Eileen Cox – A Feisty Fifties Feminist
By Sharon Maas
The year was 2012. She was 94, a fragile, bent old woman, physically a shadow of what she once was, but mentally still as sharp as a razor. By this time, Mum rarely left her home in Subryanville; indeed, she rarely ever left her bedroom, but sat there all day, near the bedside phone, because, then as ever, she was still President of the Guyana Consumers Association, and people still turned to her for advice. I lived far away, in Germany, and visited when I could, usually once a year to check on things. But that day, she had business at the bank.
As is usual in the morning, the Republic Bank lobby was crowded. People milled about, having pulled a number, and waited to be seated, while those seated waited to be called to the counter. But then a whisper went up: It’s Eileen Cox! And the crowd before us parted like the Red Sea, and we made our slow way forward, down a corridor of smiling faces, past calls of “Good morning Miss Cox!” and “Hello Miss Cox!”; past autograph books held out for her to sign --- oh wait, I got carried away there; that didn’t happen. But it really did feel like arriving with some celebrity at the Oscars, walking up the red carpet with my shuffling mother on my arm. Mum was served first, and nobody minded.
And Mum was, in her own way, a celebrity in Guyana. I’m afraid that in my younger years I never really appreciated her; I took her for granted, as young daughters often do. But whenever I returned to Guyana and people realized she was my mother, they never failed to tell me how much she meant to them. How much she helped them. How they listened out for her on the radio, or read her Consumer Advocate columns in the Stabroek News. How they loved her. “She was a phenomenon!” “An icon!” Taxi drivers who dropped me off at her home would say, “Wait, you’re Eileen Cox’s daughter? I drove her once!”
So yes, I am the daughter of a Guyanese celebrity: the real kind, the deserving kind, the kind who really DID something to deserve her fame and wasn’t just famous for fame's sake. Mum was internationally respected for her consumer activity, invited to Consumer seminars and conferences around the world, from Chile to India to Canada.
She lived a public life, and her
accomplishments are well known: starting with her activities as women's rights activist as a young married women, advocating for the rights of women i Public Service to keep their jobs after marriage. After her divorce when I was three, she must have been one of the very first single working mothers in the colony. Later, she was active in the Public
Service Union and in the Credit Union, but it was in founding the Consumers Association that she found her final calling. She remained the GCA's President of right up to her resignation
As a public figure she was outspoken and very direct; but she had another side to her, a private side, that others did not see. It would be true to say that though she was not a Christian in name, she very much embodied true Christian values and ideals. She has always lived a most simple life, never expecting special favours, never living beyond her means. She loved flowers, nature, the fresh air of the sea wall. Up to her very last day, when she could no longer walk, her carer Sego would carry her downstairs so that she could enjoy the evening Atlantic breeze.
Photo below: Mum with Guyana President Dr Cheddi Jagan
She never wanted more than what she had. She cared about people regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, sex. As Hansard Editor at Guyana’s Parliament she worked hard all her life, supporting not only me but other members of her extended family – the breadwinner of the family. She was without wile and without guile; a divorcee by choice, she was married to her mission, the well-being of every single person in Guyana. At times, when I was a child, I was even jealous because I thought she spent more time helping others than being with me. But in the end it was all good, because it gave me a sense of independence and adventure, of daring to seek the unconventional. I learned that selflessness, not selfishness, is the true secret to a fulfilled life.
Yet water wears away stone, and women have at all times and all places been the very backbone of society, precisely through those quieter strengths and values. For Mum, these strengths brought results. Men adored, respected, and bowed before her.
Yes: Mum was Guyanese royalty, for it is the heart that really rules. She died in her sleep in November 2014. She lives on in the hearts of many.
Sharon Maas is the author of The Far Away Girl, The Sugar Planter’s Daughter and several other novels set in Guyana, India, France, Germany and England.
See also: Eileen Cox: a Tribute to my Mother
See also: Eileen Cox: a Tribute to my Mother