Part 4: Virgin Islands Woman: Political Advocate, Legislator and Judge

Former Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen at a 2016 presidential campaign event. (Source file photo by Don Buchanan)

This is the fourth in a series on notable Virgin Islands women in honor of Virgin Islands History Month and Women’s History Month.

Women have always been active in the sport of politics in the Virgin Islands. They are at the forefront of running campaigns, raising money through fish fries and manning the phones and campaign headquarters.

If you want to hear of friendships broken between longtime friends, there was usually a disagreed political allegiance at the surface.

Politicians have long known that if they get the support of certain respected women in the community, they are likely to gain a seat in the halls of the Legislature or Government House. Women’s role in this arena was impactful from the early days, and they knew it.

My own mother, the late Eugenia Brown, having learned the mechanisms of political maneuverings from my father, the late Warren E. Brown, would orchestrate a rigorous phone strategy on behalf of the Democratic Party. Any candidate worth their salt would ask her to make calls to get the vote out on their behalf. People would call our house asking, “Genie [mother’s nickname], who are we voting for?” Women such as Marilyn Stapleton, Luella Daniel, Alphonsine Webster, Florence Hill, Dorothy Elskoe and others were some of the formidable advocates during the campaigns.

The political machinations of building a society challenged by vast migrations from the Caribbean, the U.S. and other countries required a clear path and direction of growth for the future. Political organizations and campaigns were run and managed by women of these islands. One non-political organization with huge political acumen and clout was the League of Women Voters. Women like Edith Bornn, Helen Gjessing, Norma Levin, Clovis Enmanuel, Ruth and Dr. Gwen Marie Moolenaar and Helen Smollett fought and challenged government decisions on the environment, government spending and kept oversight to a growing and poorly managed V.I. budget.

While the League was apolitical, it orchestrated power in two areas. In its televised show, “Meet the Candidates,” league members would interview candidates from all political parties and independent candidates as well. Questions would bring to the public the views, goals and intentions of each person running for office. League members, Susan Seipel, Erva Denham, Shaun Pennington and this author were among those who served as hosts of this highly watched, informative television venue. For many years the League also sponsored the gubernatorial debate.

Women played an important role in shaping the direction of making laws and establishing a political structure. As early as the 1950s, and long before the United States allowed the vote to some citizens, a Virgin Islands woman held political office. That woman, Lucinda Millin, was a member of the first unicameral body. She would lead the way for many more women to follow in taking a place in the halls of the local Legislature and Congress of the United States.

Virgin Islands women exerted leadership when necessary. For more than 40 years, women have held positions in the Senate. One senator, Ruby M. Rouss of St. Croix, would be the first to run for the second-highest office of the land, lieutenant governor. Another, of French descent, Sen. Lorraine Berry, would hold political office for many years and become known as the “voice of reason” of the Senate. She, too, would run unsuccessfully for governor.

Another senator, Judy M. Gomez, would champion the rights of the youth with programs and workshops to help students improve their lives. A woman of courage would lead the sponsorship for the mooring legislation in the Virgin Islands. Sen. Ruby Simmonds, to the angst of many in the boating community, took the charge to fight for and win passage of a bill that would manage the submerged lands of the Virgin Islands. This bill represented a significant economic contribution to the islands. These few senators mentioned are among their senatorial sisters who served in the V.I. Senate and sponsored legislation with them. All are not noted here, but their lack of mention certainly does not diminish their importance.

In the sanctums of the United States Congress, Donna Christian-Christensen would be the first woman from the Virgin Islands to hold the position of delegate to Congress. She would also be the first female physician to serve in the U.S. Congress and would be a strong advocate of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. She also ran unsuccessfully for governor.

Women served in the courts. The first woman to hold a judgeship in the territory hailed from St Croix. Judge Eileen Petersen knew the law and in a serious and judicial tone set the stage for others to follow. While the U.S. was just beginning to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, the Virgin Islands led the way, breaking the barriers for women to hand down judicial decisions. Judge Petersen mentored many women who would later become giants in the field of law. She was unafraid to encourage and develop these women to the importance of service in the judicial system. Today many women serve on the bench of the vast and busy court system of these islands.

