BBC HomepageWorld ServiceEducation
BBC World Service
Women in Power reveal what it takes
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher
Former Prime Minister
of Great Britain

 Who is she?
 Brief biography
 Family influence
 Seizing the moment
 The Iron Lady: war
 Being tough: strikes
 Breaking in to a man's world
 Balancing work and family
 Advice
 Update
 Through the Glass Ceiling
 Links to other sites

Who is she?
Brief biography
Family influences

Margaret Thatcher's father was a grocer who was also heavily involved in local politics. He was a powerful influence on her and later became the Mayor of Grantham. Although passionately interested in politics, she didn't believe that she could afford to become a Member of Parliament. She studied Chemistry at Oxford University and took part in student debates. She then worked as a research chemist and studied law. In 1951 she married Dennis Thatcher, three years later she gave birth to twins. She continued to study for her law exams and remained involved in party politics. In 1958 she became Member of Parliament for Finchley in London. She served in several ministries for the next ten years and in 1970 became the only woman in the Cabinet with responsibility for Education and Science. Shortly after this she was asked if she thought a woman Prime Minister was a possibility:

"I think it depends on who the person is. I don't think that there will be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime and I don't think it depends on so much whether it's a man prime minister or a woman prime minister as to whether that person is the right person for the job at that time."
Seizing the moment

In 1974 Edward Heath resigned as Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher took advantage of his removal from the leadership to stand as leader herself. She knew that there were prejudices against women at the top, but thought it was important for individuals to be considered as personalities rather than judged by gender. In her view, women need to use luck and seize their opportunities.

 "I knew the prejudices against women in the top job and I think we look too much at women and men in jobs...you come to a certain time and you look at the personalities available and their policies. And that's how women get on - right personality, right capability, right place at the right time."

She went on to be elected as Conservative leader and in 1979 was elected as Prime Minister with 43.9% of the vote: the first woman Prime Minister in Britain - and in Europe.

The Iron Lady:war

Thatcher's impact on the British economy was dramatic as she pursued her monetarist policies. These policies resulted in a two-fold increase in the number of unemployed people between 1979 and 1980 and criticism of her leadership. In 1982 opinion polls showed her popularity was lower than that of the other parties. One month later Britain was involved in a military campaign in the Falklands which Thatcher fought with fierce determination. The Falklands victory led to a massive increase in her popularity and she called an early election the following year. Her latest biographer, John Campbell believes this victory was very important for her career.

"It transformed her position entirely. It put her on a pedestal where she stayed for the next six years until she began to weaken towards the end. She was very unpopular before the war - I mean the war could have ruined her if it had gone wrong. It was a great risk to take, but since she succeeded it transformed her position entirely and she'd been called the Iron lady but this was really acting on it and just transformed the way everyone in Britain and around the world saw her."
Being tough: strikes

She continued to hold firm against powerful opposition. In 1984, the National Union of Miners went on strike to oppose the closure of their pits. Thatcher refused to give in to union demands - and won. John Campbell describes her leadership style:

"She was tough in all sorts of ways and she was a very aggressive politician, she looked for arguments and wanted to win arguments all the time whereas most politicians are looking for agreement and trying to be consensual… Things like the miners strike, she dug in and wouldn't compromise. One of the really tough things she did was to hold out against the Irish hunger strikers which probably most Prime Ministers would have looked for some way of allowing them to climb down, she let them die."

When interviewed about this time in later years, Thatcher said that she thought women had much more experience of taking tough decisions than men.

Breaking in to a man's world

Unlike other women leaders, for example Brundtland, Thatcher did not believe that quota systems were the answer to get more women in politics - she thought this might affect the quality of women at the top.

 "I don't want get to a position when we have women because they're women, we want to have women because they are able and as well equipped as men and sometimes better."

Early in her Prime Ministership she included one woman in her Cabinet - but afterwards her Cabinet was entirely composed of men. She didn't seem to encourage new women into politics.

Balancing work and family

Margaret Thatcher had had twins before starting her political career. She found it very difficult to be able to work and look after her children - she described how she had to be very strongly motivated to do so.

"Children alter your life completely, you never know how much until you have one. I had twins, they were prematurely born and so in the early days it really required a great deal of attention, and they tug away at your heart strings, and I remember thinking if I don't make arrangements, I will never do it. It was hard and you must be strongly motivated to do it."

Involvement in politics requires financial backing, and Thatcher also needed to fund childcare so that she could work as an MP. Haleh Afshar believes that the support available to Thatcher contributed to her success.

"In terms of success, Margaret Thatcher had the backup, in the sense that she had a man who was willing to pay for her very expensive campaigns but also pay for the childcare that was needed, so she could enter politics as a man and that was very important."
Advice
 "I think if you decide to come into politics it must be more than just politics as a job, you must have a real fascination for it."
Update

In 1989 Thatcher faced the most serious crisis of her career - her Cabinet was split over her refusal to change economic policy and her Chancellor and economic adviser resigned. By 1990 it was all over but Thatcher had few regrets.

"I never lost an election and I never had a majority lower than 45… you can't live an if only life, I was there for eleven and a half years, they were the eleven and a half most exciting years of my life. They were exciting for Britain, they brought Britain's reputation up, Britain meant something to the world."

She left the House of Commons in 1992, and now sits in the Lords as Baroness Thatcher.

Through the Glass Ceiling
"One only gets to the top rung on the ladder by steadily climbing up one at a time, and suddenly, all sorts of powers, all sorts of abilities which you though never belonged to you - suddenly become within your own possibility and you think, 'Well, I'll have a go too'"

Bhutto believes that Thatcher is an important role-model for other women and girls wanting to get involved in politics:

"I admired Margaret Thatcher because she was a woman who broke new ground, she broke glass ceilings."
Links to other sites
Profile of top 100 leaders including Thatcher
(Time Magazine)

Profile of Thatcher, the former PM
(10 Downing Street website)


Site includes biography of Thatcher.
(American website for organisation which aims to shatter the glass ceiling).

Quotes from Thatcher

(The BBC is not responsible for the quality of external internet sites.)