Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be the first female American President – Janet Jagan beat her by a generation

Hillary Clinton and the late Janet Jagan

By Robin Wright

If she wins, Hillary Clinton won’t be the first female American to become President of a country. Janet Rosenberg beat her by a generation—and against much tougher odds.

Like Clinton, Rosenberg was born in Chicago—on the South Side, where Michelle Obama was raised, where Barack Obama first got into community organizing, where the Obama girls were born, and where the Obama Presidential Library will be built. Rosenberg came from a middle-class Jewish family. She grew into a beautiful young woman, with high cheekbones set in a long, elegant face. She was outspoken, for the nineteen-forties. She also rode horses and learned to shoot. “Nothing much frightens me,” she once explained.

Hillary Clinton and the late Janet Jagan
Hillary Clinton and the late Janet Jagan

Rosenberg was a student nurse at Cook County Hospital when she met Cheddi Jagan, a dashing Indo-Guyanese man with wavy black hair and a movie-idol smile. He was studying dentistry at Northwestern. Their parents didn’t approve of their multiracial, interfaith relationship. (He was Hindu.) Nevertheless, in 1943 they married and moved to British Guiana, then still a colony nestled next to Venezuela, on South America’s Caribbean coast.

The Jagans opened a dental-surgery practice in Georgetown, the capital. But politics was their first love. They were both leftists, radicals for the time. They soon joined the independence and labour movements in his home country, one of the poorest places in South America. The population was largely split between descendants of African slaves and indentured labourers from India who had worked on sugar plantations; only nine per cent were indigenous Amerindian. In the forties, Janet helped to organize domestic workers and to establish the Women’s Political and Economic Organization.

“Women must join in the struggle to bring about political and socio-economic changes so that there will be equal opportunities for all, so that we can end unemployment, poverty and hunger, so that genuine democratic institutions can flourish, so that our women can be free and equal citizens,” she once explained.

In the fifties, the Jagans co-founded the leftist and multiracial People’s Progressive Party; she was its secretary-general for two decades. He was elected the colony’s chief minister, on a pro-independence platform, in 1953. When Hillary Clinton was still in elementary school, Janet Rosenberg Jagan was elected deputy speaker of parliament and became the country’s first female cabinet minister.

The Jagans’ careers were turbulent, however. In 1954, their activism against colonial rule landed them in prison for six months; after that, they were under house arrest for two years. “Jail wasn’t easy from the physical point of view,” Janet later recalled. “But, like my husband, I treasured the quiet of jail from the furor outside. I did a lot of reading after insisting that women, like men, should have a right to have books.”

In 1957, she ran again for the legislature—and won. “We led the struggle by educating the people on the ills of colonialism and the need for unity to end the exploitation of this country by the dominant clique that wanted only power and profits—profits and power,” she said, in 1962. “We attained power by the valid ballot and proved our worth by winning in three successive elections—without benefit of a daily press or foreign finances. We did not attempt to grab power by bloodshed.”

But Janet Jagan was not universally admired. In 1963, Time  called her “the most controversial woman in South American politics since Evita Perón…. Not only is she a white woman in a volatile land of East Indians and Negroes; she is also a strident Marxist and believed by many to be the brains and backbone” behind her husband. “I have no religion save the religion of equality,” she countered. In 1966, the British colony gained independence, as Guyana.

Janet won parliamentary races in 1973, 1980, 1985, and 1992—and became the parliament’s longest-serving member, her career spanning forty-six years. In 1992, during Guyana’s first completely free and fair elections, which were monitored by a team led by Jimmy Carter, Cheddi Jagan became President; Janet was his First Lady as well as a politician in her own right. By then, her hair had turned white, and she had cut her long locks into a functional bob. Cheddi died in 1997, from a heart attack, despite an emergency flight to Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C. Janet ran to succeed him, and won—even though she was American-born, white, and Jewish, facts the opposing campaign exploited in vicious attacks. She took office the same year that Bill Clinton began his second term in the White House.

In 1997, UNESCO awarded Janet Jagan the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy, and Women’s Rights. As President, she expanded her focus to include globalization and the environment. “In our continuing efforts to develop our country and meet the needs of our people, especially those living in poverty, my country remains dedicated to the preservation of the environment and the sustainable development of our resources,” she said at a meeting of regional foreign ministers, in 1999.  She resigned due to poor health a few months later, at the age of seventy-seven. Her life was chronicled in a PBS documentary in 2003. The first American woman to be president of a country died in 2009, the year Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State.

