudette Pitt, Faye Thompson, Tessa Stroud, Scotilda Noel, Gail Francis, Edlyn Lambert, Maureen Cuffey, Catherine James,  Meryl Wyse, Maureen St Bernard and Rita Joseph. 

Minister of  women’s affairs

On the 13 March 1979, the New Jewel Movement (NJM) overthrew Gairy in a bloodless revolution and installed the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG). Phyllis became the country’s first minister of  women’s affairs in the Ministry of Education and Social Affairs where a dedicated women’s desk was established, a role she managed alongside that of deputy secretary for information.  She set about immediately to raise the living standards and guarantee the rights of women who had hitherto suffered from exploitation with lives characterised by sexploitation for jobs, an unfair burden of housework and childcare without basic resources, infrastructure and provisions to relieve these burdens, low levels of access to education, training and employment, poor health and maternity care, unequal wages by up to 60% less, lack of maternity and sick pay and a lack of involvement in the governance of the country.  Though men could undertake jury service at age 21, women could not until the age of 30.  Many women suffered in abusive relationships without any recourse under the law. After the revolution,  parish and zonal councils, a programme of participatory democracy set up to empower and provide a voice to citizens, and international solidarity events, were filled with women from all backgrounds; the political consciousness of women was rising and their lives were changing for the better. Phyllis’ skills as both a social worker and educator and her passion for women’s rights meant that she was able to bring and implement a strategy for change.  She was responsible for advancing many of the programmes which benefited women which included free secondary and university education, maternity leave laws, the creation of women’s cooperatives, equal pay and health screening.  She aligned her work to that of the Centre for Popular Education (CPE) aimed at raising literacy levels across the country and encouraged women to participate in the overall development of the country so that you could find women involved in fundraising for the building of the international airport one day and forming a house repair or house building brigade the next.

There has been much discussion as to whether the work on women’s affairs in Grenada was truly feminist in that issues such as sexual violence, sexual orientation and reproductive rights were absent from the agenda.  It is true that the revolution’s focus was on the day to day living standards of women which largely benefited men but it is a mistake to think that the programmes which gave women a powerful voice, which improved their lives and which resulted in the creation of laws which addressed inequalities, were not feminist in nature.  Not only was the women’s movement in Grenada growing to expand on all issues which affected the lives of  women, its representatives campaigned alongside women in other countries for inclusion of broader topics and an expansion of  women’s rights. Two years into the revolution, the women’s committee set up the National Women’s Organisation (NWO) which grew to become a mass movement of women growing from a handful of members and 6 groups  to over 10,000 members and comprising 30 groups across the country; almost half of the population of adult women were involved in discussions and programmes aimed at their upliftment. In trying to achieve its goals, the NWO applied for and got admitted to the Women’s International Democratic Federation  (WIDF) at its 8th congress on the 14 October 1981 in Prague. With a membership of 200 million across 161 countries, WIDF was tasked with championing women by defending their rights and campaign for peace and democracy. Phyllis served as Grenada’s representative and the women’s movement in Grenada, which had been focused on the day to day conditions of Grenadian women,  moved its work into the spere of international women’s organising and solidarity sharing learning and experiences.  The work of WIDF was to inform Grenada’s work and its own inaugural congress a year later. Phyllis was elected as the first president of the NWO at its inaugural congress held on the 6 December 1982.  

In October 1983, the Grenada revolution came to an untimely end after the October 19  murder of prime minister Maurice Bishop and ten others, including other members of the PRG when US president Ronald Reagan, ordered Operation Fury – the 25 October 1983 invasion of 10,000 US marines of a country with a population of less than 100,000 people to overthrow the revolutionary government; most of the marines had never heard of the English speaking Caribbean island.  The invasion was condemned by most of the world’s leaders.  During a telephone call to Margaret Thatcher on the 26 October 1986, Reagan apologised for the invasion which had been ordered without hers or the Commonwealth’s approval; she had cautioned against him taking any action against the government of Grenada and said she found the  prospect, “deeply disturbing.”  Grenada had obtained independence on the 7 February 1974 and was a sovereign nation so the discussions between Regan and Thatcher were interesting but perverse.  On the 28 October 1983, the UN Security Council approved a resolution “deeply deploring” the invasion of Grenada as a “flagrant violation of international law.”  Reagan had used the pretext of rescuing American students at the offshore medical university in Grenada for the invasion but most political theorists agree that it was the PRG’s close relationship with Cuba, the then USSR and other eastern European countries, as well as the revolution’s progressive programmes which were being well received in Grenada and the region, which caused this action – a fear that communism would reach what the US described as their English speaking backyard. Grenada became a pawn in the cold war and Phyllis Coard was central to that history. 

Phyllis was the lone woman amongst 17 people charged with the murders of Maurice Bishop et al and sentenced to death.  The death sentences were later commuted but in 2000, Phyllis was released from the Richmond Hill Prison in Grenada on compassionate grounds to receive treatment in Jamaica. Her release was meant to be temporary but she was never recalled to prison. 

