Remembering Janet Jagan, President of Guyana
You might have read in the New York Times or in the Boston Globe that Janet Jagan, the first woman elected president of Guyana, died at age 88 this past weekend. A native of Chicago and a naturalized Guyanese citizen, Jagan -- born Janet Rosenberg to Jewish parents -- was elected president of Guyana (an English-speaking country and former British colony in South America, for those who need a geography briefing) on December 15, 1997. She succeeded her husband, Cheddi Jagan, who died earlier that year, making her the first American-born woman to be elected president of any country -- pretty impressive.
Jagan's political history is interesting: she was a hard-line communist who championed the nationalization of foreign owned industries in an effort to strip some wealth from the rich Guyanese elite and leverage the poor. Throughout her career, both she and her husband were jailed and placed under house arrest multiple times after being accused by the British of seeking to turn Guyana into a communist state.
I was most interested in reading about how Jagan will be remembered in Guyana, as described by BBC's Orin Gordon in a piece on PRI's The World:
"I think she's going to be remembered with a great deal of warmth. She came over the years to be regarded as Guyanese. She never lost her American accent over the many years, the many decades that she lived in Guyana. She was a very unassuming person. She carried herself modestly even when she was in power. She didn't do the motorcades or she didn't dress up very much. She wasn't a 'string of pearls' kind of person. She wasn't ostentatious in any way, so you would struggle to pick her out in a crowd. She's going to be remembered as well as a brave woman, because in the ‘40s, coming from a Jewish American background and marrying an Indo-Guyanese and moving to Guyana with him, people regarded both of them as being brave for doing what they did at the time. He was brave to marry outside his tightly knit Indian-Guyanese community and to bring a white American wife to Guyana, and she was brave to make the move to Guyana."
Jagan certainly was a woman of great courage. For me, her life story serves an important reminder of the rich and varied contexts -- across the globe, in some of the most unassuming places -- in which Jewish women live their lives, take risks, and effect critical change.
Learn more about Janet Jagan in This Week in History.