Margaret Thatcher: Britain’s Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, served in government for over two decades. She is remembered as a core figurehead of British politics, even today.

Oct 20, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

biography margaret thatcher iron lady


Most people who even remotely follow world politics can tell you that “The Iron Lady,” was Britain’s most controversial Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. While serving the Conservative party for over two decades, she was and is a divisive figure in European politics, and in her 11-year tenure as prime minister, she attracted both praise and criticism from both sides of the aisle. Who was Margaret Thatcher, and why is she still a common household name?


The Early Life of Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Roberts in a school picture from the 1930s, via The Guardian


Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts to Alfred and Beatrice Roberts on October 13, 1925, in the small town of Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. She had one older sister, Muriel, and her parents were middle-class grocers. The family lived above the shop, where the two Roberts daughters would occasionally help their parents.


The Roberts family were devoted Methodists and were heavily involved with their local congregation. In addition to the grocery, Alfred Roberts was also involved in town politics, serving on the city council for 16 years, as well as becoming an alderman and the mayor of Grantham.


Thatcher was raised listening to her father’s wealth of political knowledge and became interested in politics at an early age. She went to a small state school, then won a place at Oxford at Somerville College in 1943. At Oxford, Thatcher studied chemistry under world-renowned crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, who won a Nobel prize for her work in 1964.

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margaret thatcher chemistry
Margaret Thatcher works in a chemistry lab, via The Guardian


Although Thatcher studied chemistry, her real passion was politics, and it was her time at Oxford that launched her political career. There she was a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association and was eventually elected president of the organization in 1946. In her role as president, she was introduced to many prominent Conservative politicians.


Thatcher was able to present herself to the party leaders at a time when they desperately wanted to cultivate conservatism in young men and women, which gave her a leg up in the political sphere. She gave her first speech at the 1945 Conservative General Election campaign and thus decisively inserted herself into the world of British politics.


Early Campaigns & Margaret Thatcher’s First Parliament Seat

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Miss Margaret Roberts, the 1951 Conservative candidate for Dartford, Kent, via The Guardian


After graduating from Oxford, Thatcher moved to Colchester, England to work as a research chemist at BX Plastics. However, she knew that her real passion was not in chemistry, so she then moved to Dartford, where she was named the Conservative candidate for the general election of 1950 and 1951.


Although Thatcher lost both elections, her campaign attracted the national press due to her being the youngest female candidate to run for Parliament at the time. She also realized during this time that she had a passion for campaigning and found the election process exciting. During her time in Dartford, she also met her husband, Denis Thatcher, a local businessman and oil industry executive.


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Margaret and Denis Thatcher on their wedding day in 1951, via The Guardian


After marrying, Thatcher was able to resign from her work in chemistry and focus on studying to be a lawyer. She and Denis welcomed twins Mark and Carol on August 15, 1953. During this time, the new mother was also still studying to practice taxation law, and six months after giving birth, Thatcher passed the bar exam.


After years of practicing law and searching for a Conservative constituency, Thatcher was finally elected to Parliament for Finchley, a neighborhood in north London. The first bill that Thatcher introduced as a Member of Parliament (MP) affirmed the media’s right to cover local government meetings, focusing on wasteful government spending as an important facet of her politics rather than freedom of speech.


Later Parliamentary Roles

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Margaret Thatcher at the Tory Party Conference At Llandudno Wales, 1962, via ELLE


By 1961, Thatcher had been appointed to a minor position in the Conservative Opposition government of Harold Macmillan as a junior minister at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. She spent the next several years in many shadow cabinet positions, slowly becoming the most skilled woman in the House of Commons for the Conservatives. She argued her positions strongly and without personal emotion, giving herself an air of stability and power in Parliament.


Though her relations with party leader Edward Heath were never good, with Heath describing Thatcher as the “token woman,” she entered the Prime Minister’s cabinet as Education Secretary in 1970. The Conservatives had regained their power, and Heath was elected Prime Minister. Thatcher was probably appointed to the Education Secretary position because the position was seen as an appropriate one for a woman to have.


Thatcher came into the sphere of national education at a time of contention. Student protests and rallies were very common during the 1970s, and Thatcher became a target for the students’ often leftist attacks. The reasoning behind these attacks was often her hardline conservative stances in opposition to her party, which she felt were too acquiescent to the Labour Party.


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Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher visits a school in 1971, via The Guardian


In 1971, Thatcher eliminated a free milk program for children over the age of seven in state schools and was dubbed “Thatcher the milk snatcher.”  Thatcher was demonized by Labour supporters for her stances and policies and built a career-long impression that she was an unfeeling, un-feminine, and non-empathetic politician.


Despite her party’s conservative economic policies of 1970 and 1971, the Heath government backtracked in 1972 to appease trade unions. This series of policies was called the “U-turns,” and was thought to spark the early election of 1974, which the Conservative party lost. Heath went back to being the Opposition leader but was not comfortable in the position and only ran for re-election to the position due to insistence by his party.


In 1975, when Heath ran for Opposition leader again, Thatcher was nominated to run against him. To the shock of many, Thatcher won and became the first female party leader of any major Western democracy. From 1975 to 1979, Thatcher served as Opposition leader, often in contention with her shadow cabinet, who were left over from the Heath administration. Though she was not able to enact much change during these years, she was dubbed “The Iron Lady” by the Soviets, a nickname she fully embraced throughout her career. In 1978, Thatcher took advantage of Labour’s weakness in the wake of several strikes and won the government back for the Conservative Party in 1979 as Prime Minister.


