Charles, Eugenia (Dominica)
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, nicknamed the ‘Iron Lady of the Caribbean’ was prime minister from 1980 to 1995.
Mary Eugenia Charles was born on 15 May 1919 in the village of Pointe Michel in Dominica. She studied law at the University of Toronto in Canada and at the London School of Economics in the UK. After being called to the bar, she returned home to set up a practice specializing in property law, becoming Dominica’s first female lawyer.
In the 1960s she campaigned against the ruling Labour Party, helping to found the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) in 1968. She entered the House of Assembly in 1970 and became leader of the DFP 2 years later. Dominica gained formal independence in 1978 and, amid growing popular discontent with the government, the party won the country’s first post-independence general election in June 1980. Charles thus became the Caribbean’s first female prime minister.
She initiated reforms to the economy, education and health, as well as vowing to tackle government corruption. Corrupt officials were dismissed and the nation’s 200-strong defence force was disbanded after military officials were found to have authorized an illegal arms deal. Charles also oversaw a reduction in spiralling inflation and cut the balance of trade deficit by a half. She secured aid to bolster the banana-dependent economy and improved the transport infrastructure.
On the international stage, she served as the chair of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), appealing for US intervention following the execution of Grenada’s prime minister, Maurice Bishop, in a coup in 1983. Having herself survived two attempted coups during her first term in office, she won renewed mandates in 1985 and 1990. However, against a backdrop of rising unemployment, she opted not to contest the 1995 election.
After retiring from frontline politics, Charles lectured in international relations and forged close ties with the Carter Center, the human rights organization founded by the former US president, Jimmy Carter. Charles was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1991 and died on 6 Sept. 2005.