The daughter of a prominent legislator, Pamela Gordon (born 1955) used her family name and her own political skills to become Bermuda's first woman premier in 1997.
When Pamela Gordon was sworn in as the premier (prime minister) of Bermuda on March 27, 1997, she became the first woman and the youngest person ever to hold that post. At the age of 41, she had already lived an eventful life-giving birth to a child at the age of 16 and overcoming the economic obstacles posed by early motherhood by working in a variety of jobs. However, Gordon had two things going for her: she was the daughter of one of the founding fathers of Bermuda politics, and she had considerable political skills of her own. She used these resources in steering the United Bermuda Party to victory.
An Unconventional Family
Pamela Gordon was born on September 2, 1955 in Hamilton, Bermuda. She was the youngest of five children born to Mildred Layne Bean and Dr. E.F. Gordon, a prominent labor leader and member of Bermuda's parliament in the late 1940s and early 1950s. E.F. Gordon was known as a champion of unheralded causes. Born in Trinidad, he became a physician, moved to Bermuda, and spent his time campaigning against segregation and improving conditions for the working class. He urged black participation in the colony's government and challenged the white power structure to cede some of its authority. Dr. Gordon and Mildred Layne Bean never married, as Gordon was a Roman Catholic and, according to a strict interpretation of church laws, forbidden to divorce his first wife, Clara. They did live together during his last years, however, and she was pregnant with Pamela when he died on April 21, 1955.
Gordon was herself baptized as a Catholic. She grew up at "Beulah, " the Gordon family estate, where her father used to hold meetings with his political supporters. Without him around to pay the bills though, life was a struggle for Gordon and her sisters Olympia and Patricia and brothers Keith and Edgar. Her mother worked as a switchboard operator to support the family.
While Gordon never knew her father, she is said to have inherited some of his headstrong temperament. "She was always sweet and demure, " commented her sister Patricia to the Bermuda Sun, "But she always spoke her mind." Her father's legacy to her included a passionate commitment to her own views no matter what other people might think. "Dr. Gordon was strong willed, " Mildred Layne Bean remarked to the Bermuda Sun. "My daughter isn't much different."
Growing up, Gordon attended Central School and Berkeley Institute. However, she had to leave school at the age of 16, when she became pregnant by Ronald Furbert. She gave birth to a daughter, Veronica, and resumed her studies at another institution. It could have been a major setback to Gordon's career aspirations, but she had the support of her family to fall back on. "She had a teenage pregnancy, " Gordon's mother told The Bermuda Sun. "Everybody wanted to put her down. Yes, she made a youthful mistake." Instead of shunning her, however, Gordon's mother helped take care of the baby while she attended college in Ontario, Canada. When she returned to Bermuda, she married Ronald Furbert. The couple subsequently had a son, Ronald, and later divorced.
With a family of her own to support, Gordon began working at odd jobs while she continued to attend college classes. For a time, she owned and managed a restaurant, The Moonglow, in St. George's, where her mother also worked. In 1983, she took a job as a sales accountant at St. George's Club, a hotel. Despite not having accounting accreditation, she worked her way up to the post of controller. She finally earned her college degree in commerce from Queen's University and began studying for a master's degree.
Remarkable Political Ascent
Always one to speak her mind, Gordon found herself complaining more and more about public policy in Bermuda. That bluntness about the issues impressed Sir John Swan, Bermuda's premier, whom Gordon met through her sister Patricia. Swan convinced Gordon that the best way to work for change was by joining the United Bermuda Party (UBP). It was the first step in Gordon's political career.
In 1990, Gordon won a seat in the Bermuda Senate. In March of 1992, Premier Swan appointed her to his cabinet as Minister of Youth Development. She later served as Minister of the Environment, Planning, and Recreation in the cabinet of Premier David J. Saul. In October of 1993, Gordon was elected to Bermuda's House of Assembly as the representative for Southampton West.
In March of 1997, Premier David J. Saul shocked the colony-and the ruling UBP-by announcing his resignation. Saul may have been swayed by polls that showed him losing the next election to the candidate for the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). A contest for the leadership of the UBP now ensued. The stakes were high because, in a parliamentary system, the winner of the party vote would also assume the post of premier. Undeterred by the odds against her candidacy, Gordon immediately threw her hat into the ring.
The contest was hard-fought. Twenty-one UDP parliament members were eligible to vie for the $89, 000-a-year post, but many senior members shied away, afraid that Bermuda's voters were looking for "new blood." Gordon and Irving Pearman quickly emerged as the front runners. At first, Pearman appeared to have the votes to win. Gordon even announced that she would pull out of the race if that were true in order to preserve party unity, but by March 24, 1997, the tide had turned. She was the unanimous choice for party leader. "Pam seems to be the one, " a senior UBP cabinet member told Reuters. "She's the only real choice."
First Woman Premier
Now the head of Bermuda's ruling party, Gordon was duly sworn in as premier by Governor Lord Waddington on March 27, 1997. The orderly transition of power pleased Bermuda's business community. "International business is moving our economy and we look forward to working with Premier Gordon to promote Bermuda and its attractive business environment, " announced Arthur B. Sculley, Chairman of the Bermuda Stock Exchange, in a press release issued by the Bermuda International Business Association (BIBA). For her part, Gordon promised economic and political stability in the run-up to general elections to be held some time within the next 18 months.
In the tradition of her father, Pamela Gordon did not waste any time in challenging the powers that be-including the British government, the colonial masters of Bermuda. In January of 1998, she accused Great Britain of violating international agreements by denying Bermudans the right to live in Britain. Other colonial powers, such as the United States and the Netherlands, give citizenship rights to their Caribbean dependencies. Gordon also butted heads with the government in London over the issue of capital punishment, which Britain put pressure on Bermuda to abolish in 1998. "The only way they can force us to do anything is by them going through their own parliament, " Gordon told Reuters in February of 1998. Capital punishment remains on the books in Bermuda, and is popular with voters, though it has not been invoked since the late 1970s.
By the spring of 1998, Gordon was shoring up her political support, especially among blacks and labor unions, for what was expected to be a hotly contested election campaign. Now a member of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, she remained single following her divorce and maintained a close relationship with her daughter Victoria and son Ronald. She lived with her mother in the family home at Beulah until her election to the premiership. Her mother remains convinced that Gordon's father would approve of her taking over the "family business." "He would have been absolutely delighted, " Mildred Bean told the Bermuda Sun. "He would have said: 'Although you [the establishment] didn't want me, now my daughter is in charge."
Further Reading on Pamela Gordon
The Bermuda Sun, March 21, 1997; March 27, 1997.
The Daily Telegraph, January 27, 1998.
Reuters, March 24, 1997; March 25, 1997; February 13, 1998.