Politician Agatha Barbara (1923–2002) achieved several significant firsts for women in her native Malta. During her long career devoted to social and economic reform, Barbara was Malta's first female legislator, cabinet minister, and president. This last post she held from 1982 to 1987, and with that she retired after 40 years in elected office. Known for her fierce commitment to the ideals of the Malta Labour Party (MLP), "Barbara once threw an inkpot at an opponent during a parliamentary debate," reported her Times of London obituary. "He ducked, and the pot hit a painting, where the stain remains to this day."
Barbara was born on March 11, 1923, in Żabbar, a town on one of the seven Mediterranean islands that made up Malta and where some exterior walls of houses still bore scars from cannon fire that dated back to Żabbar's uprising against French rule around 1800. The Republic of Malta that Barbara presided over in the 1980s had not yet come into being at the time of her birth: instead it was part of the British Empire and an important naval port for the British Navy since it had passed from French to British rule formally in 1814. This pair of European superpowers would be the last in a long line of foreign rulers over Malta dating back to the Phoenicians, who landed around 1000 bce and found its aboriginal population mysteriously vanished. The Phoenicians made it an outpost of their Mediterranean sea trade; Roman rule followed that, and Malta's strategic position south of Sicily and near the coast of North Africa made it an attractive property to the Arabs, who held it until 1091. For some 250 years Malta belonged to one of the Roman Catholic militias that had fought in the Crusades—the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, known in shorter form as the Knights of Malta—who lost it to forces commanded by Napoleon (1769–1821) in 1798.
Determined to Attend High School
During Barbara's youth, the British military and colonial authorities were the main employers in Malta. Her father was a tug master, a skilled pilot of tugboats used to guide large freighters in and out of harbors or narrow straits, and he worked for the British Navy on the route between Valletta, Malta's capital city, and Alexandria, Egypt. Like many Maltese of his generation and before that, Joseph Barbara had little schooling, and had never learned to read. When he hoped for a promotion that would have brought a meaningful increase in pay, Barbara was 11 years old and recalled that her father brought home a "book of sea regulations and … made me read one paragraph after another until he learned the codes off by heart," she told journalist Miriam Dunn in an interview that appeared on the Malta Today website. Unfortunately, her father's superiors real-ized his ruse, and while they gave him the promotion, they kept his pay at the same level.
Barbara's mother, Antonia, struggled to feed the nine children in the family on her husband's wages, and as a teenager Barbara begged her parents to pay the fee for high school, which she desperately wanted to attend. There were no free secondary schools in Malta at the time, and she was able to convince them, but her chance for a college education was cut short when World War II erupted. Malta's strategic position made it attractive to both sides in that conflict; the British had a valuable naval station as well as listening post near to the shipping lanes of the enemy, which in this case was an alliance of Italy and Nazi Germany. Nazi planes bombarded Malta heavily for the first three years of the war, until a large section of Italy fell to Allied forces in 1943. Barbara worked as an air-raid warden during these early years of the war, and also supervised one of the Victory Kitchens, which had been set up by the British military to feed the Maltese. The entire nation of Malta was awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian honor in the British Commonwealth, for their bravery during the war; it was the only instance of the Cross being bestowed on an entire population.
First Woman Elected to Parliament
After the war, Barbara became a teacher at Flores College, but was drawn into the burgeoning political movement for independence from Britain. Colonial authorities granted Malta self-rule after World War II, but as she re-called to Dunn, there was high unemployment and growing social unrest, while those "governing us were not bothered about how these people were going to live. At the time, there was no social justice at all. I wanted to help put things right. I wanted to help people." She joined the Partit Laburista (Malta Labour Party, or MLP), a Social Democrat party that was initially a pro-British group, in contrast to the Partit Nazzjonalista, or Nationalist Party of Malta. As part of the self-rule scheme, a new constitution was drafted, and it gave Maltese women the right to vote for the first time. Roman Catholic clergy were vociferously opposed to this, but the constitution went into effect in 1947, the same year that legislative elections were held. Barbara ran for one of the 65 seats in the Il-Kamra tar-Rappreżentantion, or Malta's House of Representatives, on the MLP ticket, and was continuously re-elected for the next 34 years.
