Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world’s first woman prime minister when she was elected head of Sri Lanka’s government four decades ago.
Bandaranaike, a dominant force in Sri Lankan politics, served three terms as prime minister and is the mother of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Even during her most recent term, in an era when the country’s prime ministership is mostly a ceremonial post, she wielded enormous power.
But Bandaranaike has been in poor health for months, and she stepped down to let her daughter reorganize the Cabinet ahead of elections. A stunned parliament was today told that her post will be filled by Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka, the country’s minister of public administration and home affairs.
The election of a woman head of government was so unusual on July 20, 1960, that newspapers weren’t sure what to call her.
“There will be need for a new word. Presumably, we shall have to call her a Stateswoman,” London’s Evening News wrote the next day. “This is the suffragette’s dream come true.”
Born Sirimavo Ratwatte on April 17, 1916, Bandaranaike was a member of one of this Indian Ocean island’s wealthiest families. In 1940 she married Soloman Dias Bandaranaike, a senior politician in the United National Party that was governing Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon.
After breaking away to form his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party, her husband was elected prime minister in 1956. A deranged Buddhist monk assassinated him three years later.
After a period of mourning, Bandaranaike transformed from a shy housewife to a political dynamo: She campaigned for her husband’s party in the 1960 elections and became party leader in May of that year.