Eugenia Charles

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Dame Eugenia Charles

Eugenia Charles.jpg
2nd Prime Minister of Dominica
In office
21 July 1980 – 14 June 1995
PresidentAurelius Marie
Clarence Seignoret
Crispin Sorhaindo
Preceded byOliver Seraphin
Succeeded byEdison James
Personal details
Born(1919-05-15)15 May 1919
Pointe Michel, Dominica
Died6 September 2005(2005-09-06) (aged 86)
Fort-de-France, Martinique
Political partyFreedom Party
Alma materUniversity of Toronto
London School of Economics

Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, DBE (15 May 1919 – 6 September 2005) was a Dominican politician who was Prime Minister of Dominica from 21 July 1980 until 14 June 1995. The first woman lawyer in Dominica, she was Dominica's first, and to date only, female prime minister. She was the second female prime minister in the Caribbean after Lucina da Costa of the Netherlands Antilles. She was the first woman in the Americas to be elected in her own right as head of government. She served for the longest period of any Dominican prime minister, and was the world's third longest-serving female Prime Minister, behind Indira Gandhi of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.[1] She established a record for the longest continuous service of any woman Prime Minister.

Personal life[edit]

Daughter of Josephine (née Delauney) and John B. Charles,[2] Eugenia Charles was born in the fishing village of Pointe Michel in Saint Luke parish, Dominica. Her family was considered part of the "coloured bourgeoisie", descendants of free people of color. Her father was a mason who became a wealthy landowner and had business interests in export-import.[3]

She attended the Catholic Convent School in Dominica, then the island's only girls' secondary school. Afterward Charles became interested in law while working at the colonial magistrate's court.[3] She worked for many years as assistant to Alastair Forbes. Charles attended the University of Toronto in Canada (LL.B., 1947), then moved to the United Kingdom to attend the London School of Economics. She was a member of the sorority Sigma Gamma Rho. She passed the bar and returned to Dominica, where she became the island's first female lawyer. She established a practice specialising in property law.[3]

Charles never married nor had children. In 1991 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[3]

Political career[edit]

Charles meets with American President Ronald Reagan in the White House's Oval Office about ongoing events in Grenada

Charles 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.[3] She was elected to the House of Assembly in 1970 and became Opposition Leader in 1975.[3] She continued serving after Dominica gained full independence from British rule in 1978.

Charles became Prime Minister when the DFP swept the 1980 elections, the party's first electoral victory.[4] 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,[5] Minister of Finance from 1980 to 1995, and as chairperson of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).[6]

In 1981 she faced two attempted coups d'état. That year Frederick Newton, commander of the Military of Dominica, organised an attack on the police headquarters in Roseau, resulting in the death of a police officer.[7] Newton and five other soldiers were found guilty in the attack and sentenced to death in 1983. The sentences of the five accomplices were later commuted to life in prison, but Newton was executed in 1986.[7]

In 1981, a group of Canadian and American mercenaries, mostly affiliated with white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan groups, planned a coup to restore former Prime Minister Patrick John to power. The attempt, which the conspirators codenamed Operation Red Dog, was thwarted by American federal agents in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was soon facetiously dubbed the "Bayou of Pigs", referring to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion years before in Cuba.[8]

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 chair of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, appealed to the United States, Jamaica, and Barbados for intervention.[3] 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 Mrs. Charles's support for the US intervention in Grenada.[9]

Charles and her party were considered conservative by Caribbean standards. However, American observers considered many of her policies to be centrist or even leftist; for instance, she supported some social welfare programmes. Other issues that were important to her were anti-corruption laws and individual freedom.[original research?] For her uncompromising stance on this and other issues, she became known as the "Iron Lady of the Caribbean" (after the original "Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher).[10]

Later years and death[edit]

With popularity declining during her third term, Charles announced her retirement in 1995. The DFP subsequently lost the 1995 elections.[4] 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.

On 30 August 2005, Charles entered a hospital in Fort-de-France, Martinique, for hip-replacement surgery. She died from a pulmonary embolism on 6 September at 86 years of age.[10][4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Eugenia Charles". University of London.
  2. ^ The International Who's Who 2004. Psychology Press. 2003. p. 302. ISBN 9781857432176.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Pattullo, Polly (8 September 2005). "Obituary: Dame Eugenia Charles". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 August 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Goldman, Lawrence (2013). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2005–2008. Oxford University Press. p. 210. ISBN 9780199671540.
  5. ^ Current Biography Yearbook. H. W. Wilson Co. 1 January 1986. p. 89.
  6. ^ Caricom Biography
  7. ^ a b "Ex-Commander Hanged For Dominica Coup Role". The New York Times. Associated Press. 9 August 1986. Retrieved 26 August 2009.
  8. ^ Crask, Paul (1 January 2011). Dominica. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 15. ISBN 9781841623566.
  9. ^ Woodward, Bob, Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, pp. 290, 300.
  10. ^ a b "Eugenia Charles, Pioneering Dominica Leader Known As 'Iron Lady', Succumbs At 86". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company: 17. 10 October 2005.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Oliver Seraphin
Prime Minister of Dominica
Succeeded by
Edison James