4 May 1979 – Margaret Thatcher Becomes the First Woman Prime Minister of the UK

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4 May 1979 – Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher,  (nee Roberts) becomes the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. 

Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and the first woman to hold that office. A Soviet journalist dubbed her the “Iron Lady”, a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As prime minister, she implemented policies that became known as Thatcherism.

“The Iron Lady” could simply not be moved. With a very strong set of principles, Margaret Thatcher took the world of politics by storm in a time women were not expected to take leadership roles.

Thatcher got her nickname after accusing the Soviet Union of being bent on world domination and giving a fearless anti-communism speech back in 1976.

During her three terms, she faced a military challenge that became known as the Falklands War, reduced trade union power, cut social welfare programs and privatized some state-owned companies. While trying to implement a fixed-rate local tax, The Iron Lady’s popularity decreased and, in 1990, she announced her resignation.

History

Thatcher was brought up above her father’s grocer’s shop in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham. She was the second of two daughters of Alderman Alfred Roberts and his wife, Beatrice. The two girls were educated at Kesteven and Grantham girls’ school, and at 17 Margaret won a place to study chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was tutored by the future Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin (with whom she remained on respectful terms, despite Hodgkin’s passionate opposition to nuclear weapons). She graduated in 1947.

Less than two years later she was selected to contest the hopeless Kent seat of Dartford, despite the reservations of some party activists who were appalled at the prospect of a 23-year-old woman as their candidate. She contested Dartford in both the 1950 and 1951 general elections.

It was at a social function after her first adoption meeting that she met Denis Thatcher, a businessman with a passion for rugby who had earlier rejected the chance of fighting the seat himself. Denis drove the candidate back to London. Well-off, divorced and amiable, Denis ran his family paint firm, which was later absorbed into Burmah Oil. They were married in December 1951.

In 1953, their twins, Carol and Mark, were born. Denis, it was claimed, spent the day at a cricket match – Carol later called their marriage “a partnership of parallel lives” – and while still in the maternity hospital, Margaret signed up to study for her bar finals. She was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1954.

For a young woman with a new family, to become an MP was unprecedented. But in 1958, she was selected for the rock-solid north London constituency of Finchley, the seat she represented from October 1959 until she retired at the general election in 1992.

In October 1961, after only 20 months on the backbenches, the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, made Thatcher a junior pensions minister (a job she later gave to her own successor, John Major). It would be nearly 30 years before she returned to the backbenches. In 1967, with her party in opposition, she was promoted to the shadow cabinet by the new party leader, Heath, and when he won the election of June 1970, she became education secretary, the only woman in the cabinet.

Here, her public reputation was made as “Thatcher the milk-snatcher”, the minister who cut spending by ending universal free milk for primary school children. It was a defining moment, but also a rare breach of the Conservatives’ unwillingness to disturb the postwar consensus. Much more in keeping was her continuation of Labour’s plan to replace grammar schools with comprehensives.

But she was at the ringside as Heath’s experiments in monetarism and industrial relations legislation crashed and burned. Heath resumed the interventionist policies of the 1950s. In February 1974, as a miners’ overtime ban prompted power cuts and the introduction of a three-day working week, Heath asked: “Who governs Britain?” He lost the general election. Thatcher later claimed she had always been uncomfortable with Heath’s consensual approach. At the time, however, she was silent and loyal.

However, after Harold Wilson narrowly won a second election victory in October 1974, Thatcher was among the embryonic new right preparing to challenge Heath. Its intellectual leader was Keith Joseph, but his chance of leading the party vanished with a notorious speech, claiming that the poor had too many children. Thatcher decided she would put her name forward for the contest. “Someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand,” she told Joseph. Denis told her she was out of her mind, a view echoed in every newspaper. To a party that could not decide whether it was worse to be female or to be suburban, she appeared entirely unelectable.

Yet she defeated Heath in the first ballot and four other contenders in the second. The beaten favourites included William Whitelaw, the man who was later her indispensable deputy. She won in an ambush that capitalised on discontent with Heath rather than positive enthusiasm for her. As a result, she was never sure of her party: “Is he one of us?” became the defining question of the next 11 years. Many of her backbench colleagues shared the prevailing view in the Labour government that Thatcher’s leadership made the Tories unelectable. She worked assiduously to meet a barrage of criticism – criticisms that often focused as much on attributes of gender as on matters of policy. Her hair, her clothes and particularly her voice were attacked. Politics remained a largely male preserve, about the strength to confront, whether it was trade union power, economic crisis or Soviet threat.

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Thatcher’s only cabinet-level experience had been in a relative backwater. She had always conformed to the norms of a woman in public life. Engaged in discourse largely with men, she observed the conventions, flirted, sometimes shouted and occasionally wept. Her advisers emphasised the feminine, softened her appearance and lowered her voice. Yet she was always most authentic when she was defiant. If a single phrase captured her political identity, it was from her 1980 party conference speech: “This lady’s not for turning.” She played by the rules that demanded that she present herself as soft and yielding, but by her diligent attention to detail, the concentration of her focus, and her appetite for conflict, ultimately she subverted them.

Thatcher drew up a new settlement with the welfare state, and organised labour and the City in a way that rewarded enterprise and individual effort over the collective and the communitarian. She regarded group interests, from trade unions to the professions, as protectors of privilege.

Due to her leadership style, amazing determination, actions and policies, Thatcher is considered one of the most famous politicians in British history.

Quotes

Here are 15 Margaret Thatcher quotes to boost your determination to push forward.

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Don’t follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you.

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.

Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.

To wear your heart on your sleeve isn’t a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best.

In politics, If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.

You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.

If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at anytime, and would achieve nothing.

I do not know anyone who has gotten to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but it will get you pretty near.

Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.

Any leader has to have a certain amount of steel in them, so I am not that put out being called the Iron Lady.

It pays to know the enemy — not least because at some time you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend.

When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.

love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.

Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the highroad to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.

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It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.