Eugenia Charles

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Dame Eugenia Charles
Eugenia Charles at the United Nations.jpg
Charles at the United Nations, New York, in 1985
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.

She was also described as the "Iron Lady of the Caribbean."[2][3]

Personal life[edit]

Eugenia Charles was born on 15 May 1919 in the fishing village of Pointe Michel in Saint Luke Parish, Dominica. She was the daughter of John Baptiste Charles and his wife Josephine (née Delauney),[4][5] the youngest of four children.[6] 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.[7]

She attended the Convent High School in Roseau, Dominica which was then the island's only girls' secondary school, and St Joseph's Convent in Grenada.[5] Afterward Charles became interested in law while working at the colonial magistrate's court.[7] She worked for many years as assistant to Alastair Forbes.[8] Charles attended the University of Toronto in Canada, receiving her LL.B. in 1947. She then moved to the United Kingdom to attend the London School of Economics, where she earned her LL.M. in 1949.[9][10] She was a member of the sorority Sigma Gamma Rho.[11] She trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple and was called to the bar in London in 1947.[6]

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.[7] She also worked as a director of the Dominican Cooperative Bank, which had been established by her father, and instituted the country's first student loan scheme.[6]

Charles never married nor had children. In 1991 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[7]

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 wrote anonymous newspaper columns for The Herald and The Star criticising the Dominica Labour Party government.[5] In 1967, she became involved in the Freedom Fighters, an advocacy group which opposed the Seditious and Undesirable Publications Act.[6][5] In October 1968, the group merged with the National Democratic Movement of Dominica to become the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP). The party held its first convention in June 1969 and Charles was appointed as its leader, a position she would hold until 1995.[7][6]

Charles contested the Roseau North seat in the 1970 general election but lost to Patrick John. She was elected to the House of Assembly in the 1975 general election, representing the constituency of Roseau Central and became the opposition leader.[7][5] Charles was a delegate at the 1977 constitutional conference at Marlborough House, London and actively supported Dominica gaining full independence from British rule in 1978. In 1979, she was a member of the Committee for National Salvation, which created an interim government after the resignation of Patrick John.[5]

Charles became Prime Minister when the DFP swept the 1980 general election, the party's first electoral victory.[12] 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. Her first term was focused on rebuilding infrastructure and disaster management as Hurricane David had hit Dominica on 29 August 1979.[5] She additionally served as Dominica's Foreign Minister from 1980 to 1990,[13] Minister of Finance from 1980 to 1995, and as chairperson of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).[14]

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.[15] 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.[15]

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.[16]

Charles became more widely known to the outside world for her role in the lead-up to the United States Invasion of Grenada on 25 October 1983. 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.[7] 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.[17]

She was re-elected in the 1985 general election and the 1990 general election.[5] 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).[18]

Later years and death[edit]

With popularity declining during her third term, Charles retired in 1995. The DFP subsequently lost the 1995 elections.[12] 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 the age of 86.[18][12] She was buried in Pointe Michel on 14 September.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Eugenia Charles". University of London.
  2. ^ Edition 2005 (2003). "Eugenia Charles – prime minister of Dominica". Britannica.
  3. ^ "Eugenia Charles, 86, Is Dead; Ex-Premier of Dominica, Called 'Iron Lady'". The New York Times. Associated Press. 9 September 2005.
  4. ^ The International Who's Who 2004. Psychology Press. 2003. p. 302. ISBN 978-1-85743-217-6.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Charles, Dame (Mary) Eugenia (1919–2005), prime minister of Dominica". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/96671. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. Retrieved 12 August 2021. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ a b c d e Secretariat, Commonwealth (1999). Women in Politics: Voices from the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Secretariat. pp. 50–52. ISBN 978-0-85092-569-2.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Pattullo, Polly (8 September 2005). "Obituary: Dame Eugenia Charles". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 August 2009.
  8. ^ "Sir Alastair Forbes". The Telegraph (in British English). 11 August 2001. Retrieved 19 January 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  9. ^ "Hon Dame Eugenia Charles (LLM, 1949)". London School of Economics and Political Science (in British English). Retrieved 19 January 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ Gomes, Sonia (21 March 2018). "Eugenia Charles – DBE, Iron Lady and Mamo". LSE History. Retrieved 19 January 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ Grant, Teddy (12 November 2019). "5 Sigma Gamma Rho, Inc. Members in Politics". EBONY (in American English). Retrieved 19 January 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ a b c Goldman, Lawrence (2013). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2005–2008. Oxford University Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-19-967154-0.
  13. ^ Current Biography Yearbook. H. W. Wilson Co. 1 January 1986. p. 89.
  14. ^ "Dame Mary Eugenia Charles". Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat. 10 June 2007. Archived from the original on 10 June 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2021.
  15. ^ a b "Ex-Commander Hanged For Dominica Coup Role". The New York Times. 9 August 1986. Retrieved 26 August 2009.
  16. ^ Crask, Paul (1 January 2011). Dominica. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-84162-356-6.
  17. ^ Woodward, Bob, Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981–1987, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, pp. 290, 300.
  18. ^ 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 Prime Minister of Dominica
Succeeded by