Dame Mary Eugenia Charles: May 15, 1919 – Sept. 6, 2005.
For championing the United States’ invasion of Grenada after the assassination of its Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, and for her “strongly opinionated, uncompromising leadership style,” Dame Mary Eugenia Charles was called “The Iron Lady of the Caribbean,” according to the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences (DAAS), which honored her posthumously in February 2010.
“She was a remarkable woman who held her own on the world stage with distinction,” DAAS said.
The late Dominica Prime Minister was born on May 15, 1919 in the village of Pointe Michel, Dominica.
Her father, John Baptiste “JB” Charles, was of humble background; but through hard work and perseverance, he became a prominent and wealthy landowner and banker, DAAS said.
Dame Eugenia’s mother, Josephine, ran the family grocery in Roseau, the Dominica capital, and a bakery in Pointe Michel.
Eugenia was the last of four children. She attended the Convent High School in Dominica and St. Joseph’s Convent in Grenada, becoming interested in law while working at the magistrate’s court in Roseau, DAAS said.
She read law at the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics, and was called to the Bar at London’s Inner Temple in 1949, according to DAAS.
She passed the bar in 1950, and returned to Dominica as the island’s first female lawyer, specializing in property law.
In 1968, she helped form, and was elected leader of the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP).
She was elected to the House of Assembly in 1970, becoming Opposition Leader in 1975.
DAAS said Dame Eugenia was serving in the legislature when Dominica gained independence from Britain in 1978; and with her legal background, was an important delegate at the 1977 London constitutional conference leading up to independence.
On May 29, 1979, troops under the control Prime Minister Patrick John shot at citizens outside Parliament demonstrating against a recent Seditious Acts law, killing one demonstrator.
In the aftermath, DAAS noted that Charles became a leading member of the Committee of National Salvation, which brokered the resignation of Prime Minister John and ruled the country until elections the following year.
Her DFP swept these elections, and she became Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“She was the first female Prime Minister in the Western Hemisphere to be elected in her own right,” DAAS said.
In 1981, she foiled two coup attempts – one by disgruntled soldiers from the Dominica Defense Force, which she had disbanded; and the other by ousted Prime Minister John aided by mercenaries of the US Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, DAAS said. John was sentenced to prison.
DAAS said Charles was an ardent proponent of Caribbean unity, and served as chair of the sub-regional Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).
It was during this tenure that she became internationally known for her role in the United States invasion of Grenada, DAAS noted.
In the wake of the murder of Bishop in 1983, Charles, as OECS chair, appealed to the United States to intervene.
On the morning of Oct. 25, 1983, she stood next to then U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the White House as he announced the invasion of Grenada.
While Charles and her party were considered conservative by Caribbean standards, DAAS said she instituted various social programs, including extensive rural electrification; she clamped down on drug trafficking; and was a strong supporter of anti-corruption measures and individual freedoms.
In the wake of Hurricane David in 1979, she led the rebuilding of housing, roads and other infrastructure, “which had been almost totally destroyed,” DAAS said.
“Her personal modesty, integrity and thrifty management of the island’s finances were legendary, and she was never accused of corruption,” it said.
After 15 years in office, Dame Eugenia retired and did not contest the 1995 election, which her party lost.
“But thanks to her hard work, Dominica’s roads had improved considerably and living standards rose,” said DAAS, adding that Charles was “highly respected internationally.
“She had a quick, sharp intellect, with a sometimes humorous edge,” it continued.
Dame Eugenia was awarded several honorary doctorates, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the prestigious International Women’s Forum.
On retirement, she helped set up Harvard University’s Center for Women’s Studies, and lectured in international relations, DAAS said.
In 1991, she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
In 2003, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) conferred on her the Order of the Caribbean Community (OCC), “fitting tributes to her distinguished career as lawyer, politician and Caribbean leader,” DAAS said.
In her memory, the Roseau bay front thoroughfare, the old Bay Street, was renamed Dame Eugenia Charles Boulevard.
Charles never married. Dominicans affectionately called her “Mamo,” a local term of endearment for mother.
On Aug. 30, 2005 she went to Martinique for hip replacement surgery, and died there from a pulmonary embolism on Sept. 6, aged 86.
DAAS said it had honored Charles for her “extraordinary leadership during a period of exceptional political and economic turmoil, and for her dignity and integrity.”