With that 1947 election, Barbara became the first woman to serve in Malta's unicameral legislature, and in 1955 she became the first cabinet minister as well, when new Prime Minister Dominic "Dom" Mintoff appointed her as his education minister. It was during this three-year period that Barbara achieved what would become her most important legacy in her commitment to improve Malta's standard of living: full-time schooling was made compulsory for all children under the age of 14. Many new schools and trained teachers were needed to meet the expected demand, however, and over the first several months of 1955 Barbara supervised a massive hiring of teachers and the construction of 44 new facilities. By September of 1955 the new education law went into effect, just five months after the decree, thanks to her management of the program. The rest of her stint as education minister was equally busy: she oversaw the establishment of a teachers' training college; transportation services were set up for elementary and secondary students, as well as basic medical care. Barbara also ordered a survey of the developmentally disabled and the vision- and hearing-impaired in the country, and established the first schools for them in Malta. Perhaps most important, she ensured that science classes were open to students of both genders, unlike the high school that she had attended, which was restricted to males.
Barbara supported the MLP shift toward full independence from Britain that came later in the 1950s. The party had initially favored the idea of integration with Britain, which was briefly but seriously considered in a 1955 conference in which the British government agreed to give Malta representation in the House of Commons—the only time a British territory was made such an offer. Mintoff and the rest of the MLP supported the idea, but the Nationalist Party as well as the Catholic church hierarchy were opposed, and the stalemate resulted in a series of political crises and turmoil related to the economic future of Malta. There was, for example, a large deficit that the British government hoped to pass on to the Maltese government, and promises made by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the largest employer on the islands, regarding future employment numbers for native Maltese. When the stalemate reached a crisis point, Mintoff resigned and urged the Maltese to fight for independence now, rather than integration. With that, the period of self-rule granted by the British after the war was revoked to prevent further unrest on April 24, 1958.
Arrested and Jailed
The re-imposition of direct rule prompted outrage and a bitter general strike on Malta. In May of 1958, Barbara and the former health minister were arrested and charged with intimidation because of an event that occurred a few weeks earlier during the general strike. They were charged with obstructing the path of an ambulance, but she and her colleague had urged it to turn back, warning that protesters would probably overturn it. For this, the British authorities sentenced her to 43 days of hard labor, and she served 32 of them, with 11 days credited for time already served. Direct rule lasted until 1962, and Malta was granted independence two years later, though it remained a member of the British Commonwealth. The MLP was the opposition party until 1971, when it took the majority in legislative elections again and Mintoff returned as prime minister. Once again, he named Barbara to serve as minister of education.
Barbara's three-year stint as education minister was once again notable for the reforms she pushed through. Education became compulsory until the age of 16, and new trade and technical schools were established. University fees were abolished, and the government, in line with many Social Democratic European nations, began to offer cost-of-living grants for students from the poorest families. Barbara's portfolio also included responsibilities for culture, and she enacted changes that brought museum treasures and folklore activities to cities outside of Valletta.
In 1974 Malta became the Republic of Malta, with all executive authority resting in the president, who was appointed by the House of Representatives and could also appoint the prime minister. Mintoff, who would serve as prime minister for the next decade, made Barbara his minister for labor, culture, and welfare that same year. Again, she was able to implement several historic reforms, including a law that required employers to pay a woman the same amount they did a man for the same job. Paid maternity leave for women, a work week restricted to 40 hours, retirement pensions, and unemployment benefits were all enacted during her term as labor minister.
Became President of Malta
Barbara had served as deputy prime minister and acting prime minister at various points in her career. On February 16, 1982, she was elected by the House of Representatives to a five-year term as President of Malta, and became the first Maltese woman to achieve that distinction. The position was essentially one of a constitutional head of state, for much of the executive power still rested with the prime minister. During this period, however, Barbara was able to snub the British—the last of whose fleet had left in 1979—in reaction to her 1958 jail sentence. "In 1986 the Government lifted a seven-year ban on British warships to allow a visit by the frigate HMS Brazen to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the arrival of the crucial Allied relief convoy of 1942," noted her Times of London obituary. "She, as President, avoided all the official ceremonies."
Barbara stepped down from office in 1987, and retired to Żabbar. She died there on February 4, 2002, at the age of 78. She never married, and once told an interviewer that she had no regrets over her decision to forego a family for a career in politics. "I realised I couldn't have everything, but I also knew that whichever path I took there would be ups and downs," she told Dunn. "I accepted that."
Times (London, England), June 14, 1958; February 6, 2002.
Agatha Barbara, Malta Today, http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/2002/0210/l7a.html (December 18, 2006).
Agatha, The True Socialist, Malta Today, http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/2001/0401/people.html (December 18, 2006).
Miss Agatha Barbara: President of Malta (1982–1987), Department of Information—Government of Malta, http://www.doi.gov.mt/EN/islands/presidents/barbara_agatha.asp (December 18, 2006).