Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become prime minister of Britain and one of the most divisive political figures of the 20th century, died on April 8 after suffering a stroke. She was 87.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on Oct. 13, 1925, in the small town of Grantham. She came from humble beginnings; her mother, Beatrice, worked as a dressmaker, and her father, Alfred, was a grocer, a lay preacher and a local politician. She had one older sister, Muriel.
Thatcher studied chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford. After training under Dorothy Hodgkin, a pioneer of X-ray crystallography who won a Nobel Prize in 1964, Thatcher spent four years working as a research chemist. But her first love was politics.
Thatcher gave her first political speech when she was just 20 years old, and served as president of the student Conservative Association at Oxford. In her mid-20s, she ran for a seat in Parliament as a Conservative candidate in 1950 and 1951. Even though she lost both times, Thatcher received national publicity for being the youngest woman candidate in the country.
For most of the 1950s, Thatcher focused on raising a family. She married Denis Thatcher, a local businessman who ran his family’s firm, in 1951; the couple had twins, Mark and Carol, two years later. In her spare time, she studied to become a lawyer, and when she was admitted to the bar, Thatcher specialized in tax law.
In 1959, Thatcher was elected to Parliament representing Finchley, a north London constituency. It was the beginning of a meteoric rise.
Thatcher spent the next decade working a succession of jobs within Parliament, and in 1970, she achieved the rank of Education Secretary. Her right-wing platform did not sit well with students or academics, and it was during this time period that Thatcher developed a thick skin. When she decided to cancel a free school milk program for children over the age of 7, the tabloids described her as “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” and “the most unpopular woman in Britain.”
Despite all the bad publicity, Conservative party members viewed Thatcher as strong, outspoken and ambitious. She engaged in an aggressive campaign against all male contenders, and in 1975, the party elected Thatcher their leader. Although she once said “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime,” Thatcher made history in 1979 when she won the nation’s top job. She would serve three terms, and became one of Britain’s most influential leaders.
Domestically, Thatcher was a controversial figure. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady” in 1976, a moniker she adored, Thatcher worked hard to cultivate a reputation as a staunch conservative with an unwillingness to change her mind once it was made up. Throughout her political career, she strongly advocated for austerity measures, free-market democracies and smaller government.
“What we need now is a far greater degree of personal responsibility and decision, far more independence from the government, and a comparative reduction in the role of government,” she noted in her famous “What’s Wrong With Politics?” speech.
With this mindset, Thatcher reduced or eliminated many government subsidies to ailing businesses and tightened monetary policies. In the midst of an economic downturnn, these efforts forced a record 10,000 businesses to go bankrupt. Unemployment topped 3 million. And violent riots broke out in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and many other areas.
The Thatcher administration also instituted union reforms in 1980 and 1982, which inspired the miner’s union to launch a brutal and long-lasting strike. Thatcher remained steadfast, as was her wont, and eventually defeated the union.
During her second and third terms in office, Thatcher reformed the country’s educational system by introducing a national curriculum, and opened up the National Health Service to a measure of competition. These moves were not always popular, but their effects proved enduring.
“I am not a consensus politician,” Thatcher said. “I am a conviction politician.”
British relations with Northern Ireland were particularly contentious during this time. Hunger strikes and terrorist attacks ensued, and in 1984, Thatcher became the target of an Irish Republican Army assassination attempt. The IRA bombing at the Conservative Conference in Brighton did not harm her, but the explosion killed four people and wounded more than 30 others. Undaunted, Thatcher insisted that the conference continue, and even gave her speech as scheduled.
A fierce anti-communist, Thatcher recognized the West’s eventual victory in the Cold War. She famously invited Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Britain in 1984, three months before he even came into power as the leader of the Soviet Union. At the time, Thatcher declared: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Her rapport with this new ally and her friendly relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan contributed to these leaders ending the arms race of the 1980s.
Such kinship did not fade in difficult times, either. Thatcher backed Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya in 1986 — even though the mission outraged her own citizenry — and defended him during the IranContra affair that same year. When Reagan died in 2004, Thatcher was in ill health. However, she attended the funeral, and pre-recorded a video that described Reagan as “a great president, a great American, and a great man.”
Thatcher’s foreign policies did not always stand the test of time. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher ignored her allies’ calls for diplomacy and responded with overwhelming military force. During the 10-week war, 250 British servicemen and 1,000 Argentines were killed. The sinking of Argentina’s only cruiser, the General Belgrano, which left 323 Argentines dead, was particularly problematic because the attack took place outside of Britain’s declared exclusion zone. This short war cemented Thatcher’s take-no-prisoners reputation and helped her win a landslide victory for a second term in office. But the political ramifications of the conflict continue to be felt to this day.
Thatcher also came down on the wrong side of history after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The prime minister argued against the reunification of East and West Germany, saying the change would destabilize Europe. The two Germanies reunited, to great success, in 1990.
Her final missteps involved railing against European integration, and the introduction of a poll tax on all residents rather than on property. Both actions cost her political capital within the party and led to her resignation in 1990.
Thatcher’s legacy is certainly a complicated one. She was reviled by Britain’s academic and artistic communities for cutting their financing. And progressives hated her for ending socialism, privatizing government industries and replacing compassion with greed as a core value. Yet Thatcher was respected by many, particularly in conservative circles, for leading the country out of a recession and through a war. She was credited with recognizing the dangers of global warming, and strongly encouraging other nations to repair the damaged ozone layer. She was also one of the first Western leaders to call for intervention in Bosnia after the Serb concentration camps were revealed in 1992.
Actress Meryl Streep, who won an Academy Award for portraying Thatcher in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady,” hailed the former prime minister as a pioneer for the role of women in politics.
“To have withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, leveled in our time at a public figure who was not a mass murderer; and to have managed to keep her convictions attached to fervent ideals and ideas — wrongheaded or misguided as we might see them now — without corruption — I see that as evidence of some kind of greatness, worthy for the argument of history to settle,” Streep said. “To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation; this was groundbreaking and admirable.”
Thatcher was named Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven after stepping off the political stage. In 1991, she received the U.S. Medal of Freedom from President George H. W. Bush. Thatcher’s husband of more than 50 years died in 2003. In 2004, her son Mark was arrested for financing an alleged plot by mercenaries to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea in west Africa. He pleaded guilty in 2005 and was given a four-year suspended sentence.
During the final years of her life, Thatcher wrote several books and toured the world as a lecturer. Her speaking career ended in 2002 following a series of small strokes and the onset of dementia. In accordance with the family’s wishes, Thatcher will not be accorded a full state funeral. Instead, she will receive a ceremonial funeral with military honors. A service at St. Paul’s Cathedral will be followed by a private cremation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to his predecessor on Monday morning.
“We’ve lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton,” Cameron said.
Photo by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.