First

This Chicago native was actually the first American female president

President Janet Jagan of Guyana addresses the 53rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination for Democratic candidate for President last week, many speculated about the possibility that she would become the “first female American president.”

That honor, however, has already been claimed — decades ago. Janet Rosenberg, a Chicago native who married an Indo-Guyanese man, Cheddi Jagan, and moved to what was then British Guiana (now known as Guyana) in 1942, made her career in political and economic organizing when Clinton was still in elementary school. Together with her husband, Jagan co-founded the leftist People’s Progressive Party, fighting for workers’ rights and founding the Women’s Political and Economic Organization on the island, which consisted of descendants of mostly African slaves and Indian indentured servants, with only nine percent native islanders.

“Women must join in the struggle to bring about political and socio-economic changes so that there will be equal opportunities for all, so that we can end unemployment, poverty and hunger, so that genuine democratic institutions can flourish, so that our women can be free and equal citizens,” she once said.

Jagan climbed the country’s political ranks along with her husband, serving as their party’s secretary-general for two decades and then, after her husband was elected to chief minister of parliament, becoming the deputy speaker, the country’s first female cabinet member.  The couple’s political activism during the turbulent 1950s landed them briefly in prison, for six months, and then under house arrest for two years.

But after she was freed in 1957, Jagan ran for the legislature herself, and the Jewish-American Chicago native campaigned and won on a platform of anti-colonialism.

“We led the struggle by educating the people on the ills of colonialism and the need for unity to end the exploitation of this country by the dominant clique that wanted only power and profits — profits and power,” she said.

As she served decades in the country’s legislature, her popularity was always contested; TIME magazine called Jagan the “most controversial woman in South American politics since Evita Peron.” But Jagan pressed on. When her husband was elected to the presidency in 1992, Jagan became first lady, and when he died in 1997, Jagan ran to succeed him, and became the first American female president of a country. She died in 2009.

Read the full story at The New Yorker.

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