More than 70 nations worldwide have seen a woman lead their governments in the modern era. Some have been elected, some appointed; some served for relatively brief terms, while others have left an enduring legacy behind them.
History’s elected female leaders, in terms of both their time in office and the impact they had on their nations, as well as the world at large. The world's first female prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a Sri Lankan stateswoman. She served three terms: 1960–1965, 1970–1977, and 1994–2000.
Sirimavo Born into an aristocratic family, Bandaranaike was educated in Catholic, English-medium schools, but remained a Buddhist and spoke Sinhala as well as English. On graduating from secondary school, she worked for various social programs before marrying and raising a family.
Playing hostess to her husband S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who was involved in politics and later became Prime Minister, she gained his trust as an informal advisor. Her social work focused on improving the lives of women and girls in rural areas of Sri Lanka.
Bandaranaike had entered politics the previous year after her husband was assassinated by a Buddhist monk while serving as prime minister. In the wake of his death, Bandaranaike took over leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party; she served as head of state from 1960-65 and again from 1970-77.
Bandaranaike attempted to reform the former British Colony of Ceylon into a socialist republic by nationalizing organizations in the banking, education, industry, media, and trade sectors. Changing the administrative language from English to Sinhala, she exacerbated discontent among the native Tamil population, and with the estate Tamils, who had become stateless under the Citizenship Act of 1948.
During Bandaranaike's first two terms as Prime Minister, the country was plagued by high inflation and taxes, dependence on food imports to feed the populace, high unemployment, and polarisation between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations because of her Sinhalese nationalist policies.
Surviving an attempted coup d'état in 1962, as well as a 1971 insurrection of radical youths, in 1972 she oversaw the drafting of a new constitution and the formation of the Sri Lankan republic. In 1975, Bandaranaike created what would eventually become the Sri Lankan Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, also appointing the first woman to serve in the Sri Lankan Cabinet.
Bandaranaike's tenure was marked by inadequate economic development at the national level. She played a large role abroad as a negotiator and a leader among the Non-Aligned Nations.
Ousted from power in the 1977 elections, Bandaranaike was stripped of her civil rights in 1980 for abuses of power during her tenure and barred from the government for seven years. Her successors initially improved the domestic economy, but failed to address social issues, and led the country into a protracted civil war.
When she returned to the party leadership in 1986, Bandaranaike opposed allowing the Indian Peace Keeping Force to intervene in the civil war, believing it violated Sri Lankan sovereignty.
Failing to win the office of President in 1988, she served as Leader of the Opposition in the legislature from 1989 to 1994. When her daughter won the presidential election that year, Bandaranaike was appointed to her third term as Prime Minister and served until her retirement in 2000, two months before she suffered a heart attack and died.