Dame Lois Browne-Evans stood at the forefront of Bermuda politics for 40 years.She broke barriers, fought to eliminate racial discrimination and worked tirelessly to create a more equitable society that would benefit all Bermudians, not just a small elite group of bankers and merchants.She was Bermuda’s first female lawyer, first female Attorney General and the first female Opposition Leader not only in Bermuda but the British Commonwealth.
She moved onto the national stage in 1953 when she became the first woman to be called to the Bermuda bar. In 1963, she was elected as a Member of Colonial Parliament, which was what Bermuda’s MPs were known as until 1972, becoming the island’s first black female Parliamentarian.
That election was historic for two reasons. It was the first in which people who did not own property could vote. It was also the first time a political party had contested an election. The Progressive Labour Party (PLP), which had formed in February of that year, fielded nine candidates. Dame Lois was one of six who were elected.
Her victory was decisive. When she topped the polls in Devonshire North, defeating prominent lawyer Bayard Dill, who had represented the constituency for many years, it was a demonstration of the power of ordinary people to bring about change. Sir Bayard, a founding partner of law firm Conyers Dill and Pearman, was a member of the small white merchant group that had ruled Bermuda for centuries. Collectively known as the oligarchy (rule of many by a few), they were opposed to giving voting rights to adults who did not own property.
Dame Lois retained her seat in every subsequent general election until her resignation in 2003. Dame Lois participated in every major political event during her 40 years in Parliament, beginning with the 1966 constitutional conference in London that established the framework for a two-party system in Bermuda.
Her first stint as Opposition Leader began in 1968 after an election that was won the United Bermuda Party. The May 22, 1968 election was the first one held under the new Bermuda Constitution and the first to be contested by two political parties.
Dame Lois was a powerful orator who had a strong connection with ordinary Bermudians. While she garnered respect from people from all walks of life, she often attracted controversy and criticism from political supporters as well as opponents.
In 1977, she led an unsuccessful campaign to spare her client Larry Tacklyn, who was convicted of the Shopping Centre murders, and Buck Burrows, who was convicted of assassinating Governor Sir Richard Sharples, from the gallows.
The hangings, which capped a turbulent period in Bermuda’s history, led to riots. The events of December 1977 pitted Dame Lois, in her role as Opposition Leader, against the then premier, Sir David Gibbons.
In 1984, a faction with the PLP, frustrated by the party’s inability to win a general election, called for her to step down. It caused a bitter split that left the PLP with just seven seats in the House following a 1985 general election, and resulted in her resignation.
In 1999, eight months after the PLP achieved its first election victory, she came under criticism after she was appointed a Dame of the British Empire, the female equivalent of a knighthood, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Throughout most of its existence, the pro-independence PLP had advised supporters not to accept such awards, which are recommended by the Bermuda Government, but issued by Buckingham Palace, because the party’s goal has always been to break ties with the United Kingdom.
Dame Lois, who had declined a similar award years earlier, said she accepted it at the urging of her children.
Dame Lois was born on June 1, 1927 on Parson’s Road, Pembroke, the second of four children of James Browne, a contractor and owner of the Clayhouse Inn, and the former Emmeline Charles. She was born into a segregated world, where the rights people take for granted today, such as free primary and high school education, did not exist.
She attended Central School and won a scholarship to attend Berkeley Institute. She taught for two years at Elliott School in Devonshire after graduating from Berkeley, and then went to London to attend law school. Her father financed her studies at Middle Temple Inns of Court.
Her experience in London was crucial to her political development. She met students from the Caribbean and Africa who later returned home and played pivotal roles in their nations’ development.
Among the people she developed friendships with were Lynden Pindling, the future prime minister of the Bahamas, and Eugenia Charles, the future prime minister of Dominica.
On her return to Bermuda she established her law practice and took on a number of high-profile criminal cases.
But politics were her main forum for bringing about change. Dame Lois had joined a party that was often beset by internal bickering. In 1965, the PLP experienced its first split and Dame Lois was left to soldier on as the only PLP representative in Parliament.
Things had improved somewhat for the PLP by the time of the 1968 election. But the PLP’s leader, lawyer Walter Robinson, lost his seat, and Dame Lois was elected Opposition Leader.
Dame Lois stepped aside for Mr. Robinson in the 1972 election, and was re-elected in 1976. She remained at the helm of the party until her resignation in 1985.
She was replaced by Frederick Wade, her Devonshire North running mate and law firm partner, who brought the PLP the closest it had ever come to victory in 1993, with 18 seats to the ruling United Bermuda Party’s 22. But Mr. Wade died in 1996, two years before the PLP was elected as the ruling party.
Dame Lois did not achieve her dream of Bermuda becoming independent as a majority of Bernudians remain opposed to cutting ties with the United Kingdom.
But after being in Opposition benches for 30 years, she could finally take a seat on the Government side of the House of Assembly after the PLP’s election victory in November 1998.
She could also claim credit for being a political mentor to Jennifer Smith, who led the PLP to victory and became its first premier. Dame Lois was Minister of Legislative Affairs in the first PLP Cabinet and became Attorney General the following year.
Even after she bowed out of political life in 2003, she remained a powerful force in the party. One of her last public appearances was at the renaming of the airport after Frederick Wade in April 2007. Speakers were allotted five minutes’ at the podium. Dame Lois spoke for nearly 30 minutes, but no one dared interrupt a speech that was filled with reminisces.
Dame Lois was the wife of Trinidadian-born John Evans, whom she married in February 1958. They had three children, Ernestine and Donald, both of whom live in the U.S., and Nadine who lives in Bermuda.
Dame Lois was preparing to celebrate her 80th birthday on June 1, 2007 with a large party at Devonshire Recreation Club, the unofficial headquarters of her old Devonshire North constituency.
But she took ill and died on May 28. Thousands attended her funeral at the Anglican Cathedral. It was a sign of her standing that her obituary appeared in the London Times.
In early 2008, Government announced that Dame Lois had been declared Bermuda’s first national hero. Her achievements were recognised on National Heroes Day, which was observed for the first time on October 13, 2008.