On May 14, 1979, Margaret Thatcher appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the title “Britain’s Fighting Lady.” She was Britain’s first female prime minister and would become one of the most important political figures of the 20th century, serving three consecutive terms. In the spotlight this year with Meryl Streep’s iconic portrayal of her in the film Iron Lady, Thatcher made her mark as one of the world’s most powerful female leaders.
The daughter of a grocer, she was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire. An eager student, she attended Oxford University and trained to be a research chemist. In 1951, she married a prosperous businessman named Denis Thatcher. They went on to have two children. Margaret’s eye was clearly on politics—she first served as a Conservative member of Parliament in 1959. Thatcher held multiple government positions, including secretary of education. She challenged Conservative Party leader Edward Heath after the Party was defeated in 1974. Shocking those who vowed that a woman could never rise to political power in Britain, Thatcher won, paving the way for her to become prime minister when the Conservatives regained power in May 1979.
Thatcher quickly established herself as an active and authoritative political force. Her mission was to protect the autonomy of individuals and to limit the powers of the state. She became known for her role in privatizing aspects of Britain’s government, for reducing social services, and for restricting labor unions. “Thatcherism” was the term used to describe these policies. While some heralded her firm leadership style and economic approach, others countered that Thatcher’s policies were destroying Britain’s social safety net.
Conflict in the Falklands
In one of the key turning points in her political career, Thatcher helped Britain achieve victory over Argentina in the Falklands War, which transpired between April and June 1982. Britain had maintained control over the Falklands since the 19th century. After negotiations over the territory broke down, Argentine troops invaded and occupied the islands. A military blockage and amphibious attack by the British resulted in surrender by the Argentine forces. Though sovereignty of the islands was not settled, Thatcher’s popularity soared, helping assure her re-election in 1983.
As one of only a handful of female world leaders, Thatcher cultivated close relationships with politicians, including U.S. President Ronald Reagan. During her time in office, the world saw the Cold War start to thaw. She stood firmly with the U.S. against Communism, and it was the Soviets who gave Thatcher the nickname “Iron Lady” for her tough stance. Thatcher became a fan of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of “perestroika.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Margaret Thatcher Throughout the Years
During her term as secretary of education, Thatcher had been given the nickname “Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” after she ushered in spending cuts that eliminated free milk for many poor students. Thatcher’s reign took place at a tough time for Britain. Many people argued that her economic approach only made things worse. The unemployment rate was skyrocketing, inflation was rising, and the elimination of many social services unleashed massive demonstrations against her policies. The punk music scene in Britain was thriving during her years in power, and she inspired many protest songs from bands such as The Clash, The Jam, Sham 69, and The Specials. While her decisions sparked controversy, they were met with a colorful and defiant response from musicians and artists.
Thatcher left office in November 1990 after serving three terms as prime minister. She was given the title “Baroness,” and she was welcomed into the highest order of knighthood in England, the order of the garter. Thatcher also established the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, an organization dedicated to encouraging free trade, free enterprise, and democracy throughout the world. Today, she has retired from public life and is seen only on rare occasions. Regardless of how one feels about Thatcher’s policies, the “Iron Lady” will long be remembered for her role as a 20th century world leader.