Janet Rosalie Jagan née Rosenberg (October 20, 1920 – March 28, 2009) was the first woman President of Guyana and South America's second woman head of state, serving from December 19, 1997 to August 11, 1999. She succeeded her husband, who died on March 6, 1997. In 1950, the Jagans co-founded the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) of which Janet was Secretary-General until 1970. First elected to parliament in 1953, she entered the cabinet in 1957 as minister of labor, health and housing. In 1963, she became Minister of Home Affairs and a Senator before entering a long period as a member of the opposition (1964 to 1992). When her husband became President in 1992, she was named First Lady. On March 17, 1997, following her husband's death, she was appointed Prime Minister and Vice-President. In 1997, she led her party to victory in the general election and became president. She was also the longest serving member of parliament. Imprisoned for anti-colonial activities in 1953, Janet Jagan was vilified by the governments of the United States and Great Britain during the Cold War as a pro-Marxist and revolutionary.
When she resigned due to ill health, she was at the height of her popularity. Throughout her long political career, Janet Jagan championed women's participation in public life, democracy, human rights and development. With her husband, she called for a new world order in which nations cooperate to end poverty and to create a more equal, just world with more efficient institutions. Janet Jagan had to be persuaded to stand for the Presidency and only did so because she believed that she could still make a positive contribution to improving her fellow citizens' quality of life. She never sought power for the sake of power; her life was motivated by a desire to make a better life for her people, and the world a fairer, better, more unified place.
Born Janet Rosenberg to a Jewish, middle-class family in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, Janet was educated at the University of Detroit and at Wayne State University and at Cook Country School of Nursing. Her parents encountered antisemitism and her father changed his last name to "Roberts" to "aid his career as a salesmen." Janet later said that her early experiences "fueled her desire to aid the poor and downtrodden." She broke many conventions of the time; she rode horses, swam competitively, took "flying lessons without permission" and as a student became involved in left-wing politics. Spinner says that she may or may not have belonged to official communist groups. Rabe says that she joined the Young Communist League of Chicago.
In December 1942, while working as a student nurse at Cook County Hospital, she met Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese dentistry student at Northwestern University. They met at political meetings. Her plan had been to use her nursing skills to help the war effort. Both their families objected to their marriage; Janet's father "threatened to shoot his daughter's suitor." Her parents predicted that their marriage would not survive a year; "The couple would stay married, however, for over fifty years and have two accomplished children." They married on August 5, 1943, and she moved with him to Guyana in December 1943; in Guyana, she took part in labor activism along with her husband and joined the British Guiana Labour Union. She also worked in her husband's dental clinic as a nurse for 10 years. Their initial involvement in labor relations began when Dr Jagan's clients asked him to intervene on their behalf. In 1946, she founded the Women's Political and Economic Organization and co-founded the Political Affairs Committee (Jackson-Laufe, 1999, 191). Her aim was to improve women's skills and competencies and to encourage their participation in the political process.
Janet Jagan unsuccessfully ran for a seat from Central Georgetown in the 1947 general election. She and her husband were co-founders of the left-wing People's Progressive Party (PPP). Janet was the party's Secretary-General from 1950 until 1970. Also in 1950, Jagan was elected to the Georgetown City Council. She was subsequently elected to the House of Assembly in the April 1953 election, winning a seat from Essequibo constituency. She was one of three women to win seats in that election; following the election, she was chosen as Deputy Speaker of the Legislature, the first woman in this office.
The PPP, a socialist party, opposed British colonial rule of Guyana. After its electoral victory in April 1953, the PPP briefly formed the government with Cheddi Jagan as chief minister, but the British government had the PPP government removed later in the year, suspended the constitution and Cheddi and Janet were jailed for five months; they were subsequently kept under house arrest for two years. In 1957, she was re-elected to the House of Assembly from Essequibo constituency, becoming Minister of Labor, Health and Housing. Her husband was premier from 1957 until 1964. Guyana gained self-governance in 1961 and full independence in 1966. It became a republic in 1970. During her four years at the Health, Labor and Housing ministry, "her awareness of the problems faced by women intensified and she developed a strong commitment to improving health and housing." She later succeeded Claude Christian as Minister of Home Affairs upon Christian's death in 1963, but resigned from the Cabinet in 1964. As a member of the Elections Commission for the opposition in 1967, she expressed concern about the possibility of vote rigging. Although the PPP won a plurality (46 percent) in the 1964 election, the People's National Congress (41 percent), thought by the British to be less radical, with the support of the United Force (12 percent) were invited by the Governor to form the government.
Janet Jagan edited the PPP newspaper Mirror from 1973 to 1997. She later observed that she took this task on because no one else "was willing to do it." At first, she could not wrote anything but persevered, becoming an accomplished journalist and writer. Similarly, she learned on her feet as Secretary-General of the PPP, commenting that when first appointed she "didn't know what a Secretary-General was."
