Jagan, Janet (1920—)

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Jagan, Janet (1920—)

Jewish-American Guyanese politician and president, known as the "matriarch of Guyanese sovereignty." Born Janet Rosenberg on October 20, 1920, in Chicago, Illinois; attended University of Detroit, Wayne State University, Michigan State College (now University), Cook County School of Nursing; married Cheddi Jagan (a dentist and East Indian from Guyana), in 1943 (died, March 1997); children:Nadira Jagan ; Cheddi Jagan, Jr.


Order of Excellence of Guyana; Women of Achievement, University of Guyana; Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy, and Women's Rights.

Married Cheddi Jagan and moved to Guyana (1943); co-founded the Women's Political and Economic Organization and the Political Affairs Committee (1946); co-founded the People's Progressive Party (1950); served as general secretary of the PPP (1950–70); served as deputy speaker of the Legislature (1953); jailed for six months (1955); served as minister of Labour, Health and Housing (1957); served as minister of Home Affairs and Senate (1963–64); served on the Guyana Elections Commission (1967–68); was president, Union of Guyanese Journalists (1970–97); worked as editor of the Mirror (1973–97); was first lady of the Republic and acting ambassador to the United Nations (1993); was prime minister and vice-president (1997); elected president of Guyana (December 1997); resigned office because of ill health (August 1999).

The first American woman to serve as president of Guyana, Janet Rosenberg was born to Jewish-Americans in Chicago in 1920. She arrived in Guyana in December 1943, following her husband to his South American homeland. She had met Cheddi Jagan while he was studying dentistry in the United States; against the wishes of both of their parents, they had married.

Once in Guyana, Jagan put her nursing training to use, assisting Cheddi in his dental practice. The Jagans, however, soon looked for avenues to develop their political ideas. While Cheddi converted men in the living room, Janet converted women in the kitchen. Together, they attended discussion groups in Georgetown, collecting around them a group of radical activists. Later, while Cheddi made speeches in the legislative assembly, Janet recorded meetings, strategized, and organized the party. They became a formidable partnership. "We complemented and assisted each other," said Cheddi. "She concentrating on organisational and administrative work and I on research, propaganda and public speaking."

In 1946, Guyana was the only British colony in South America. Using African slaves and Indians, Chinese and Portuguese as indentured servants, the British had exploited the country's natural resources while creating a grossly unjust society. Together with other Europeans, each immigrant group and the indigenous Amerindians occupied a distinct place in the colonial hierarchy. Globally, independence movements in Ghana and India were successfully challenging the established order of colonialism.

To this "land of six races," the Jagans brought their ideas of change, self-determination, and an end to colonialism. From the abstract discussions of the progressive groups, Janet moved to the domestic workers' union, and Cheddi went to the plantations. By 1946, a group that included Jocelyn Hubbard , Ashton Chase, and the Jagans had come together to form the Political Affairs Committee. Janet Jagan was the editor of "The Bulletin," a critical part of the PAC's campaign during the limited franchise elections of 1947. Although she failed to win a seat, her campaign made final her commitment to the future of Guyana.

Before the elections, Janet Jagan, Winifred Gaskin , and others formed the Women's Political and Economic Organization, "the first real political grouping of women." By then Jagan had already angered the conservatives with her outspoken support for women's rights to abortion and birth control. By partnering with Gaskin, an African Guyanese, Jagan was also building bridges across the deep racial divisions in the society.

Two years after the 1948 strikes at Demerara, the PAC was transformed into the People's Progressive Party (PPP), a mass participation political party. For the next 20 years, Janet Jagan served as general secretary of the PPP. In 1953, the PPP won the elections, and Jagan became the first female deputy speaker of the Legislature. However, PPP policies proved to be too radical for the British, and the constitution was suspended. Janet Jagan spent six months in jail and

was subsequently restricted to Georgetown. This did not lessen the popularity of the Jagans, and when elections were held again in 1957, Janet won her seat.

In the early 1960s, the British gave in to the campaign for independence. They then manipulated the transition in order to prevent the pro-Marxist PPP from forming the first independent government. Forbes Burnham had split the PPP during the 1950s and formed the People's National Congress. The PNC would govern Guyana until 1992, despite the continued popularity of the PPP. Corruption and violence were part of the PNC rule; the economy was stifled and many Guyanese went into exile.

After Burnham's death, pressure from the international community brought about changes to the electoral process. Jimmy Carter, former president of the United States, was one of the moderators of the reform. In 1992, Cheddi Jagan finally became president of Guyana. When Cheddi died in March 1997, Janet Jagan stepped forward and ran for president of Guyana as a candidate of the People's Progressive Party (PPP). She won the election in December of that same year. Her victory was not without controversy. There were still those who labeled her an outsider, despite the 54 years she committed to Guyanese nationalism, and Desmond Hoyte, aging leader of the Afro-Guyanese People's National Congress (PNC), refused to recognize her presidency, despite an independent audit that upheld her election win. During her watch, there were also street protests, mini-riots, and a 55-day civil servant strike, but Jagan had extended the hand of reconciliation to her Caribbean neighbors. In July 1999, she suffered a mild heart attack. That August, Jagan resigned her office because of ill health. Her 20 months as president, she said, had left her "a little more battered and a little wiser." Hoyte promptly predicted that he would not recognize her successor, either.


Jagan, Cheddi. The West on Trial: The Fight for Guyana's Freedom. NY: International Publishers, 1972.

The People's Progressive Party, Georgetown, Guyana.

Simms, Peter. Trouble in Guyana: An account of People, Personalities and Politics as they were in British Guiana. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966.

suggested reading:

Burrowes, Reynold A. The Wild Coast: An Account of Politics in Guyana. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1984.

Despres, Leo. Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in British Guiana. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally, 1967.

Muhonjia Khaminwa , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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