Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first woman in the entire world to hold the office of prime minister. She was born Sirimavo Ratwatte in what was then Ceylon, in 1916 to a prominent and rich family that had produced a lot of politicians.

In 1940, her marriage was arranged to Solomon Bandaranaike, who was seventeen years older. He was elected Sri Lanka's prime minister in 1951 when he led a socialist/nationalist coalition. While her husband was in power, Sirimavo did not do much in direct politics, but she did promote social reform for women and volunteer for women's organizations. But he was assassinated by a Buddhist extremist (something about that just sounds wrong) in 1959. His wife campaigned to succeed him as prime minister in 1960 and won; CNN notes that "Her election was so unusual 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."

It was three years before the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which Solomon had founded, gained a majority and could really support her work. After a gap, she was elected for another term in 1970 and did a lot of work for nationalization of industries and social welfare as well as creating a republic of Sri Lanka in 1972 by adopting a new constitution. Her family had connections with that of Indian politicians Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, which made Sri Lankan relations with India easier to control. She was also a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, and instrumental in getting the United Nations to declare the Indian Ocean a Peace Zone. However, there were armed rebellions during her term; she was popular with ethnic Sinhalese but not with the island's Tamil minority, particularly when she tried to make Sinhalese (rather than English) the country's official language. So in 1977 she was defeated for re-election.

In 1980 she was convicted of charges of corruption, deprived of her civil rights, and barred from holding office. This didn't last forever, though; she was pardoned six years later by the same president who led the investigation against her. When her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge gave up being Prime Minister to become President of Sri Lanka in 1994, Sirimavo became Prime Minister again, a post which had become more ceremonial than powerful since she last held it. She kept that post until resigning due to bad health in August 2000. She died October 10, 2000, in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, shortly after voting in that day's election.


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