Gladys Carlyon de Courcy Morrell was leader of the 30-year campaign for women’s voting rights in Bermuda. She had participated in the women’s suffrage movement in England and borrowed some of its tactics for use in the Bermuda campaign, which began in earnest with the establishment of the Bermuda Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1923. She was supported by scores of prominent women, and a handful of influential men, but Mrs. Morrell was the movement’s indisputable leader and guiding light.
During the 1920s, suffragettes organised rallies and public meetings, and in the 1930s stepped up their campaign by refusing to pay property taxes. Mrs. Morrell faced the prospect of being jailed for non-payment of taxes, going so far as to hold a pre-prison party. She made a direct appeal to the British authorities, 16 years before Dr. E. F. Gordon took his landmark Bermuda Workers Association petition to London.
Mrs. Morrell was the long-time secretary of the suffrage society, which shone a spotlight on a host of other social ills, among them, the ‘distressingly high’ infant mortality rate and the lack of college scholarships for women. She was a co-founder of the Bermuda Welfare Society, which established the district nursing system. She challenged a law in Supreme Court in the vain hope that she could stand for election to the Sandys Parish Vestry despite being female.
Suffragettes did not mount a full-scale assault on the inequities of Bermuda society, but Mrs. Morrell was determined and persistent in her quest for voting rights for women. Victory came on 21 April 1944 with passage of the Women’s Suffrage Act. It became law on 15 May 1944.
Born into a family whose roots in Somerset were long and established, she was the daughter of Terence and Thalia Misick. Her father and brother Frederick served in the House of Assembly. She attended the Bermuda High School for Girls and North London Collegiate School. In 1911, she received an honours bachelor’s degree from London University. She was unable to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer, because law schools did not admit women. Following graduation, she did some travelling, going as far afield as India to visit her brother John. Upon her return to England, she joined the women’s suffrage movement, which was then in full swing.
She was right in the thick of things, organising in 1913, a 10-day march for women’s voting rights. She began the Bermuda campaign in 1914, holding a public meeting in St. George’s. Following the outbreak of the First World War, she sailed to England, determined to assist in the war effort. She worked in insurance, became a Red Cross volunteer and nursed wounded soldiers in Verdun, France. By war’s end in 1918, she was back in England, where she voted in the first election in which women were allowed to vote. Upon her return home in 1919, she resumed her campaign.
Several bills were taken to Parliament during the 1920s and 1930s, but the male oligarchs sitting in Parliament turned every one of them back. They turned a deaf ear to appeals from prominent international speakers among them British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, physician Dr. Mabel Ramsey and Nancy Astor, England’s first female MP, who spoke at local rallies. The British government refused Mrs. Morrell’s appeal for a Commission of Inquiry, despite being presented with a BWSS petition stating that only 1,377 men out of a population of 30,884 could vote.
Mrs. Morrell did not chain herself to fences like some British suffragettes did—she had been a member of Millicent Fawcett’s more conservative wing. But the auctions which saw suffragettes buying back furniture seized by authorities when they refused to pay their taxes made international headlines and embarrassed the Bermuda government. Although suffragettes sought the vote for female property owners only, their campaign was the first organised challenge to Bermuda’s voting system in 300 years. It paved the way for the election of Hilda Aitken and Edna Watson as the first two female Members of Parliament in 1948, and was the forerunner of the battle for universal adult suffrage, which was achieved 20 years later.
Gladys Carlyon de Courcy Morrell was the wife of British Navy of officer John Morrell and the mother of Rachel (Morrell) Bromby. Her story has been retold many times over the years, most recently in November 2014, when she was the posthumous recipient of the Fifth Annual Peace and Justice Award, presented by the Roman Catholic Church.