More than 40 years ago, Simpson-Miller, now 70, stepped onto the Jamaican political scene in hopes of changing her homeland. The working-class native had a goal in mind moving the Caribbean island nation forward.
In 2006, Simpson-Miller did just that when she stepped into the prime minister role, a position she was re-elected to in 2011. Landing the position made her Jamaica’s first female prime minister, an accomplishment that would later land her a spot on TIME’ magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list in 2012.
“Jamaica is more than just the ‘brand’ the world recognizes so well; it’s a place of pride for the people who live here, it’s educational institutions, it’s sports achievements, it’s science and technology growth,” she told TIME.com in a 2012 interview.
Born on Dec. 12, 1945 in Wood Hall, St. Catherine parish, Jamaica, Simpson-Miller received her early education at Marlie Hill Primary School and St. Martin’s High School. She studied at the Jamaica Commercial Institute and worked as a secretary and in the field of social services. Well into her political career, Simpson-Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Union Institute and University in Miami Beach, Florida. She also attended Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The politician became involved in the field as a member of the People’s National Party (PNP) and was elected to the city council of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation as a representative of the Trench Town area. During her tenure, Simpson-Miller oversaw reform of the country’s overseas farmworker employment programs. She was also a noted public supporter of Jamaica’s athletic teams and established the Sports Development Foundation in 1995. The independent body provides support for community and school sports programs and funds the building of stadiums and playing fields.
And from the looks of the other positions she served, Simpson-Miller is about the business that she speaks. At various points of her political career, Simpson-Miller served as Jamaica’s Minister of Defense, Development, Information and Sports. She’s also served as Minister of Labour, Minister of Tourism and Sports, Social Security and Minister of Local Government.
The truth is that she’s had her detractors despite garnering some of the highest approval ratings for someone in her position. Despite championing many people’s causes, one Jamaican writer placed her on track to be the country’s “worst ever Prime Minister.”
But she also was among the first in the Caribbean to stand up to British Prime Minister David Cameron and call for reparations for slavery. She first raised the issue in 2013 at the United Nations and once again during Cameron’s visit to the nation in September 2015.
She also took several measures toward strengthening the Jamaican economy. She was the leading architect of Jamaica’s Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development while she was Minister of Tourism, an industry worth more than $1 billion in U.S. dollars to the nation. She transformed the country’s National Insurance Scheme into a major component of government service. Simpson-Miller also led the charge in reforming the nation’s drug laws. Marijuana in small amounts was decriminalized during her tenure.
A well-respected international diplomat, she also believes that Jamaica should leave the British Commonwealth. “I am a fan of the Queen [Elizabeth II]. I think she is a wonderful person,” she told TIME. But as I said, independence for us is a long journey, from slavery and then from colonialism, and now it is time for us to have our own form of government. I do not believe that is unreasonable. We would remain a member of the [British] Commonwealth. But the time has come.”
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