The trial

The criminal trial which led to Phyllis’ conviction was no less controversial than the invasion.  It was widely criticised by Amnesty International who in October 2003 issued a report concluding that the trial of the 17 represented a miscarriage of justice. They wrote “Amnesty International believes that the Grenada 17 cannot continue to be incarcerated on the grounds of a conviction that was obtained via a process that was in gross violation of international standards governing the fairness of trials.”  Caribbean historian and lawyer, the late Richard Hart, writing in The Grenada Trial: A Travesty of Justice (CHRG 1993) provided a comprehensive critique of the trial processes which included one witness pointing to a white journalist in the court room when asked to identify Phyllis.  The 17 appealed their convictions and although these appeals were concluded in 1990, a written judgment has never been made available reportedly because of a disagreement over funds promised to the judges by the US government.  In May 1988, Sir Frederick Smith who presided over the appeals, confirmed to the Grenada Voice newspaper that the judges had indeed been holding out for more money. On the 12 July 1991, not having received the additional funds, Sir Smith delivered an oral judgment to the court lasting twenty minutes, dismissing all appeals.  Bernard had discovered in classified documents that the US government were discussing, before the appeal was concluded, which of the 17 should be hanged. They had noted that she had come from a prominent family in Jamaica and he believes this kept her off the list for fear of a backlash. Perhaps, or perhaps even they balked at the idea of hanging an innocent woman.

In prison Phyllis suffered terribly. I recall visiting her at the Richmond Hill Prison where she was stooped in a tiny cage which itself was placed in a tiny cell.  Behind her were two armed members of the Caribbean peace keeping forces and behind me were another two.  She had been denied basic hygiene products including sanitary towels and soap and had suffered beatings, semi starvation and isolation.  There were periods when she was the lone female prisoner in Grenada. She describes her experiences in her books, US War on One Woman: My Conditions of imprisonment in Grenada (Karia Press 1988) and Unchained: A Caribbean Woman’s Journey Through Invasion, Incarceration and Liberation (McDermott 2019) as brutal and terrifying.   She came in for particular brutality from the first prison commissioner of her period of incarceration, Lionel Maloney, who  during his reign of terror seemed to take some additional pleasure in harassing her. She went on a gruelling 98 day hunger strike and was regularly sentenced to punishments of three days on bread and water for whatever he could find to be an infringement, including a small hole made to a netting in a window which had clearly been gnawed at by rats. Bernard believes that her membership of that family possibly saved her life though the death sentences were ultimately commuted.  He read in one of the US declassified documents which featured a discussion between about who the Americans wanted to hang, three years before the appeal, they expressed that they thought they wouldn’t get away with hanging her. Whether it was due to her family connections or her being a woman is not known.  Nevertheless, when the 17 started a social and education programme, largely credited with reducing recidivism, she got fully involved in teaching basic literacy and English to women inmates.

Phyllis Coard is synonymous with the rise and fall of the Grenada revolution.  The events preceding the killing of Maurice Bishop and others amounted to a major political and constitutional crisis which included rumours that Phyllis was one of the people behind the idea that Bishop was weak and should agree to joint leadership with Bernard Coard.  She was also at the centre of a rumour which had circulated implying that she and Bernard were planning to kill Maurice.  Both Phyllis and Bernard have vehemently denied these rumours which they say were put about to destabilase the revolution. It is highly unlikely that the rumours were true. Evidence which emerged after the invasion that Bernard and Phyllis had already discussed leaving Grenada to teach in other islands and that Bernard had resigned from the central committee suggests that there were major differences with the leaders long before its crisis even but the rumours are mostly believed to have been baseless.  

Much of the criticism of Phyllis comes from the misinformation put out by the invading troops, Grenada’s elites restored to power after the invasion and the fact that she was a non-Grenadian.  But much too has to do with her strength of character and the indomitable way in which she went about her day to day business, in her trademark baggy clothing, flipflop slippers and messy hair, to raise the living standards of Grenadians, women in particular.  Her work ethic and directness were not always understood.  But there are few people who would not accept and credit her with the benefits that accrued to women and which went on to form the backdrop of a more egalitarian society, enjoyed by women today.

In Jamaica, when well enough, Phyllis was able to write and lecture and provided some insight into the Grenada revolution and in particular, her own role.  Bernard, who served as deputy prime minister and minister of finance during the revolution was also convicted of murder in the trial of the Grenada 17 and sentenced to life imprisonment after his death sentence was commuted.  He left prison in September 2009 and joined Phyllis in Jamaica.  He was her carer and at her side when she died.  She leaves Bernard, three children and four grandchildren.

*Jacqueline McKenzie is a lawyer and lecturer, Centre for Migration Advice & Research, Windrush Justice Project and Liberation member

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