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The modern world’s first elected female head of government was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who in 1960 became prime minister of Sri Lanka, the island nation in South Asia then known as Ceylon. Bandaranaike came to power a year after the assassination of her husband, who was prime minister at the time, and served in office from 1960 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1977. The couple’s daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, also joined the family political dynasty and was Sri Lanka’s first woman president, from 1994 to 2005. Bandaranaike served a third term as prime minister (a role which by then was primarily ceremonial, as a result of a constitutional change) from 1994 until her resignation in August 2000; she died two months later of a heart attack at age 84.

The same decade Bandaranaike launched her political career, India and Israel each elected their first women prime ministers. Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, held office from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister so far, served from 1969 to 1974. Four years later, in 1979, Britain chose its first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was also the first female elected head of government in Europe. Nicknamed the Iron Lady, Thatcher remained in power until 1990, making her the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.

No nation in North America has yet elected a woman as head of government, although in June 1993 Kim Campbell was appointed prime minister of Canada following the resignation of Brian Mulroney. Campbell’s time in office was brief: in the fall elections of that same year her party was defeated and she resigned. (In America, the highest-ranking female politician to date is Nancy Pelosi, who from 2007 to 2011 was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was inaugurated as Liberia’s president in 2006, holds the distinction of being the first female elected head of government in Africa. The largest country in Latin America, Brazil, voted for its first woman president in 2010. The planet’s most populous nation, China, has never had an elected female head of government.

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