Dame Mary Eugenia Charles: the first woman Prime Minister

Martin Sorhaindo and Eugenia Charles at a meeting to found the Dominica Freedom Party at Old Street, Roseau, in October 1968

Mary Eugenia Charles served from 1970 to 1995

Appointment:        Nominated Third nominated Member
Date of Appointment:    12th November, 1970 – 13th February, 1975
Appointment:        Member for the Roseau Constituency
Date of Appointment:    24th March, 1975 – 28th April, 1980
Appointment:        Appointed Leader of the Opposition
Date of Appointment:    7th April, 1975 – 25th July, 1979
Appointment:        Member for the Roseau Constituency
Date of Appointment:    21st July, 1980
Appointment:        Prime Minister
Date of Appointment:    23rd July, 1980 – 13th June, 1995

Dame Mary Eugenia Charles had a distinguished career as Prime Minister of Dominica, lawyer, politician and occasional journalist. She was born on May 15, 1919 at the village of Pointe Michel on the south-west coast of Dominica. Her parents had a great influence on her attitude to life. Her mother was a practical, firm, but loving guide who imbued her with a down-to-earth and no nonsense approach to life.

Eugenia’s father, John Baptiste Charles, widely known as J.B., was a self made man who built himself up from his youth as stone mason and small farmer to being one of the leading estate owners on the island and an exporter of local produce to Britain and the United States. Besides this, he founded his own bank, The Dominica Co-operative Bank, and served as Mayor of Roseau. In national politics he was an elected member for various constituencies and was appointed as one of Dominica’s two senators in the Upper House of the Federal Parliament of the West Indies (1958 – 1962).

Mary Eugenia Charles, leader of the Dominica Freedom Party and Leader of the Opposition in the House of Assembly, at a political rally at the village of Salisbury (Baoui) in the 1970s

Young Eugenia was educated at the Convent High School, Roseau, and St. Joseph’s Convent, Grenada. She read law at University of Toronto and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London in 1949. She was called to the bar in Roseau on the same night of her return to Dominica by steam ship from England that same year and began private practice. She became a keen observer of the local political scene and soon began to write anonymous articles for the Herald and later the Star newspapers that were highly critical of the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP).

When the government, then under the premiership of E.O. Le Blanc, reacted to mounting criticism of its administration during the 1960s by passing of the Seditious and Undesirable Publications Act in July 1968, she was in the vanguard of those who led the demonstrations against the DLP. This group called themselves the ‘Freedom Fighters’ and campaigned against what they dubbed “the shut your mouth bill”.

This band of political activists went on to found the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) in October 1968 with Eugenia Charles as Political Leader. The DFP confidently prepared to face the upcoming general elections of  October 1970 but Miss Charles failed to win the Roseau north seat being defeated by the youthful and popular future prime minister, Patrick John. However, the constitution of that time allowed for the appointment of one nominated member on the opposition side and Miss Charles entered the House of Assembly as ‘the 3rd Nominated Member’, appointed on November 12, 1970.

Eventually, in the general elections of March 1975, she contested and won the Roseau Central seat and replaced the long serving Soufriere representative, Anthony Moise, as Leader of Opposition in the new parliament on April 7, 1975. Her four year term as opposition leader was a very active one during a volatile time in Dominica’s modern history.

In the rough and tumble of small island politics Miss Charles was accused of being an elitist member of the “mulatre gwo boug” and a cold and hard hearted spinster. But ignoring these jibes, she took every advantage available to promote her party’s cause and campaigned tirelessly across the country, founding party branches and extending her network of supporters. She used her position as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which the constitution directed must be held by the Leader of the Opposition, to great effect. It gave her the power to demand financial documents from senior public servants which she used to expose misspending by the government. Bit by bit during the late 1970s Miss Charles attracted a broad respect and growing support from a critical mass of the electorate.