During this period, according to one source, the CIA fearing that Guyana might become "another Cuba" launched a destabilization program that helped to foment strikes and riots" backing the People's National Congress against the PPP. "There were race riots, looting and murder" and the United States stripped Janet of her citizenship. She "even had difficulty getting a visa to visit relatives." Rabe summarizes how United States officials at the time regarded Janet as dangerous and immoral; "diplomats snickered that she was sexually aggressive and promiscuous" and "reacted in horror" to "stories that she had sexual relations with non-whites" including "Cuban revolutionaries." She was accused of using her fair-skin to "attract Guyanese males" so that she could manipulate them politically. The Americans saw Janet as the "brain behind her husband" and as the organizational wheelhouse of the PPP" assuming that her husband "lacked the drive and insight of whites." She was, they said, "intelligent and practical" but also "domineering and ruthless." Her husband, she later says, was represented as inadequate because he "broke all the traditions." He lacked the social background of traditional politicians. He was referred to as a "coolie boy."
"So of course," said Janet, "they said I wrote all his speeches because I was white, when in reality he was a brilliant intellectual and an ardent reader." When she ceased being PPP Secretary-General in 1970 she became International Secretary, holding this position until 1984. British colonial officials were convinced that Janet was a dangerous communist; Governor Savage dubbed the Jagans "acknowledged communists" which, says Rabe, meant that they were "generally regarded as communists by others." It was assumed, though, that Cheddi only knew about communism from her and that he "leaned on her." Both the Americans and the British dubbed Janet "the most dangerous person in the colony." Janet was also accused of having ties with Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, who were executed as spies by the United States in 1953. 
Jagan was elected to Parliament in 1973 when the PPP ended its boycott of parliament and was re-elected in 1980, 1985, and 1992, eventually becoming the longest-serving member of Parliament. Cheddi Jagan was elected as President of Guyana in 1992 after 28 years in opposition, and Janet Jagan became First Lady. Although offered a cabinet post, she declined. She represented Guyana at the United Nations for three months in 1993, temporarily replacing Rudy Insanally when the latter was President of the United Nations General Assembly.
After Cheddi Jagan's death, Janet Jagan was sworn in as Prime Minister as well as First Vice President on March 17, 1997. She had been persuaded to "help out" by accepting the premiership but was not inclined to "take matters further." The PPP insisted on her standing for president and after several months resisting, "she conceded that the Jagan name still possessed a 'certain magic' and that her more than 50 years in Guyana counted for something special." In the subsequent election, she was the presidential candidate of the PPP. After the PPP won the election, at the age of 77 she became the second female President in the history of South America (after Isabel Perón of Argentina) and the first to be democratically elected. In the Guyanese context, Janet not only became the first female President of Guyana, but she was also the first United States-born and Caucasian woman to lead the nation and the first person born in the United States to lead another nation. There were only three other women heads of state at the time.
On July 1, 1999, after Jagan returned from the European-Latin American summit in Rio de Janeiro, she was admitted to St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital in Georgetown due to chest pains and exhaustion. She was treated for a heart condition and released from the hospital on July 3. Later in the month, she underwent tests regarding her heart condition at Akron City Hospital in the United States city of Akron, Ohio; she was discharged on July 23. Returning to Guyana, she received heart medication and was told that bypass surgery was not necessary.
Jagan announced on August 8, 1999 that she was resigning as President because her health meant that she was no longer capable of "vigorous, strong leadership"; she said that Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo would be her successor. Jagdeo was sworn in as President on August 11.
She resigned at the height of her popularity.
At the PPP's 29th Congress, Jagan received the second highest number of votes (671) in the election to the party's Central Committee held on August 2, 2008. She was then elected to the PPP Executive Committee, in addition to being elected as editor of the PPP paper Thunder, on August 12, 2008.
Janet Jagan died on March 28, 2009, at the Georgetown Public Hospital. Her body was cremated.
Janet Jagan had long been involved with the literary and cultural life of Guyana. She published early Martin Carter poems in Thunder (which she edited) and supported the publication of early Carter collections such as The Hill of Fire Glows Red She had long been a teller of stories to her children and grandchildren and was strongly concerned that Guyanese children should have books that reflected themselves. In 1993, Peepal Tree Press published her When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy and Other Stories, followed by Patricia, the Baby Manatee (1995), Anastasia the Ant-Eater (1997) and The Dog Who Loved Flowers.
In 1997, Jagan was awarded the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women's Rights by UNESCO. She was honored with the Order of Excellence, Guyana's highest award. Jagan was for several years President of the Union of Guyanese Journalists.
With her husband, Janet Jagan championed the need for a new world order. They called this the "new human global order" (NGHO). They have promoted their ideas through both the Commonwealth of Nations and the United Nations. This calls for interdependence, cooperation and partnership between nations to end poverty and to achieve economic equity between richer and poorer states. It also calls for a rationalization of the global system that spreads responsibility across many organizations. It also proposes an increased role for the voluntary sector, thus giving voice to more people.
Jagan was a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an International network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development. Her legacy represents a life dedicated to public service, to improving the quality life, to ending poverty, promoting democracy, equality and human development. She was motivated by a desire to remove suffering; "Janet Jagan saw suffering as a blight, on the human landscape, which should be eradicated." She has been described as a true humanitarian. "Abstemious in her habits, she remains indefatigable in the pursuit of a better life for her people."
|President of Guyana
|Prime Minister of Guyana
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