Stories

Mary Morris-Knibb, a woman of courage and ability

A Jamaican election banner reveals the story of a pioneering women’s rights campaigner. Daila Malafronte explains why it continues to inspire 80 years on.

By Daila Malafronte

  • Story
Photograph of a woman holding a 1930s cloth banner with the hand written words 'Vote for the Federation Candidate Mary Morris-Knibb the first woman candidate. A woman of courage and ability'.
Digitisation Support Officer Daila Malafronte with a campaign banner to elect Mary Morris Knibb as councillor, Steven Pocock. CC BY-NC.

I have great admiration for people who fight for equality and human rights, and that’s why I want to share the story of this banner, which was discovered in a collection of papers about birth-control activists from the first half of the 20th century.

The story begins in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1930s, where teacher Mary Morris Knibb (1886–1964) challenged race, class and gender roles. She believed that education was the most effective way to improve society, especially for girls, who, through education and vocational training, would be able to work and be independent.

Mary set up her own school and was involved in several women’s organisations before co-founding the Jamaica Women’s Liberal Club in 1936. Three years later, the club ran a campaign, with Mary as their candidate, for Kingston and St Andrew Council.

As they marched through the streets, fighting for their place in a male-dominated world, this is the banner that they held with energy and pride. Eventually, Mary was the first woman to be elected to a council in Jamaica.

But why did this banner and its story end up here, in Wellcome Collection? Because marching alongside those Jamaican women was British suffragette Edith How-Martyn (1875–1954), a brave activist who also was the first woman to become a member of Middlesex County Council 20 years earlier, in 1919.

Edith was a passionate advocate of birth control and founded the Birth Control International Information Centre with Eileen Palmer. Both women are represented in the Eileen Palmer collection in the Wellcome Library.

When I opened the box that contained the banner, and was able to touch and hold it, I felt the passion and dreams of those women running through my whole body. I love this banner because it bridged the experience of women around the world who were fighting for equality and their rights.

I grew up in a suburb of Naples where there was no library for a lot of the time, and that’s probably why I am so proud of the work we do at the Wellcome Library. Digitising this item and the rest of the Eileen Palmer collection has enabled me to share this story with everyone who doesn’t have the opportunity to come here, particularly those women around the world who are fighting the same battles today.

About the contributors

Photograph of Daila Malafronte

Daila Malafronte

Daila is Italian, but has lived in London for over a decade. She is a member of the Digitisation Support Team at Wellcome Collection. She loves books, especially those about current affairs, documentaries and street art.