Women's History Month
The value of each woman consists in what she does well. (Egypt)
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, (15 May 1919 – 6 September 2005)
If I were right wing and conservative, Eugenia Charles would probably be one of my heroes. As it is I admire her for her strength and for not backing down even when I may have preferred her at least to waver.
Grenada was one of those occasions. Perhaps conservatism was in the air when Charles joined with Edward Seaga of Jamaica and Tom Adams of Barbados to invite the United States to invade a Caribbean island. The US had a history of invading non-English speaking islands like Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. But this was an English-speaking island that had once been British.
Grenada’s Maurice Bishop was killed in a disturbance, and the US claimed their troops needed to go to the rescue of American students living in Grenada. The students said they perceived no danger to themselves at any time. Charles stood beside Reagan when he announced the Grenada invasion.
Whatever you might say about her, this woman had guts.
She grew up with few reminders that her grandparents were slaves. Her father started out as a mason and became a businessman and a wealthy landowner. In addition, the family was light-skinned enough to acquire bourgeois status.
Charles he attended Dominica’s only secondary school at a time when poor Black people had to be satisfied with a few years of primary school. She attended university in Canada and the United Kingdom when the most ambitious Blacks could gain degrees only by correspondence courses. Some managed to reach the US where they could work and study at the same time. Charles went on to study law when most women of any color were expected to find husbands to provide for them, and to have children to prove their worth. She made her name as an attorney when a woman’s worth was measured by her husband’s occupation, or by attainment of her children or grandchildren. She was her island’s first female attorney. In a patriarchal society, she raised eyebrows and sometimes caused unkind comment because she never married and never had children. In parts of the Caribbean, a woman like her would risk being called a “mule” or worse. Her deep bass voice might have given even more cause to question her femininity.
But Charles never seemed to care what her critics said about her.
In her policies at home, she was mostly conservative. She veered slightly left in her support for social welfare programs. In addition, she showed her potential as a rebel when she turned up in parliament in a bath suit. She was protesting what she considered to be an absurd dress code.
However, Charles never identified with women’s rights, in a region where women still suffer abuse and indignity based on gender. She also showed little interest in addressing relics of slavery such as barriers based on color and class. Tourists could visit her country, but she tolerated no casinos, no night clubs, and no duty-free shops. She sought to give the people roads and electricity when they demanded jobs and social welfare. Known as the Iron Lady of the Caribbean, and faced two coups d'état. Both were unsuccessful.
She became Dame Eugenia Charles when she was knighted by the Queen of England.
As a mark of her strength, she returned to school when she retired from public office after leading Dominica for 15 years. She then attended the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. She also became engaged in the Carter Centre, monitoring elections around the world.
A mark of Eugenia Charles' life was that she did well, regardless of whether others agreed with what she did.
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