Malta is currently debating a bill to address its depressingly low rates of women in political power. It’s almost unbelievable that some forty years ago, this little infant Republic had its own female Head of State – a force that smashed political ceilings for women everywhere.
Her name was Agatha Barbara, the first woman President, Parliamentarian, Minister and even interim Prime Minister in Malta. While her political ties may no doubt carry divided opinions, the achievements she heralded for women on the islands are hardly disputable.
Born in Żabbar, on February 15th, 1923, Barbara was the eldest daughter of nine siblings. Her father worked for the British Navy as a skilled tug master in the dockyard, hardly paid a pittance, even after a promotion, because he was illiterate.
This is said to have ignited a young Agatha Barbara’s passion for education. She begged her parents to send her to school, and attended grammar school in Valletta until World War 2 halted her accession to college. During the war that saw Malta desecrated by bombs, she traded her copybooks and pens for an air raid warden’s uniform, supervising a soup kitchen set up by the British military to feed families.
When the war ended, Barbara saw her country left in devastation: ample social injustice, famine and destruction.
Barbara remained determined to return to her studies, fulfilling her dream to become a school teacher. She was quickly drawn into politics, apparently after attending some meetings of the Labour Party with her father.
She became very active in the affairs of the Malta Labour Party (MLP), becoming a member of its executive committee, heading the women’s branch and even founding the Women’s Political Movement in Malta.
This was a time when monumental changes were happening. Still under the clutch of the British, Malta had very limited self-government, and there were great disputes on whether to grant women the right to vote. Defying the church’s deafening opposition,, women’s suffrage was granted in 1947, after being proposed by the Women Of Malta Association and the MLP.
The year was a two-fold milestone: women were given a voice in politics, and the first woman to use it was Agatha Barbara.
Barbara defied gender roles entrenched in Maltese machismo culture, becoming the first and only woman among 40 other MPs in Parliament in 1947. She never looked back. Her political career catapulted – she went on to be the only woman candidate to successfully contest every election since, until she resigned in 1982, when she laid down her ministerial hat to become the first female President of Malta.
Agatha Barbara – the staunchly socialist minister with feminist policies.
Barbara believed that women could be as good as men in politics, and perhaps better. She thought that women weren’t in politics for reasons they still face today: they’re are expected to juggle domestic duties and child-rearing while working a demanding job without breaking a sweat. Barbara herself remained childless and unmarried her whole life, a rare sight, especially for a woman in politics.
Her first ministerial role, one of five that is, was in Dom Mintoff’s government in 1955, exuding her belief in sound education. As Education Minister, she made full-time schooling compulsory for all children under 16, established a free training college for teachers, special bus services for students and Malta’s first schools for those with visual or auditory impairments.
Most notably, she made it a point to bridge the gaps between genders as much as possible. She made sure science classes were open to girls as well as boys, abolished university fees, equal pay for all sexes and introduced maternity leave.
Her career in Cabinet came to a brief halt when in tensions between the British and Maltese reached a fever pitch in 1958. A National Strike erupted in the streets, Mintoff resigned and Barbara was thrown in prison for allegedly trying to stop workers going to work. She was treated inhumanely, eating a can of corned beef every few days and had rats purposely thrown in her cell.
Nonetheless, she remained undeterred, as Mintoff himself said:
“Agatha Barbara took her post with dignity and showed bravery more than many men. She ended up in prison scared by rats, which were left in her cell purposely and she emerged out of prison a Socialist more than before.”
When Mintoff came to power again in 1971, Barbara was made Employment Minister and heralded major social reforms. She shortened the working week to 40 hours, unveiled unemployment benefits and retirement pensions. As Culture Minister, Barbara set up a number of national museums and restored historic gems around the islands.
Another political crisis was playing out in 1981 when Barbara became Malta’s third President. Instead of being a ceremonial role, she had to tackle constitutional turmoil, as the Nationalist Party won the majority of votes but got a minority of Parliament. She ended her term presiding over major reforms to the Constitution, rooting Malta’s independence from foreign powers and adding extra seats in Parliament should a party have an absolute majority without a parliamentary majority.
Agatha in Love?
While her political resume was extensive and her will defiant, Barbara kept her private life under lock. Maltese-Australian author Joseph Carmel Chetcuti claims she was a closeted lesbian after interviewing her contemporaries. However, in 2014, a more tender Barbara was seen through romantic letters she sent to a British signalman stationed in Malta during World War II.
Agatha Barbara retired from politics in 1987 after her term and President finished and remains the longest-serving woman MP in Malta’s history. She passed away in her hometown Żabbar on 4th February 2002, her anniversary celebrated in just a few weeks.
A monument in her honour was unveiled in Żabbar two years later by the then President of Malta, Edward Fenech Adami.
Whatever your opinion of her, Barbara did what was considered impossible – taking a seat at the decision-making table at a time when a woman’s place was anywhere but there.
Still, the fight for gender equality is far from over. We’ve only had 27 woman MPs in 100 years of self-government, just two of the twelve Presidents were female and Malta is yet to see a Prime Minister with a Ms. prefix.
Nonetheless, let the story of Agatha Barbara remind to take up space and fight for what you believe in, in the face of opposition, stereotypes or self-doubt.
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