Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics, died Monday at age 87. The legacy of Great Britain’s lone female prime minister, however, will live on.
Thatcher led Britain’s government for 11 years during which the political landscape of the world made a seismic shift, eventually resulting in the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 nations about a year after she left office. During her time at the helm, she evoked passion. Some loved her, others hated her, but very few people had no feelings one way or the other.
There was never any doubt who was in charge during Thatcher’s time as the British prime minister. “Everyone likes to win arguments,” William Whitelaw, her deputy prime minister, remarked in 1985. “She likes to win them more than most.”
In her own fashion, Thatcher summed up her mindset, one that served her well during her time as prime minister, though it became her downfall when she was forced out of office in 1990. “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk,” she said in 1980, “as long as they do what I say.”
Thatcher was a powerful woman who stood toe to toe with the world’s male government leaders. “This great lady has not only served her country well, she has served the free world well,” President Ronald Regan noted of the prime minister who became one of America’s greatest allies. “She is truly a great statesman. So much so that I’ll correct what I just said: She is a great stateswoman holding her own among all the statesmen of the world.”
While she was the first — and only — woman to serve as prime minister, she didn’t see that as significant. She said she had the job, in her opinion, because she was the best person for it. Thatcher was more proud of the fact that a scientist — she held a chemistry degree from Somerville College at Oxford — had risen to the top government post.
Even those on the “other side” recognized her abilities. “We gradually developed personal relations that became increasingly friendly,” former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev said. “In the end, we were able to achieve mutual understanding, and this contributed to a change in the atmosphere between our country and the West and to the end of the Cold War.”
That Cold War was the source of her nickname, “Iron Lady.” The term was used by the Soviet newspaper Red Star in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, to describe Thatcher for remarks she’d made about the Cold War. Rather than be offended by the intended slight, Thatcher accepted the description as a badge of honor. In 2007 — long after she left office — a bronze statue of her was unveiled at Parliament. Thatcher observed she very much would have preferred that it had been made out of iron.
During her years, she brought the U.S. and Britain closer together and faced numerous challenges — riots in 1981, turning back the Argentines from the Falkland Islands in 1982, dealing with a coal strike in 1984, IRA bombings and others. Her opposition to the European Union coalescing into a stronger political union led her Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, who was heavily pro-European, to resign and make a bitter, career-injuring speech against her in Parliament. She was eventually ushered from power in 1990 when, facing an insurmountable uphill battle for a fourth election win, she resigned as prime minister.
On that day, even the Iron Lady shed tears.
Twenty-two years later, she has passed on, but her impact hasn’t — and won’t.
“The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,” President Barack Obama said. “Here in America, many of us will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history — we can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will.”