The world’s first woman prime minister took office 60 years ago today, when Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike was chosen to lead the country of Ceylon.
She had only entered politics 10 months earlier when her husband, Solomon, was assassinated by a Buddhist extremist. As leader of the country’s ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), he was prime minister at the time of his assassination, and his grieving widow vowed to continue his work and promote his socialist ideals.
During the election campaign she became known as the “weeping widow” for frequently bursting into tears, especially when asked about her late husband. But her party was victorious, winning 75 of the 150 seats available.
Born into a prominent family who were part of Ceylon’s aristocracy, Mrs Bandaranaike had the benefit of a good education by nuns at a Catholic school in the nation’s capital, Colombo, although she later became a practising Buddhist. She married in 1940 at the age of 34 and until her husband’s death appeared to be content in the role of supportive wife and mother to their three children.
After being elected prime minister, she attributed her success to “the people’s love and respect” for her late husband. He came to power in 1956, just eight years after Ceylon won independence from British rule, but his government was plagued by infighting between Tamils and Sinhalese, the two main ethnic groups in Ceylon.
On her election, ‘Mrs B’, as she was affectionately known, made Sinhalese the official language of government and dropped English as an official language of Ceylon. This angered the minority Tamils, who saw it as a deliberate ploy to deny them access to posts in government and the law. Unrest continued and just a year into her premiership Mrs B was forced to declare a national state of emergency to quell a Tamil campaign of civil disobedience.
In order to consolidate her party’s ruling position, in 1964 she entered into a coalition with Ceylon’s left-wing Marxist party, but it was widely seen as a cynical power grab and unpopular even within her own party. In the general election the following year, the SLFP coalition was defeated, ending her term as Prime Minister.
But Mrs B wasn’t finished with politics and spent the new few years forging new political alliances to form a “United Front” coalition party, which stormed to power with a large majority in the 1970 elections. Her second term as prime minister would be another rollercoaster ride, including the adoption of a new constitution in 1972 which saw Ceylon become a republic and renamed Sri Lanka.
Despite success in foreign affairs earning her a respected international profile, Mrs B could not maintain her party’s popularity at home, and they were trounced in the 1977 election, holding just eight seats, including her own. Three years later she became a political outcast, charged with abuse of power during her second term as prime minister. It saw her expelled from parliament and banned from public office for seven years, though she remained leader of the SLFP, now in opposition.
By now, a new generation of her family had become involved in politics, particularly her ambitious daughter, Chandrika, who steadily grew in popularity. It was she who steered an SLFP-led coalition to victory in Sri Lanka’s 1994 general election, becoming prime minister and then elected president later the same year. Due to changes in Sri Lanka’s constitution, the real power now lay with the president, while the role of prime minister had become a largely ceremonial one.
Even so, Mrs B became prime minister again, appointed by her daughter and remaining in office until a few months before her death. She died on the day of the next general election, October 10th, 2000, shortly after casting her vote for the last time. Four decades after first coming to power, she had been dubbed “the mother of the nation” and Sri Lanka virtually ground to a halt for her televised state funeral a few days later.