A new era begins. Mary Eugenia Charles is sworn in as Prime Minister by President Aurelius Marie on the steps of Government House on 23 July 1980

When Premier Patrick John declared in 1976 that he was taking Dominica into independence, Eugenia Charles immediately went into top gear. Armed with her legal experience she demanded changes to the draft constitution and advocated that Dominica should go independent as a sovereign republic without the British monarch as head of state. She led the opposition delegation at the constitutional Conference for independence held at Marlborough House, London in 1977 and was an active spokesperson in the public meetings related to the constitution in the run-up to independence in November 1978. During political upheavals and a constitutional crisis in 1979 she served as a member of the Committee for National Salvation (CNS) that brokered the creation of an interim government to administer Dominica until general elections could be organized.

She became the first Caribbean woman Prime Minister when she led the DFP to victory in the July 1980 general elections. She was appointed to the post on July 23 1980 and served for 15 years until 13 June 1995. During this time she was given the nickname ‘Mamo’, by which she was popularly known for the rest of her life. Regionally she immediately became part a formidable team of Caribbean leaders including Edward Seaga of Jamaica and Tom Adams of Barbados who dominated Caribbean public life in the 1980s.

Her first term was dedicated to reconstruction of housing, roads and other infrastructure destroyed by Hurricane David which had hit Dominica on 29 August 1979, and in getting the business of government and foreign relations back into order. This was made more difficult by destabilization and the attempted coups to overthrow her government in 1981 and the court cases that followed. Her government was re-elected in 1985 with a reduced majority and again in 1990 when the United Workers Party (UWP), formed in 1988, became the main opposition in parliament.

Mary Eugenia Charles (left) with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in India in 1983. Behind them are Caribbean colleagues: Prime Ministers Lester Bird of Antigua and Barbuda and Tom Adams of Barbados

In 1991 she was knighted as Dame of the Order of Bath by Queen Elizabeth II at Harare, Zimbabwe during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. She retired from the House of Assembly in 1995 and her Dominica Freedom Party lost the general elections of that year after fifteen years in power. During that time the country rose to an economic peak in 1988 but the momentum was not maintained and by 1993 there was evidence of the beginning of an economic decline due mainly to changes in international trade affecting the banana industry, the reduction of foreign aided projects and the economics of scale in relation to small independent island states.

Despite these drawbacks however, The Dominica Freedom Party government, under Dame Eugenia’s leadership, is credited with contributing significantly to the development of Dominica. It brought stability to the island after almost a decade of political and social upheaval. With intense negotiation for foreign aid donor assistance it repaired and rehabilitated the main road network all over the island and constructed new primary schools, clinics and hospital extensions.

It upgraded and extended the network of electric power, bringing the service to the east coast for the first time. It introduced a programme of primary health care which was a model for the region. It pioneered, with the help of UNESCO, the Junior Secondary Programme in education. It fought hard to keep the banana industry alive in the face of international pressure. It opened industrial estates at Canefield and Jimmit. It completed the construction of Canefield airport and energized the tourism industry with the ‘Nature Island’ branding. Dame Eugenia’s insistence on order and good and accountable governance filtered across the country to influence a wide range of public and civic institutions.

Conflict over her domination of the cabinet and her views on a successor marred the last two years of her leadership. Her firm and forthright character and clear cut opinions were seen by some to be abrasive and she made many enemies. But her admirers cited these as the only means by which to accomplish results under difficult circumstances.

Dame Eugenia was best known outside of Dominica for her staunch anti-communism during the last years of the Cold War in the Caribbean and, as Chairman of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), for leading the invitation to the United States government under President Ronald Reagan to invade Grenada in October 1983. She famously stood next to the US President on the morning of the invasion as they faced the international press together. For her determined nature in the face of crisis she was often referred to as ‘The Iron Lady of the Caribbean’.  This was in fact the title of a book written about her by Janet Higby, a US journalist with Dominican roots that was published by Macmillan UK.

Dame Eugenia Charles greets US President Ronald Reagan in Grenada after the military intervention. The photo was sent to her by Reagan who wrote a note to her beneath it

Following her retirement in 1995 she watched from the sidelines as the fortunes of the Dominica Freedom Party rapidly declined under new leadership, eventually loosing all of its seats in the House of Assembly at the general elections of 2005. By then, Dame Eugenia’s memory and mental capacity to absorb what was going on around her was fading and in the opinion to some close to her, she had lost the will to live. She fell and fractured her left hip on August 2005 and was flown to Martinique for treatment where she died on Tuesday September 6, 2005.

