Society

Margaret Thatcher - World Leaders in History

She was the first female prime minister of Britain and a controversial figurehead of conservative ideology

Early Life

Born on the 13th of October, 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was the second and youngest child of Alfred and Beatrice Roberts. She was raised in a small community called Grantham, in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom. Living above the grocery shop that her parents owned, she attended the local grammar school, and was then given a scholarship to attend Grantham Girls’ High School. Following high school graduation, Margaret was admitted to Oxford University, where she studied chemistry at Somerville College. Graduating with a degree in chemistry, she worked as a research chemist, first in Colchester and later in Dartford. After being married to a wealthy, divorced businessman named Denis Thatcher in 1951, Margaret decided to enroll in a law program in 1952. While training for her degree, she gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark, in 1953.

Rise to Power

Having been introduced to conservative politics as a child by her father, Margaret’s formal interest in politics of her own began while she was at Oxford. She became active in the Conservative Association and served as its president while at the university. While living in Dartford, Thatcher ran for a Dartford Parliamentary post two years in a row. Despite being defeated, she remained undaunted and, following her qualifying as barrister in 1954, Thatcher won a seat in the House of Commons in 1959, representing Finchley in the position. This seat led to her appointment as Parliamentary Undersecretary for Pensions and National Insurance in 1961. As she continued to rise through the ranks of the Conservative Party, Thatcher became a member of the "Shadow Cabinet", which is a group of political leaders from the opposing party who would hold cabinet-level positions if their party was in power. With the return of the Conservative Party to power in 1970, Thatcher was appointed to the role of Secretary for Education and Science. It was during this time when the agenda of her political beliefs reared its head, and she infamously became known as ‘Thatcher the milk snatcher’ for abolishing the free school milk program nationwide. Despite being frustrated and disenchanted with the male-dominated political arena, she persevered and, in 1974 when the Conservatives lost power, she shot to the top of the party, being elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. Thatcher was the first female to serve as opposition leader in the House of Commons. With the subsequent economic turmoil and instability that drastically changed British political attitudes, she was elected as the first female Prime Minister of the U.K. in 1979 when the Conservatives regained power.

Contributions

Elected for three consecutive terms, her performance, as with many world leaders, was always met with mixed reviews. Thatcher was enormously opposed to government waste. During her first term she increased interest rates, destroyed traditional workers' organizations in British trades such as mining by attacking their labor unions, and eliminated government subsidies to businesses, which caused a huge increase in unemployment. Her greatest challenge was the Falkland Islands War, lasting between April and June 1982, when Argentina attempted to gain control of the islands before they ultimately surrendered their cause. Thatcher’s second term began with an enormous scare when she fortuitously avoided an assassination attempt by members of the Irish Republic Army. Undaunted as usual, Thatcher negotiated an agreement with China to transfer Hong Kong back to the Chinese, met with Gorbachev, and allowed the U.S. to use British military bases in their attacks on Libya. Her third term was met with outright hostility domestically. Thatcher’s attempts to implement a standard education curriculum across the nation, as well as many changes to the social welfare medical systems, did not go well. Further, her attempts to decrease income tax rates and implement a fixed local tax caused public protests and dissention with the Conservative party. Under increasing pressure from her own party (especially Michael Heseltine) and the opposition alike, she resigned in November of 1990.

Challenges

Being a female in a male dominated political arena was a daunting challenge in and of itself, but Thatcher was a hard-driven and focused leader, and rarely strayed from her political agenda. Despite varying degrees of criticism over the years, and her earning the nickname “Iron Lady” from a Soviet Army newspaper after she criticized the Soviet Union for promoting its desire for world dominance, Thatcher held fast to her beliefs and was considered a resolute leader.

Death and Legacy

After suffering a series of small strokes in 2002, Thatcher suffered a great loss in 2003 with the death of her husband, Denis, to whom she had been married to for 50 years. A continued decline in her own health kept her at home for much of her life after 2010. Margaret died on the 8th of April, 2013, at the age of 87. Thatcher’s legacy of having been the first female leader of the opposition, and the first and only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, as well as the longest serving prime minister of modern times, lives on. A statue of Margaret Thatcher stands in a place of honor across from Winston Churchill in the U.K. Parliament building. That alone is a testament to her strong and enduring legacy, which serves as a model for conservatives around the world still to this day.

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