Mary Eugenia Charles Biography
Learned Values from Family, Jumped into Politics, Elected to Lead, Formed Tough Government Policies
Mary Eugenia Charles led an extraordinary life as a pioneer among women and a leader of men. In 1949 she began the first female lawyer in the Caribbean. In 1980 Mary Eugenia Charles became the first woman to come to power in the Caribbean. As prime minister of Dominica (pronounced "Dom-i-NEE-ka"), she was the first woman to lead an independent nation. Her longevity and determination to do right for her people earned her the nickname "The Iron Lady of the Caribbean." Charles served three terms in office before retiring in 1995.
Learned Values from Family
Mary Eugenia Charles was born in Pointe Michel, Dominica, not far from the capital of Roseau. Dominica—not to be confused with the larger, Spanish-speaking country of the Dominican Republic—was a colony of Great Britain at the time of Charles's birth and remained so until achieving independence in 1978. She grew up with three brothers who all became doctors and one sister who became a nun. Charles's father, John Baptiste was a renowned businessman who speculated in land and founded the island's Penny Bank. He lived until the age of 107, seeing his daughter serve as prime minister for three years before his death in 1983.
Charles referred to her father in Ebony magazine as "a very, very great man. He taught me much about being tough when it counts, and about always being open and honest with people." In People she spoke of her mother as the primary influence in her life however. "In Dominica we really live women's lib," she said, "we don't have to expound it."
Charles, who never married and bore no children, began her education in Dominica. She completed her higher studies at a Roman Catholic convent in St. George's, Grenada—a neighboring island country. She became interested in law while attending trials to practice her shorthand for a required secretarial course. She then went to the University of Toronto in Canada to study law, earning her bachelor's degree there. She continued her legal education in England at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Charles was called to the bar in England in 1947 as a member of the Inner Temple. She hoped to stay in London to further her studies of law in the field of juvenile delinquency. Her parents however convinced her to return to Dominica where she would be the only female lawyer. Charles returned to her home, and was soon practicing law in Dominica. Over the years, she became involved in legal cases in several of the West Indies islands.
Jumped into Politics
Charles first became involved in politics in the 1950s. She told Americas magazine that she "was a concerned citizen involved in what was happening in my country, and quite often I would write letters of criticism of whatever government was in power at the time." During the 1950s and 1960s Dominica moved slowly toward independence. By 1968 Dominica was an internally self-governed colony. Edward Oliver Le Blanc was the prime minister and a member of the ruling Labour party. Le Blanc passed a sedition law that prohibited the formation of opposition parties and attempted to muzzle the media.
Charles quickly reacted by joining with trade unionists, upper class professionals, and the religious leaders to form an organization called the Freedom Fighters. She made numerous speeches traveling the island to protest the law. "At that point," said Charles in Americas, "I made up my mind I would do everything to prevent that government from continuing to rule, because I felt democracy would die." Many of the Freedom Fighters formed the new Dominica Freedom party, a right-of-center party that represented the "traditional merchant and professional class in Roseau and non-agricultural areas in the south of the island," according to Patrick Baker in the book Centering the Periphery.
In the 1970 elections several members of the Freedom party were winners for seats in the House of Assembly, Dominica's legislative body. Although not one of the people elected, Charles was appointed to a seat in the Assembly as the Dominican constitution allows; she was elected to the House of Assembly on her own right in 1975 after Le Blanc had resigned and Patrick John had succeeded him. She was one of three Freedom party members elected that year. She was also chosen as the leader of the opposition party.
After Dominican independence in 1978, John, who began calling himself Colonel, attempted to make many changes to the country. He tried to sell 45 square miles, nearly one-sixth of the island, to a Texas-based business for development of a free port. He canceled the agreement after protests became very vocal. His government came under attack for business dealings with the apartheid government in South Africa. Government officials were accused of trying to set up a drug-trading zone in the country. John's government was often mentioned as being connected to the marijuana trade controlled by Jamaican-based Rastafarians.
Elected to Lead
In May of 1979, in response to a curtailing of press freedom and changes in the right-to-strike laws, 15,000 people—of a total population of 80,000—gathered to protest the government. Government security officers began shooting into the crowd. One person died in the attack and several others were injured. John's government fell soon after. An interim government was formed to last until elections. Hurricane David struck Dominica during this period, further angering the people due to lack of government response. In elections of July 1980, Eugenia Charles and her opposition Freedom party swept to victory in 17 of the 21 assembly seats.
Immediately Charles set about trying to reconstruct a government and an island, after the devastating hurricane. She ran into trouble immediately. The Dominican Defense Force was inventoried for weapons. Stories of officers selling their weapons to the Rastafarian marijuana growers were widespread. Eventually Charles disbanded the defense force. Several members were arrested as they tried to reach Charles's office. The marijuana growers, known as Dreads in Dominica, were under watch and attack. After two of their members were killed in a clash with police, a local well-known farmer was kidnapped and killed. Former Prime Minister Patrick John was arrested for trying to overthrow the government in separate charges. And finally, in April of 1981, a plot to overthrow the Charles government was uncovered by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation in New Orleans and the Ontario Provincial Police in Canada. Eight Americans and two Canadians, six with ties to the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, were arrested shortly before they were to take boats to Dominica. They were going to overthrow Charles, restore the John government, and receive preferential treatment in setting up businesses, including the development of a free port where gambling and drug trade would occur.
The Dominicans arrested in the coup attempt were eventually convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. In December of 1981, an attempt to free John and others from their prison by a group of Dreads, or former Dominican soldiers, and American mercenaries was also thwarted. "I'm convinced one of the reasons certain people want to take over Dominica," Charles told Ebony, "is so they can turn it into a center for trafficking in marijuana and other drugs. I have said as firmly as I can that I do not intend for that to happen. I am not going to legalize marijuana and permit it to be sold openly on this island, and I'm not going to permit it to be grown wholesale for export. Dominica will not become a lawless place. We will not become the laughing stock of the world."