Her death removed one of the core group of regional leaders such as Tom Adams of Barbados, John Compton of St. Lucia, V.C. Bird of Antigua and Sir James Mitchell of St. Vincent and the Grenadines who dominated the politics of the Eastern Caribbean during the latter part of the 20th century when the islands attained independence from Britain.

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27 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    December 4, 2013

    that woman is very good

  2. simple mind
    May 15, 2012

    I am happy Dr.Honychurch still has a little truth left in him;and he should ask his boss the P.m to read and re-read this piece.I would be happy Lennox.

    • giving
      May 15, 2012

      why does it always have to go down that road

  3. May 15, 2012

    HEHEHEHE HOOKED ON FREEDOM .

  4. Fairplay
    May 15, 2012

    MAMO treated Dominicans as children with no respect.Bourgeois mentality!!!

    • giving
      May 15, 2012

      please read the above article again, then read your comments and see if what u said is true

  5. LIMINGLUCY
    May 15, 2012

    THAT’S WHY WOMEN SHOULD BE IN CHARGE NOT MEN….

    • giving
      May 15, 2012

      i would not really say it the way you said it but they really do a good job

  6. Reachout
    May 15, 2012

    I remember her speech at a Summit, Ms. Charles told the media “that America does not stretch it hands too long” This lady really had a lot of self-confident and stood for what she believed.

  7. leford
    May 15, 2012

    VIVA! VIVA! VIVA!
    MAMA EUGENIA

  8. May 15, 2012

    Nice.This is education for the new Generations.

  9. Massacre
    May 15, 2012

    When are we going to get another P.M whom we can compare to Ms.Charles??
    Poor D/ca I feel your lost.
    During her reign, Dominican was on the international scene for all the right reasons.

    • Homeboy
      May 15, 2012

      In all fairness the era MAMO ruled was different from this current administration. She did her thing in her time and Skerrit is doing his thing. I am not pro-Skerrit or anti- Skerrit but the man deserves recognition for what he has done in his tenure ( upgrade critical Infrastructure island- wide).
      While I am certain someone will reply to my post and point out the failing agric industry)… We can all agree that more needs to be done but he has done good.

  10. Anonymous
    May 15, 2012

    Politics in Dominica has not seen another well-respected leader. Surely she was a phenomenal woman, we can’t speak of leadership without remembering her. May she rest in peace!

  11. woman
    May 15, 2012

    Well written piece Lennox. Thank you for taking us down memory lane. I love that pic with Indira Ghandi! From time Bird always had a big neck and head! lol

  12. A Voice
    May 15, 2012

    I always say that she was the only man when Dominica only had boys.

    • Robin
      May 15, 2012

      DA still have boys… all 99.9999% of the male population are boys!

  13. Shameless
    May 15, 2012

    The Sisserous still sign ur name
    The trees still wave their branches in honor of ur fame
    The clouds still weep when they remember strenght
    Dominica will alway be grateful for ur unmatched strength

    We love U mamo and always will.Thank u very much and continue to RIP

  14. BEFFA
    May 15, 2012

    THOSE WERE THE DAYS, I WOULD HAVE LOVED TO RELIVE IT, IT WAS FUN DAYS, FUN DAYS I TELL YOU

  15. Possie
    May 15, 2012

    SHE HAD MORE BALLS THAN THE MEN THAT ARE THERE TODAY

  16. smile
    May 15, 2012

    I AM STILL VERY YOUNG. THE FIRST TIME I VOTED WAS THE D.F.P AND I AM AT HEART STILL A FREEDOMITE. I AM HAPPY TO HAVE BEEN IN THE FREEDOM BAND WAGON

  17. good
    May 15, 2012

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. Well done.

  18. Dynamite Freedomite
    May 15, 2012

    Now that is what truly defines political class.

  19. Robin
    May 15, 2012

    That was a lady and a leader. Dominica has lost a lot of it’s good people.

  20. Homeboy
    May 15, 2012

    That is history. I remember those yellow ” hooked on freedom” shirt

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