The death of Agatha Barbara on February 4, 2002 brought a sense of great sadness to all Maltese. With the passage of 10 years from her death, it is important to remember this great lady who had the honour of becoming Malta’s first female member of the House of Representatives, its first female minister and also its first and, to date, only female President.
As President, she was faced with one of the most difficult and volatile periods in the political history of Malta- Desmond Zammit Marmarà
Born in Żabbar on March 11, 1923, Ms Barbara grew up surrounded by poverty and squalor. It was this which spurred her on to a lifetime of trying to better the conditions of life of those who were the worst-off in the Maltese society of her time. The granting of the 1947 Constitution saw the vote being granted to women for the first time in Malta. The subsequent election of the same year saw Ms Barbara contesting on the Labour Party ticket. One has to keep in mind that it took sheer guts for a woman to actively enter politics in those days. Compulsory elementary education had only just been introduced in 1946 and ignorance and superstition pervaded Maltese society. One of the results of this was the way most people viewed the role of women. It was something novel to the local political scene to have a female political candidate. Indeed, some people were even of the opinion that women should not be allowed to participate in politics at all!
In 1947, Ms Barbara was elected and this success was repeated in all the elections she contested during her political career.
After Labour’s electoral success in 1955, she was appointed Minister of Education and she achieved some notable successes in this field. Among other things, one can mention the building of new schools and the extension of existing ones. The employment of emergency teachers, coupled with the building programme, made it possible for the Education Department to eventually offer education on a full-time basis to all schoolchildren.
One must also mention that primary school pupils started to be provided with free textbooks, copybooks and milk. Furthermore, supervision during the midday break was introduced as well as summer camps and summer excursions. Malta’s first special school for deaf students was also set up and this was the beginning of the opening other such special schools. Teacher training was also improved.
Ms Barbara now went through one of the most difficult periods of her life.
The resignation of the Labour government was followed by the April 28, 1958 riots. Ms Barbara, together with Albert Hyzler and others, was taken to court for her part in the riots. She was accused of intimidation, on trumped-up charges, and given a prison sentence. This did not deter the indomitable lady and, in 1961, she founded the women’s section of the Labour Party.
After the calvary of the politico-religious dispute of the 1960s, the Labour Party was elected to power once again in 1971. From 1971 to 1981, Ms Barbara served as a minister of the Labour government. Given different portfolios during this period, Ms Barbara embarked on a number of reforms in education, culture, employment and social services.
As Minister of Education, foremost among her reforms was the introduction of trade schools and comprehensive secondary schooling. The latter reform did not live up to expectations, mostly because the Maltese educational system was still not developed enough to take on board such a radical change.
University fees were abolished and compulsory education was also extended to the age of 16 years. Ms Barbara also had the satisfaction of seeing legislation enacted that introduced equal pay between male and female workers performing the same kind of work. A whole range of social services and benefits were introduced, which paved the way towards the creation and consolidation of a Maltese welfare state.
In the realm of culture, Ms Barbara set up a number of new national museums and diffused cultural activities among the towns and villages of Malta and Gozo.
On February 16, 1982, Ms Barbara reached the peak of her career when she became the first female President of the Republic of Malta. As President, she was faced with one of the most difficult and volatile periods in the political history of Malta. Political polarisation pervaded Maltese society and violent political incidents were frequent. However, during her five years as President, she played a crucial role in the process towards national reconciliation, which saw the constitutional reforms of January, 1987.
Although now she was no longer President, the peaceful transition from a Labour to a Nationalist government, after the election of May 9, 1987, also owed a lot to her work while in office.
Ms Barbara died 10 years ago today. She remains an example to all politicians, especially women. Perhaps, in the future, our first female Prime Minister will follow her pioneering example.