Formed Tough Government Policies
Eugenia Charles quickly began changing the way business was conducted in Dominica. She no longer accepted deals with people who wanted to avoid taxes. "I pay mine," she was quoted in as saying in Ebony, "so you must pay yours." She stopped granting waivers to businesses and immediately canceled all trips overseas for government employees. She instructed them to "stay home and do their work," Ebony stated. During her first term in office, Charles benefited from U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Caribbean Basin initiative. Money granted to the government by this plan allowed Charles to reconstruct Dominica's road system as well as rebuild the banana, lime, and coconut crops that were devastated by Hurricane David. By 1983 Charles had succeeded in lowering the inflation rate from 30 percent to less than five percent. Charles also created a budget surplus where only deficit had existed before her tenure. She followed recommendations of the World Monetary Fund and kept spending at a minimum. As she was quoted as saying in Women Prime Ministers and Presidents, "We should give the people not luxury but a little comfort. Dominica will never be rich, but it can be self-reliant." "People realize there is not much money," she told the New York Times, "but what there is, is spent on assisting them. We have given the government credibility."
Dominica joined with other island nations in July of 1981 to form the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). Eugenia Charles was elected the chair of this organization in 1983. It was in this role that Charles would leave her most lasting impression on the world. In October of 1983 Prime Minister Maurice Bishop of Grenada, three of his cabinet ministers, and a number of civilians were killed in a coup carried out by a group calling itself the New Jewel Movement. Charles convened a meeting of the OECS. She spoke about information she had which implicated Cuba and the Soviet Union in the coup. She said the coup had taken place because Bishop had scheduled elections. Charles received permission from the OECS to request help.
Stood Strong Against Criticism
On October 25, 1983 Charles joined Reagan as he announced that nearly 2,000 American Marines and Army Rangers, joined by forces from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, and Dominica, had intervened in Grenada to safeguard the lives of American citizens and help in restoring democracy to Grenada. Charles told Essence, "I believe we had to do it for our sake too, because I think we would have fallen like dominoes [to communism] if we hadn't taken those steps then."
Charles's request and U.S. reaction was roundly criticized by the Soviet Union, as well as many of the Organization of American States members, France, and Germany. Charles took the criticism in stride and told Essence that "nobody is satisfied with anything you do, because everyone has a different notion of what should have priority." She stated in Essence that she would do the same thing again if the circumstances were the same. Charles has often faced charges that she is kowtowing to the United States. She has always responded that she is simply attempting to do what is best for Dominica. Recently she ignored her own objections to Cuba's government to begin trading with her large neighbor. "I have always said I'll do business with the devil if it will buy products and put money in the hands of my people," she told Essence. "I'll trade anywhere in the world where I can get money for my farmers."
Charles handily won re-election in 1985 over a reformulated Labour party and again in 1990. She led her country through the completion of many important projects: the construction of a protective seawall and a promenade that overlooks the Roseau waterfront; the repair of all the roadways; and the electrification of even the most rural areas. Charles oversaw the dramatic rise in the number of tourists to Dominica each year. Because of its relatively pristine jungle and mountains, Dominica has been featured in many ecology-based tours. Charles told Audubon, "We are not interested in mass tourism." Charles also set aside much of the rain forest on Dominica as national park land or reserves and won the praise of environmentalists for her work in preserving the habitat of the rare Sisserou, a parrot that is found only on Dominica. She also experienced criticism in this arena when she favored a resumption of whaling in her waters.
Honored for Efforts
Charles, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth of England in 1991, has been described in Ebony as a "brilliant lawyer [and a] savvy politician [who is] razor-sharp in debate…. When it is appropriate to her purpose, [she can] turn cold-faced and wither strong men with a stare." She also has displayed a sense of humor in her work. As an Assembly member she was upset over a formal dress code rule introduced for Assembly business. She protested this by wearing her judicial robe to the Assembly, and removed it once inside the chamber to reveal a green floral print bathing suit. This stunt angered the current prime minister but brought laughter to the public gallery. During her last term in office, Dame Eugenia—the title a knighted woman goes by—looked forward to retirement. She told Essence that she intended to travel to Alaska and read when she left office. In 1995, Charles retired and began her travels. She died on September 6, 2005 on the island of Martinique from complications of a broken hip. She was 86 years old. Charles will be remembered for her "firsts" as a female lawyer and as a leader in the Caribbean. Her nickname "Iron Lady of the Caribbean" remains a uniquely suitable descriptor for her and the way she lived her life.
Baker, Patrick L. Centering the Periphery, McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.
Biographical Dictionary of Latin American and Caribbean Political Leaders, edited by Robert J. Alexander, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 117-18.
Opfell, Olga S. Women Prime Ministers and Presidents, McFarland and Company, 1993, pp. 88-94.
Americas, September/October 1985, pp. 28-30.
Audubon, March 1990, pp. 20-2.
Caribbean Today, October 2005, p. 9.
Current Biography, October 1986, pp. 9-12.
Ebony, July 1981, pp. 116-21.
Essence, September 1994, pp. 73-4, 116, 118.
Jet, October 10, 2005, p. 17.
Miami Times, June 18, 1992, p. 8A.
New York Times, May 28, 1984; September 9, 2005, p. C15.
UN Chronicle, December 1991, p. 77.
Voice (London), September 12-18, 2005, p. 6.
Washington Post, September 14, 2005, p. B6.
Weekly Journal (London), September 22, 1994; December 12, 1994.
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