A report from the Caribbean National Weekly.
The leaderships of Barbados’ Mia Mottley, Trinidad and Tobago’s Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and Jamaica’s Portia Simpson-Miller, among others, are all the domino-effect of the political career of Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, the Caribbean’s first female prime minister.
Charles served as the Prime Minister of Dominica from 1980 to 1995. Not only was she was the first woman in the Americas to be elected in her own right as head of government, but created a legacy as the longest-serving female Prime Minister in the Caribbean and the second-longest serving Prime Minister in Dominica. She was also the world’s third longest-serving female Prime Minister, behind Indira Gandhi of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.
Charles was born in 1919, long before Dominica gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1978. Though she was born during Dominica’s colonial era, Charles grew up relatively wealthy, as her parents were descendants of free people of color. Her father was a mason who became a wealthy landowner and had business interests in export-import.
Charles attended the Catholic Convent School in Dominica, the island’s only girls’ secondary school at the time. After graduating, Charles became interested in law while working at the colonial magistrate’s court. She attended the University of Toronto in Canada (LL.B., 1947), then moved to the United Kingdom to attend the prestigious London School of Economics. She passed the bar in London and returned to Dominica, where she became the island’s first female lawyer.
She began campaigning in politics during the 1960s against restrictions on press freedom. She helped to found the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP), and was its leader from the early 1970s until 1995. She was elected to the House of Assembly in 1970 and became Opposition Leader in 1975. She continued serving after Dominica gained full independence from British rule in 1978.
The first female Prime Minister in the Caribbean, Eugenia Charles was elected to the head post when the DFP swept the 1980 elections, the party’s first electoral victory. She took over from Oliver Seraphin, who had taken over only the year before, when mass protests had forced the country’s first prime minister, Patrick John, to step down from office. She additionally served as Dominica’s Foreign Minister from 1980 to 1990, and as chairperson of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).
Charles became more widely known to the outside world for her role in the lead-up to the United States Invasion of Grenada. In the wake of the arrest and execution of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, Charles, then serving as chairperson of the OECS, appealed to the United States, Jamaica, and Barbados for intervention. She appeared on television with U.S. president Ronald Reagan, supporting the invasion. Journalist Bob Woodward reported that the US paid millions of US dollars to the Dominica Government, some of which was regarded by the CIA as a ‘payoff’ for Charles’s support for the US intervention in Grenada.
During her tenure as Prime Minister, Charles made policies that protected the poor and disadvantaged in Dominica. She supported many social welfare programmes as well as anti-corruption laws and individual freedom policies. For her uncompromising stance on these issues, she became known as the “Iron Lady of the Caribbean”. In 1991, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
With popularity declining during her third term, Charles announced her retirement in 1995. The DFP subsequently lost the 1995 elections. After retiring, Charles undertook speaking engagements in the United States and abroad. She became involved in former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center, which promotes human rights and observes elections to encourage fairness.
In 2005, Charles entered a hospital in Fort-de-France, Martinique, for hip-replacement surgery. She died from a pulmonary embolism on September 6, 2005, at 86 years of age. Charles never married nor had children.