Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, Dominica – Caribbean Woman of Influence

Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, the first woman to practice law in Dominica, was born in Pointe Michel in 1919. Charles was also the first and only, thus far, female prime minister of the country. Often labeled the “Iron Lady of the Caribbean,” she served as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1995. The first woman in North or South America to be elected a head of government in her own right, she served the second longest term in history as Dominican Prime Minister and was the third longest-serving female Prime Minister in the world. She attended the Convent High School, the nation’s only girls’ school at the time, and became interested in law when she worked at the colonial magistrate’s court. She received her LL.B. degree in 1947 from the University of Toronto in Canada before moving to the United Kingdom as earning her LL.M. in 1949 at the London School of Economics. She received her barrister training at the Inner Temple and was called to the London bar in 1947.

Charles then returned to Dominica and established a law practice, specializing in property law, and worked as a director of the Dominican Cooperative Bank, where she created the first student loan program in the country. She was a founder of the Dominica Freedom Party and its leader from the 1970s to 1995. She retired after her third term and became a public speaker. She was involved with the Carter Center, an initiative of US President Jimmy Carter, which focused on promoting human rights and fairness in elections. Charles was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1991 for her service to her country. She died in 2005 in Martinique.