The controversy surrounding the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison has drowned out almost every other news story for the past week and a half. And so it was easy for the American press to overlook a milestone worth marking – May 4, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in Britain.
Feminists who generally rush to celebrate women’s achievements have been strangely silent about Mrs. Thatcher, the only woman ever to lead a major Western democracy. But their hesitancy to “claim” Mrs. Thatcher is understandable, because she is the antithesis of the kinds of female “role models” that are, too often, foisted upon all of us. Unlike Hillary Clinton, she assumed political prominence without trading upon her husband’s influence; unlike Geraldine Ferraro, she never blamed society, or her status as a woman, for any political setbacks she experienced. Rather, she gained her place in history the old-fashioned way – she earned it.
Many in the United States now have a difficult time remembering the low morale and sense of, yes, malaise that infected much of our national life in the late ‘70’s, before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 – the pervasive sense that something in America was deeply wrong, and the rising sense of unease about the country’s long-term future. England was suffering from a similar crisis of confidence, having become a country that seemed to be merely existing in the shadow of its former imperial grandeur. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, England had been crippled by labor strikes, and was reeling from a close brush with national bankruptcy three years earlier.
Mrs. Thatcher’s early years as Prime Minister were far from easy. The economy was entering a recession when she took power, and interest rates were raised to stem inflation. The resulting unemployment, coupled with the direct tax cuts instituted to stimulate England’s economy, subjected Mrs. Thatcher to unfair, vicious and prolonged criticism. But her determination to reduce the size of government – demonstrated by her willingness to privatize state-owned industries, reduce burdensome regulations, and allow inefficient industries to close altogether – was unwavering, and her policies ultimately successful.
In the realm of foreign affairs, Mrs. Thatcher’s partnership with Ronald Reagan was legendary. Like our President, she was a visionary who believed that communism could be defeated, rather than simply accommodated. And in 1982, after diplomatic efforts had failed, she had the resolve to send British troops to retake the Falkland Islands, which had been invaded by an Argentinian Junta. She likewise earned the special enmity of the Irish Republican Army for her steadfast refusal to accede to terrorist demands, and, at least once, narrowly escaped assassination as a result – but nonetheless negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Overall, in her dealings with the world, she stood firm for her country and her principles. Typical was her admonition to President George H.W. Bush in the days before Gulf War I, when she stated flatly, “This is no time to go wobbly.”
Dubbed the “Iron Lady” by the Soviets, Mrs. Thatcher entered the world of British politics – more male-dominated, hierarchical and hidebound than any American institution – and prevailed, winning three successive general elections and serving for Prime Minister for eleven years, longer than anyone else in the twentieth century. She survived the invective of the British press, which writes with a poison pen significantly sharper than that of its American counterparts. And until the very end of her political career, she bested all male competitors –by being twice as good, and having twice as much moxie.
Nor was Mrs. Thatcher’s success limited to the political sphere alone. She shared a long and loving marriage with her husband, Sir Denis, until his death almost a year ago, and raised twins Mark and Carol, who were born in 1953.
In the years since she left office in 1990, Margaret Thatcher’s stature has only grown. In the recent British movie “Love Actually,” Hugh Grant, playing Britain’s prime minister, looks at a picture of Baroness Thatcher and affectionately calls her a “saucy minx.” She was that, indeed, but so much more. As with her friend Ronald Reagan, the perspective that comes with time is only now beginning to give Margaret Thatcher her due – not only as a conviction politician who privatized, deregulated, and revitalized the British economy while maintaining its stature and defenses in the world – but as an icon in her own right.
She is the greatest female political leader of all time. And every woman who cares about political ideas, aspires to political leadership – or just believes in true equality between the sexes – had reason to cheer her anniversary last week. She is an inspiration.
Congratulations, Baroness Thatcher. And thank you.