May 10, 1916
March 5, 1977
Winifred Maria Ivy Gaskin was a public servant, journalist, politician, diplomat, and founding member of Guyana's first women's political organization, the Women's Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO). She was born in Buxton, East Coast Demerara, to Stanley and Irene Thierens. Gaskin's education began at St. Anthony's Roman Catholic School, where her father was the headmaster. She won the Buxton Scholarship in 1927, attended St. Joseph's Convent High School in Georgetown, Guyana, obtained a middle school scholarship, and proceeded to Bishop's High School, the premier girls' secondary school. Gaskin was a runner-up for the prestigious British Guiana Scholarship but never attended university. Instead, she pursued a life's work of public service.
Initially, Gaskin, a dark-complexioned working-class woman of African descent, was denied an appointment at Georgetown's General Post Office, then part of the British Colonial Public Service, because of protests by the mostly white colonial workforce. It was only after the intervention of the white headmistress of Bishop's High School, who pointed out Gaskin's academic excellence, that she was hired. In 1939 she married E. Berkeley Gaskin, and the union produced her only child, Gregory. The union also ended her work at the post office because married women were not eligible for appointment to or to hold postal service positions.
Unarguably, Gaskin's discriminatory treatment helped to influence her in striving to improve women's conditions. In a June 30, 1946, article in the newspaper the Chronicle, she encouraged women to improve their conditions by initiating identifiable changes. Less than a month later the WPEO was established, aiming to encourage the political education of women and their participation in national life. It addressed issues relating to day-care facilities for working-class women, housing, price control of food items, better wages, transportation, health care, and education. Gaskin actively participated in public meetings and demonstrations held by the WPEO. She was active in submitting petitions to the local legislature and the British government as part of the WPEO's advocacy for reforms.
Gaskin became a journalist for The Argosy, and later subeditor, and editor of Bookers News, the organ of Bookers-McConnell Ltd., the largest British plantation, commercial proprietors, and slave owners in British Guiana during colonial times. Gaskin also served as president of the British Guiana Press Association. She was an original member of the Political Affairs Committee, the precursor of the People's Progressive Party (PPP). After a split occurred in the PPP in 1955, Gaskin became a founding member of the People's National Congress (PNC) and rose to the rank of chairman. She was instrumental in forming the Women's Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM) of the PNC. Gaskin was a party delegate to the British Guiana Independence Conferences held in London in October 1962 and October 1963.
The PNC and another political party, the United Force, formed a coalition government after the general elections of December 1964. Gaskin was elected to the House of Assembly and became the minister of education and race relations. She introduced policies that provided free education for students from kindergarten to university. In 1968 she became Guyana's first high commissioner to the Commonwealth Caribbean. She was awarded the Order of Distinction of Jamaica for distinguished diplomatic service. For her outstanding public service, Gaskin also received one of the highest Guyanese national honors, the Cacique Crown of Honour of Guyana. In 1976 she returned to Guyana and headed the Foreign Affairs and Economic Section, Ministry of National Development, before she died in 1977. The former president of Guyana, the late Linden Forbes S. Burnham, lauded Gaskin as a pioneer in the women's movement. He emphasized that, at a time when few women dared, she was a politician and socialist whose determination and work made her one of the nation's most distinguished daughters.
Chronicle (Georgetown, Guyana), June 30, 1946.
Foreign Service Despatch, American Consulate, Georgetown, Guyana, The Department of State, Washington, Decimal File (1910–1963), Numeric File (1963–1973), 741D, 841D, 844B, Record Group 59, National Archives at College Park (Archives II), Md.
Joseph, Valerie. "Winifred Gaskin, Public Servant." In The African-Guyanese Achievement: 155th Anniversary of African Slave Emancipation, vol. 1, p. 18. Georgetown, Guyana: Free Press, 1993.
New Nation (official organ of the People's National Congress), 1957–1980s.
Sunday Graphic, June 12, 1960.
"Winifred Gaskin." In Guynews #2, vol. 1. Georgetown, Guyana: Government Information Services, 1977.
Woolford, Hazel M. "Women in Guyanese Politics, 1812–1964." In Themes in African-Guyanese History, edited by Winston F. McGowan, James G. Rose, and David A. Granger, pp. 327–350. Georgetown, Guyana: Free Press, 1998.
barbara p. josiah (2005)