The Malta Independent 24 October 2019, Thursday

Agatha Barbara’s personal documents donated to University of Malta

Albert Galea Thursday, 6 June 2019, 15:30 Last update: about 6 months ago

Agatha Barbara’s personal documents have been donated to the University of Malta by the late politician’s family and will be digitised and made available for research in the near future.

Agatha Barbara, born in Zabbar in 1923, was the first elected female member of Parliament, having been elected in 1947 – the first election where universal suffrage applied.  She later became the first female Minister in 1955, holding portfolios such as education, and labour, culture and welfare in her long political career. She was appointed as the first female President of the Republic in 1982, a post which she held until 1987.  Barbara passed away in 2002 at the age of 78.

Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms, Citizenship & Simplification of Administrative Processes Julia Farrugia Portelli, whose secretariat is responsible for the organisation of the exhibition, thanked the family for their donation and said that the University of Malta is the natural home for these unique documents.

She said that the occasion was also significant because it is only two days till the closing of the consultation period for the reform on increasing female representation in parliament. She said that the reform, despite the criticism, was an important step in the right direction to push more women and men into the political sphere.

Photos Alenka Falzon

Jane Chircop, who is Barbara’s niece, praised the exhibition and said that she hoped that her aunt’s documents would be of great to researchers of Malta’s political history.

University of Malta Rector Alfred J. Vella thanked the family for their donation and said that documents such as these were essential for the University to function as a place of learning and research, and hoped that this would represent that start of an archive within the University that would ensure that the memory of the extraordinary women in Malta’s history would not be forgotten.

He noted that this year will also see the University commemorate 250 years of becoming a University, and 100 years since the first female graduate from University.  He spoke of the discrepancy between those numbers and noted that all of the female professors to come out of the University of Malta are still alive and contributing to the University to this day – something which shows how recently women entering into tertiary education had become mainstreamed.

He also made mention of the cententary of Sette Giugno, speaking of his satisfaction that students from the University had been involved and felt empowered to bring about change and fight for their rights.

“I sometimes worry because I remember a time when students were more active in society and in politics; today unfortunately I think students care more about whether there is parking or not than about Malta’s society”, Vella said.

He said that encouraging discussion and debate is one of the most important pillars of the University’s work as it is on these notions that the University will continue to exist and prosper for another 250 years.

Pro-Rector Carmen Sammut noted that this year commemorates a century since a number of important historical events.  Sette Giugno is the most obvious occasion, however Sammut also noted that in February 1919, the National Assembly was also called to discuss a new constitution – a national assembly which was meant to represent all sectors of Maltese society but which was made up of only men.  She mentioned that 1919 also saw the first formal proposal for women to be given the right to vote, which was put forward by Leopoldo Vizzari De Sannazaro, and that 1919 also saw the first female graduate from the University of Malta; Tessie Camilleri and the first female medical student, Blanche Huber, to start her studies at the University.

Sammut said that important personal archives such as that of Barbara were already being lost, and warned that losing such archives could create a “collective amnesia” of the contribution of women to the country. 

She spoke of her hope that Barbara’s family’s decision to donate the former President’s documents to the University would encourage others with similar personal archives to donate them so that they may eventually be accessible to all.

Dominic Fenech, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and head of the department of history, spoke of the journey to universal suffrage in 1947 and noted that Maltese society was so conservative that in the run-up to the granting of self-government based on a constitution written mostly by Maltese, nobody had thought of the idea or need to give women the vote then. 

It was only in the run-up to the granting of the 1947 constitution that another national assembly was called and the newly and hurriedly set up Women of Malta Association – backed by the Labour Front and represented in the National Assembly by two women, Josephine Burns de Bono and Helene Buhagiar – proposed a motion for universal suffrage.  It passed, but not with an extraordinary majority, Fenech said before noting that many men still believed that the woman’s place was at home.

He recalled Barbara as a kind and sympathetic person who had a special love for those who had climbed up the ranks from nothing.  He recalls how she had once recounted a story of a child who eventually became a doctor in Zabbar and how she had gone as far as lending him her typewriter to aid him in his studies. 

Fenech noted that Barbara is distinguished from her female political peers from that period because of her background – she too had started from the bottom; “she probably had nobody to lend her a typewriter when she was young, and that’s probably why wanted to help those seeking to climb the ranks from scratch”, he said.

It is the third time that this exhibition is being opened, having initially been staged last March at Parliament.

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