Gender in the Caribbean

Post-emancipation, Caribbean countries assumed the patriarchal societies of their colonizers. Women would remain subordinate to men for most of Caribbean history. However, in the 21st century, both women and men are in the process of adapting to newly emerging gender relations in both the material and ideological dimension of gendered life. These relations are modified by changes brought about by the restructuring of the global political economy, by a changing cultural landscape, and by the profound impact of the global discourse on gender.


Caribbean countries were colonized by typically patriarchal European nations. Upon emancipation, Caribbean men attained freedom and all that entails; for the most part, Caribbean women remained second class citizens. This is due mostly to an inherited set of social relations influenced by the European and American Enlightenment discourses of liberalism. These discourses maintained that females were created in such a way that they were incapable of being greater than, let alone equal to, men. Scholars believe these relations were maintained until recently.



Map of Caribbean colonies and their colonization dates

men at work
Men working in the Belham River Valley, Montserrat, clearing rocks deposited in the most recent lahar

The turn of this century brings drastic changes to gender in the Caribbean; most of these changes lay in the material dimension of gendered life. The global political economy is changing. Transformations at the national level equates to the rapid disappearance of occupations in traditionally male-dominated sectors of agriculture and manufacturing. The drying up of migration as an outlet for surplus labor, particularly for men, is another change. The Caribbean, in engaging in transnational economies as well as tourism, is becoming more culturally integrated into Western society and thus Western standards of gender equality are instilled in the Caribbean cultural landscape. Also, the increased global discourse in gender has allowed cultures to achieve a cognitive liberation pertaining to gender inequality.

The reaction of men to changing gender relations has not always been positive. Men are being forced to negotiate new relations of power and these negotiations have thus far been met with great resistance. Thus, while the material dimension of gender relations in the Caribbean has evolved, the ideological dimension has not. The basic belief in a subordinate role for women still exists and is often reflected in state policy as well as in cultural expressions. One particularly alarming trend is the increase in domestic violence in recent years. Many scholars argue that this is a reflection of the growing frustration of Caribbean males to the rapid disintegration of their social roles. Other troubling side effects include discrimination on the job and lack of enforcement of child support laws. Interestingly, there exists growing discourse in newspapers and editorials about damage done to boys raised in female-headed households and coeducational schools. Also, calypso music so popular in the Caribbean have evidenced sexist lyrics.


flea market

Marketplace in Antigua. While the workers of the marketplace were primarily women (including the little girl mopping far left) the market stalls were leased out by men.

Conclusively, the ideological boundaries of gender in the Caribbean have been inconsistent with the rapidly disintegrating material boundaries. At times, Caribbean society may permit women to take on responsibilities essentially constructed as long as these do not produce a corresponding shift in gendered relations of power. In the perspective of Caribbean males, it is their social power that is threatened. Greater global discourse is required to illuminate the gendered tension currently pervading in Caribbean life.

Lewis, Linden. “Exploring the Intersections of Gender, Sexuality, and Culture in the Caribbean.” Ed. Linden Lewis. The Culture of Gender and Sexuality in the Caribbean. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida), 2003. pgs. 1-21.

Barriteau, Violet Eudine. “Theorizing Ruptures in Gender Systems and the Project of Modernity in the Twentieth Century Caribbean.” Ed. Linden Lewis. The Culture of Gender and Sexuality in the Caribbean. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida), 2003. pgs. 25-53.