Margaret Thatcher’s First Term as Prime Minister

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Margaret Thatcher outside 10 Downing Street following her election as Prime Minister in May 1979, via The Guardian


When Thatcher took over the premiership of the United Kingdom, it was in a period of economic decline. To mitigate this, Thatcher’s government shifted British economic policy further to the right. While the government cut direct taxes, they also increased indirect taxes, as balancing the country’s budget was one of Thatcher’s primary goals.


Inflation, interest rates, and unemployment were rising in Britain. It was a factor of Thatcher’s government that quickly made her unpopular, but the budget of 1981, which temporarily raised taxes to cut interest rates and curb inflation, worked and saw a steady turnaround toward economic growth for the next eight years.


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Margaret Thatcher visiting British troops on the Falkland Islands in 1983, via The Guardian


The most characteristic facet of Thatcher’s first government was its involvement in the Falklands War. The Falkland Islands were a tiny archipelago and British colony 300 miles off of the coast of Argentina. In April 1982, Argentina invaded the islands and took over. The British reaction under Thatcher was swift and decisive. Although the Prime Minister worked with the United States to pursue diplomacy, political action was not enough, and a British military task force was sent to the islands. The conflict lasted 74 days, and Britain was able to quickly stop the fighting by June 1982.


While her economic policy was a catalyst for the fiscal uptick, the Falklands War decisively secured Thatcher’s second term. Not only was Britain’s economy growing, but its foreign policy was also much more vigorous and independent than it had been previously. In the general election of 1983, Thatcher was reelected by a vast majority.


Margaret Thatcher’s Second Term

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Margaret Thatcher waves to well-wishers after her election win at Tory Party headquarters in 1983, via The Guardian


Thatcher’s second term began her war upon Britain’s trade unions. She imposed strict legislation upon several unions, giving them rigid guidelines for operation. When these policies were imposed, the miners’ union went on a year-long strike, which would turn out to be one of the United Kingdom’s most violent strikes in history, most likely due to Thatcher’s refusal to give into any of the union’s demands.


During this time, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed Thatcher’s hotel during the Conservative Party’s annual conference. Thatcher was unharmed, but many of her colleagues were injured or killed, and the attempted assassination became the closest attempt on the life of a British prime minister in history. The IRA particularly hated Thatcher because she refused to meet any of their political demands, though she did work out the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which attempted to improve the security outlook of the two countries, as well as to encourage political outlooks among the Northern Irish Catholic community.


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The Grand Hotel in Brighton after an IRA bomb destroyed part of it in an attempted assassination on the life of Margaret Thatcher, via The Economist


A key part of the legacy of Thatcher’s second term was the privatization of many British state assets. Thatcher’s administration privatized British Telecom, British Airways, British Gas, and Rolls-Royce. In doing so, Thatcher’s government reduced the 20 percent ownership of the state over the economy and sold off shares to public investors. Her goal, which she accomplished, was to place the onus on business ownership and the private economy rather than state-controlled economic policy.


Thatcher often struggled to connect with other European leaders, as she disagreed with their policies on building a European Union based on politics and rather preferred the European Union to run as a free market economic collective. In doing this, Thatcher aligned herself more readily with other Conservative democratic politicians, like President Ronald Reagan, than with European leaders.


Following her government’s facilitation of a strong economy, Thatcher was reelected for a third term in the 1987 general election, winning the majority and promising new reforms in the government to follow.


Margaret Thatcher’s Third Term & Resignation

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Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, London, at the start of her third term in office in 1987, via The Guardian


When Thatcher was elected to a third term, her administration began focusing on reform in three main facets of government: education, taxation, and health services. For the first time, a national curriculum was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1988, a change that would be maintained by successors throughout the years. Thatcher’s government also installed legislation that would separate the purchasers and providers within the National Health Service (NHS), creating competition and boosting effective management of the system.


Thatcher’s most controversial piece of legislation during her third term was that of the Community Charge, called the “poll tax” by critics, which introduced a new taxation system for local councils and allowed them to raise taxes at a whim and blame it on the Thatcher legislation.


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Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe with Margaret Thatcher, via La Vanguardia


This was not the only point of contention in Thatcher’s third government. Most of her disagreements arose from her standpoint on trans-European politics. The end of the Cold War in 1990 sparked European integration, particularly in the way of a single European currency. Differing opinions on European politics became acute within the British government, and with the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, in November 1990, Thatcher’s downfall began.


After a challenge to her leadership in Parliament, Colleagues in Thatcher’s cabinet quickly concurred with the Opposition and abandoned Thatcher as a leader. She was forced to withdraw and resigned as prime minister on November 28, 1990.


Life After Resignation & Death of Margaret Thatcher

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Baroness Margaret Thatcher in the House of Lords in 2010, via CNN


Though Thatcher was forced to give up her premiership, she remained an MP, albeit in the House of Lords first as Lady and then as Baroness Margaret Thatcher. She wrote two memoirs, The Downing Street Years in 1993 and The Path to Power in 1995. She also lectured continuously for a full decade.


After writing another book, this one a series of reflections on international politics called Statecraft, Thatcher suffered a series of small strokes and announced her departure from public life. Her husband, Denis, passed away in June 2003, and Thatcher’s health continued to slowly fail with progressive memory loss. Margaret Thatcher died in London on April 8, 2013, and was honored with a ceremonial funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral.


margaret thatcher portrait
A portrait of Margaret Thatcher, via The Guardian


Thatcher remains a controversial figure in British politics, but it is undeniable that her legacy has influenced British politics into the modern day. Her economic structure, as well as her political ideas around pan-European policy, are core to the British government today.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.