November 15, 1916
December 19, 1995
The sister of one Barbados' national heroes, the cousin of a second, and the niece of a third, Ruth Nita Barrow was born at Nestfield, Saint Lucy, Barbados, the second child and first daughter of the five children born to Reginald and Ruth O'Neale Barrow. Her father, an Anglican clergyman, worked in several Caribbean territories.
In 1928 she was among the first seventy-nine entrants at St. Michael's Girls' School, the first secondary school for black girls in Barbados, graduating in 1934 with a grade one senior school certificate.
Against the wishes of her relatives, in 1935 Barrow enrolled as a student nurse at the Barbados General Hospital, and in midwifery training in Trinidad and Tobago five years later. Following social unrest in many of the islands in the 1930s, the British government allocated greater resources to public health and provided greater employment opportunities for British Caribbean women, particularly in the field of nursing. This policy decision facilitated both Barrow's studies and her career.
Barrow's sense of social justice, which was already evident during her years as a student nurse, was developed in Trinidad and Tobago, where among other activities she became a member of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA).
A fellowship at the University of Toronto in 1941 led to other opportunities. An impressive year's work culminated in her being class valedictorian and led to another year's scholarship to study nursing education. This included field work in Jamaica, which led to an appointment there as assistant instructor with the School of Public Health. Barrow became the founder and president of the Nurses Association of Jamaica and a board member of the Jamaica chapter of the YWCA. She later became the first person from the English-speaking Caribbean to be elected to the executive committee of the YWCA World Council.
A fellowship at the Royal College of Nursing at Edinburgh led to a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Nursing at London for training as a ward sister. In 1954 Barrow became the first West Indian matron of the teaching hospital of the University College of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. After two years she left to become the first principal nursing officer of Jamaica, the first time in Commonwealth history that the post had been created. She held this position for six years.
Barrow completed a bachelor's degree in nursing at Columbia University, in New York City, in 1963. Contacts there led to an appointment with the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) to direct a survey of Caribbean nursing schools. Visiting each territory enabled her to increase her already large number of contacts throughout the region. After the project was completed, Barrow continued with PAHO as nursing director.
In 1976 Barrow became the first woman and first black director of the Christian Medical Council and the first black president of the World YWCA; she was also awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by the University of the West Indies.
In 1980 Barrow was made a Dame of the Order of Saint Andrew and Saint George for "extraordinary and outstanding achievement and merit in service to Barbados and humanity at large." An early supporter of the International Council on Adult Education, she was elected president of that body in 1982. This resulted in the creation of the Dame Nita Barrow Award for organizations making significant contributions to the empowerment of women through adult education.
In 1985 Barrow was the only woman member of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons to visit South Africa to broker the transformation from apartheid to majority rule. She was convener of Forum '85, UN Decade for Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya, and was named West Indian of the Year by Bajan magazine.
In 1982 she was awarded an honorary doctor of sciences degree by McMaster University, in Canada. In 1986 Barrow was Barbados' representative to the United Nations. In 1987 she received the Caribbean Community's (CARICOM) Women's Award. In 1988 she received the CARICOM Triennial Award for her contribution to the development of women in the region. In 1989 the International Council of Nurses made her the second recipient of the Christiane Reimann Award.
In 1990 Dame Nita Barrow became the first woman governor-general of Barbados. She was a popular head of state until her unexpected death on December 19, 1995. In a long and successful public career, she used the nursing profession to advance the cause of women in Barbados, the Caribbean, and the world at large.
Barriteau, Eudine. "The Challenge of Innovative Leadership of a Traditional Women's Organisation: The World YWCA and Ruth Nita Barrow." In Stronger, Surer, Bolder: Ruth Nita Barrow: Social Change and Social Development, edited by Eudine Barriteau and Alan Cobley. Cave Hill, Barbados: Centre for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies Press, 2001.
Blackman, Francis. Dame Nita: Caribbean Woman, World Citizen. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1995.
Hezekiah, Jocelyn. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: The Stories of Three Caribbean Nurses. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001.
c. m. jacobs (2005)