If she wins, Hillary Clinton will not break new ground for women in politics globally, either. As Stephen Colbert joked on his show last Friday, the United States “will finally catch up with Sri Lanka.” Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister, in a country then known as Ceylon, in 1960. She served three times, stepping down in 2000—the year Hillary first ran for the Senate. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was Sri Lanka’s longest-serving President, for eleven years, beginning in the mid-nineties.

In the past century, fifty-four countries on the six inhabited continents —about a quarter of the world’s nations—have had female Presidents or Prime Ministers. Bangladesh, Finland, Lithuania, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Slovakia have had more than one. Theresa May just became the United Kingdom’s second female Prime Minister.

The United States has not excelled at putting women in national legislatures. It currently ranks ninety-sixth out of a hundred and ninety-three countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Less than twenty per cent of U.S. representatives in the Senate and House are women.

Rwanda, one of the poorest nations, comes in first; two-thirds of its parliament is female. At least ten predominantly Muslim countries (not all democracies) have higher percentages: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan. Even Pakistan, despite being one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, ranks higher—at eighty-third.

If she wins, Hillary Clinton will be a throwback to a much earlier model of women in power. Throughout most of history, women inherited political position or prominence from their fathers or husbands. The earliest recorded female leaders were in Egypt: Sobekneferu, some thirty-eight hundred years ago, came to power after her brother’s death, and Hatshepsut, three centuries later, after her husband’s. Hereditary monarchies were the primary route to the top, from the Biblical Queen of Sheba to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. The pattern of inherited power went on well into the twentieth century.

In the nineteen-seventies, Isabel Perón, of Argentina, became the world’s first female president, assuming power after her husband died. The pattern of wives and daughters acquiring power continued even when hereditary monarchies were replaced. The notables include Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband, Nestor, in Argentina, and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father was a leading figure in achieving the independence of modern Myanmar.

The pattern began to shift in the late nineteen-sixties, coinciding with the women’s-liberation movement. In 1969, Golda Meir, a Russian immigrant who grew up in Milwaukee, became Prime Minister of Israel. Her late husband, Morris Meyerson, had been a sign painter. Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s Prime Minister in the eighties; her husband was a businessman.

The nineties witnessed the first real spurt of women acquiring power in their own right. Both of Canada’s two major parties were headed by women. Ireland had two female Presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark were both Prime Ministers in New Zealand. Hanna Cuchocka was the first woman to head a Polish government since Queen Jadwiga, in the fourteenth century. Édith Cresson was France’s Prime Minister. The economist Tansu Çiller was Turkey’s first female Prime Minister. In an unprecedented move that still seems radical, her husband took her surname.

In many countries, the transformative factor has been quotas — either through legislation or party bylaws. India has a long history of practices that oppress women, from gender-selection abortion and female infanticide to bride-burning, when a family fails to pay a dowry. Violence against women, including acid attacks and rape, is still “common,” the latest State Department Human Rights Report warns.

Yet India also carried out history’s single biggest act of female empowerment. In 1993, a constitutional amendment set aside a third of all seats in local councils for women. Nearly a million women suddenly entered politics. A pending constitutional amendment —the so-called Women’s Reservation Bill—would allocate a third of all seats to women in the lower house of Parliament, and in state assemblies.

“More than half of the countries in the world have implemented some type of political quota,” Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, write. “They have led to a dramatic increase in female leaders across the globe.” Norway’s Socialist Left Party started the trend, in 1975, with a rule that forty per cent of its candidates should be female. In 1990, the U.N. Economic and Social Council set a goal of thirty per cent female representation in decision-making bodies.

“The United States is a notable exception among Western countries,” Pande and Ford note. Mexico has legislated quotas for both its parliament and local political office. In 2014, Mexico passed a constitutional amendment  that requires parties to develop “rules to ensure gender parity in the nomination of candidates in federal and local congressional elections.” By law, all parties must also allocate funds (albeit small) to train, develop, and promote female leaders. As a result, women account for forty-two per cent of seats in the lower house and a third of the Senate seats. In the United States, women hold only about twenty per cent in both the House and the Senate.

Worldwide, quotas have enabled tens of thousands of women to enter politics. Hillary Clinton has clearly earned her nomination, from years as a community organizer, as a senator, and as Secretary of State. President Obama said no candidate has ever been as qualified to hold the office. Yet, paradoxically, she is still an example of the traditional path to power for women. She emerged on the national stage as a First Lady—as a wife.(Reprinted from The New Yorker)

(Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written for the magazine since 1988)



  1. Wright,you miss the BUS BY MILES,PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER.They are SPEAKING about a Female President of the USA.Yoh BASSIDY OR WHA..


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