Who is this Virgin Islands Woman? Lucinda Millin

Lucinda Millin (Photo from UVI)

Lucinda Millin was born on St. John on Aug. 25, 1892. Her early education began on the island and later on Antigua, where she was sent for further formal training. In 1921, she established her own private school, the Lucinda Millin School, and would continue to teach for 40 years. Millin retired from her career as an educator in 1958. She became involved in politics toward the end of her teaching career and was elected in 1954 to the Virgin Islands Legislature, the first woman to hold a Senate seat.

One of her focuses as a lawmaker was the lives of the elderly. Living conditions for the elderly were substandard and many locals who were out to work during an improving economy were unable to maintain daily care for the growing elderly population. Millin was successful in getting a home for the elderly built. The home was later named in her honor and remains today, the Lucinda Millin Home.

Millin’s impact would also come in her contributions of two stalwart politicians to the Virgin Islands; her son Henry Millin would become lieutenant governor in the 1980s and her granddaughter, Janet Millin-Young, would become a senator.

Who is this Virgin Islands Woman? Ruby Rouss
A competent and trained soldier, Ruby Rouss took her leadership role seriously. She was born in Christiansted, St. Croix, in 1921, and at the age of 17 she joined the United States Armed Forces, making her the first Virgin Islands female to serve in the U.S. Army. After World War II she was selected to serve as a secretary to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, in Paris, France. This appointment made her the first Black woman to hold a position in Eisenhower’s command. She later retired, after 22 years, honorably as a master sergeant.

Rouss was not one to fool with if you were on the way to testify before the Legislature during her terms in office. She was the veritable interrogator of the government officials who came before her committee or the Committee of the Whole. Department heads testifying would shiver in their boots at the thought of not being well prepared with the answers to her questions, much to the delight of the people of the Virgin Islands.

She served on the first Virgin Islands Constitutional Convention, from 1964 to 1965, and after that, she continued in the political arena with many “firsts” to her credit. In 1974, she ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of the Virgin Islands, the first female to seek a high-level office. From 1981 to 1983 she served as president of the 14th Legislature – the first female to hold that position. Rouss served in the 10th, 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th Legislatures of the Virgin Islands.

Who is this Virgin Islands Woman? Cleone Creque Maynard Hodge
The island of St. John has had its share of women leaders who made significant inroads and contributed lasting legacies to the island’s development. Cleone Creque Maynard Hodge was a dedicated and loyal Democrat. Her political development can be credited to her love for these islands and the determined will to have St. John counted among the Virgin Islands economic growth.

She was elected to office in 1977 and would serve in the 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th Legislatures. During her tenure, she established the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center and the St. John Capitol Improvement Fund. Most importantly, for the island of St. John, she sponsored a bill for the creation of franchises allowing ferries to operate between St. Thomas and St. John. When she was honored at the naming of the St. John Legislative chamber, she said, “Today is not my day. Today is the day I want you to remember the legacy of the Democratic Party.”

These women mentioned above were pioneers in Virgin Islands’ political power and have left a model for others to follow. Many other women have served in the Virgin Islands Senate, including Carol Burke, Stephanie Scott Williams, Alicia “Chucky” Hansen and Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal. Today numerous young women are adding their names to the annals of history as legislators.

About the author: Debra Adelita Brown DeLone is a third-generation Virgin Islander with ancestral roots on St. Thomas and St. Croix. She has worked in the private and government sectors of St. Thomas for 45 years and has been a community contributor for more than 40 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in human service administration and a master’s degree in public administration. She is the past president of the League of Women Voters ’98 and a past president of Rotary Club Charlotte Amalie. She is married to professor William DeLone, formerly with the University of the Virgin Islands, and has a daughter, Andrea Brown-White and two stepchildren Tim and Niki DeLone. She resides in Rockville, Maryland, and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, Alonzo IV, August and Thayre Marie.

Part 1: Virgin Islands Woman: Rebel, Leader and Queen
Part 2: Virgin Islands Woman: Market Woman, Business Leader, Humanitarian
Part 3: Virgin Islands Woman – Educator, Civic Servant and Role Model