Rose Agatha Leon was Jamaica's first notable female politician, emerging in the formative period of Jamaica's modern political system. She had the distinction of serving in the governments of the two main political parties and of being a founding member of Jamaica's party, legislative, and ministerial systems at both the local and central levels.
Leon was a member of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP, formed in 1943), serving as party chair from 1948 to 1960. In that role, she was among those credited with creating a revised constitution for the party in 1951 and with attempts to reform the party along more democratic lines throughout the 1950s, a role that eventually brought her into serious conflict with the leader, Alexander Bustamante, and cost her membership in the party.
As chairperson of the JLP, Madame Leon, as she was called, was determined to make the party into more than a caucus of candidates approved by the powerful Bustamante, as it was believed to have been, and into one with a broadened organizational structure and a popular base with a branch system. She succeeded in establishing a number of new branches, bringing in thousands of new members and increasing the presence of the middle class in the JLP. The party's central committee was strengthened, a proper party office was acquired, and its executive became more professional. By 1957 the party's newspaper hailed the organizational work as a "revolution."
During this period, Leon also sought elective office. Although she had been unsuccessful as a candidate in Jamaica's first local government elections under adult suffrage (in which Jamaicans aged twenty-one and over exercised the right to vote), which had been held in 1947, she was successful in 1951 and 1956.
Leon was also a founding member of Jamaica's legislature and a successful candidate in Jamaica's second general elections, in 1949. When Jamaica achieved ministerial government in 1953, she was one of the first ministers to serve as minister of health and housing, from 1953 to 1955. Although the JLP lost the 1955 elections, Leon won her seat but she was subsequently unseated for violating an election law.
By the end of the 1950s, Leon had fallen out with Alexander Bustamante, the JLP's dominant personality, over the authoritarian way in which he led the party. After the general election of 1959—which the party lost—Leon continued her earlier efforts to reform the party and substitute collective leadership for Bustamante's personality cult. She sought the post of second deputy leader, but Bustamante accused her and other reformers of trying to usurp his power. Things came to a head at the party's 1960 and 1961conferences. Leon resigned in bitterness in 1961 and her attempt to build collective leadership was defeated.
Leon ran as an independent candidate in Jamaica's 1962 elections but lost. By 1967 she had joined the rival People's National Party (PNP) but failed to win a seat in the general elections that year. She made her way up the party's ranks by winning a seat in local government elections in 1969 and became deputy mayor of Kingston and Saint Andrew (the administrative capital), serving from 1969 to 1971. She won a parliamentary seat for the PNP in 1972 and served as minister of local government from 1972 to 1976. Although she narrowly lost her seat in 1976, she served as special adviser to the minister of social security from 1977 to 1980.
When the government changed, Leon retired from political life. Trained in cosmetic chemistry, she operated a cosmetics business and a travel agency. As a manufacturer of beauty products and partner in the Leon School of Beauty Culture since 1940, she was a member of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association. She was also a member of the Association of Local Government, the Jamaica Federation of Women, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and the National Council for the Aged.
Leon was killed in an attempted robbery at her home in 1999. She was eighty-seven.
Eaton, George. Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica: LMH, 1995.
robert maxwell buddan (2005)