What You Didn't Know About Sirimavo Bandaranaike

In 1960, Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike made history when she became the world's first woman to hold the position of prime minister. Unfortunately, her achievement came about as the result of a tragedy.

Per The New York Timesshe was born Sirimavo Ratwatte in 1917 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to a wealthy Sri Lankan family who sat at the pinnacle of the country's social hierarchy. She married Solomon Bandaranaike, known as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, in 1940; he, too, was part of an elite family who had grown more powerful thanks to patronage from the British Empire. The two of them, however, went beyond their rarefied beginnings to become populists and nationalists. 

As reported by Britannica, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike got involved in Sri Lankan politics in 1931 and eventually became a well-respected member of the Western-centric United National Party, serving as a minister of health and local government. In 1951, he resigned his position within the party. He was reelected a year later, running under the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which he founded. By 1956, he was the Sri Lankan Prime Minister and led several reforms, including replacing English as the official language with Sinhalese, the language spoken by the majority of Sri Lankans, and making an agreement with the British to relinquish their Sri Lankan military bases. He also established diplomatic relations with several communist states.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike had 'decisiveness and vigor'

Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959. After the 1960 elections, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected prime minister. According to The New York Times, she shared and carried out her husband's political reforms "with even greater decisiveness and vigor." She was very popular with the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's majority ethnic group, and pursued several policies that favored them and alienated the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Her policies included making Sinhalese the only national language and changing higher education admission policies to favor the Sinhalese people. Per Sri Lankan historian K. M. de Silva, "After her husband died, there was so much confusion and the party was almost collapsing. She was an untried leader. But she not only survived, she sustained the party and the family in politics." 

After Bandaranaike's term ended in 1965, she went on to serve two more terms as prime minister, from 1970-1977 and again from 1994-2000. Her daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was elected prime minister in 1994, and months later became the first woman to be elected Sri Lanka's president, at which point she appointed her mother prime minister, per Britannica. Sirimavo Bandaranaike died of a heart attack on October 10, 2000, shortly after voting in the Sri Lankan elections.