On this day in 2013, Margaret Thatcher, the first–and so far only–female prime minister of the United Kingdom, dies in London at age 87 from a stroke. Serving from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century. She curbed the power of Britain’s labor unions, privatized state-owned industries, led her nation to victory in the Falklands War and as a close ally of U.S. President Ronald Reagan played a pivotal role in ending the Cold War. A polarizing figure, Thatcher, nicknamed the Iron Lady, was credited by her admirers with championing free-market, conservative policies that revitalized the British economy, while critics charged these initiatives hurt the nation’s lower classes.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on October 23, 1925, in Grantham, a town in northeast England. Her family lived in an apartment above the grocery store owned by her father, who also was a local politician. After graduating from Oxford University in 1947, the future prime minister worked as a research chemist. In the early 1950s, she twice ran unsuccessfully for parliament as a Conservative Party candidate. After marrying Denis Thatcher (1915-2003), a well-off businessman, in 1951, she studied law and gave birth to twins in 1953. That same year, she qualified as a barrister.
In 1959, Thatcher was elected to the House of Commons from the Finchley district in north London. She rose through her party’s ranks, and when the Conservatives came to power under Edward Heath in 1970, she was named secretary for education. In that role, Thatcher was vilified by her Labour Party opponents as “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” after she made cuts to a free-milk program for schoolchildren. In 1975, with Labour back in power, Thatcher, to the surprise of many, defeated Heath to become head of her party, as well as the first woman to serve as opposition leader in the House of Commons.
In 1979, with Britain’s economy in poor health and labor union strikes rampant, the Conservatives returned to power and Thatcher was elected prime minister. Her government lowered income taxes but increased taxes on good and services, slashed or eliminated government subsidies to businesses and implemented other austerity measures. Unemployment soared and Thatcher’s approval ratings plummeted. Then, after Argentina invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands in April 1982, she sent troops there and by June the Falklands had been recaptured. The victory helped Thatcher win re-election as prime minister in 1983.
During her second term, Thatcher’s government defeated a bitter, yearlong miner’s strike and passed legislation restricting the rights of trade unions, while also privatizing a number of state-owned enterprises, selling off public housing and de-regulating the financial industry. In 1984, Thatcher survived unscathed a bomb attack by the Irish Republican Army at a Conservative Party conference in Brighton, England; the blast killed five people and injured more than 30 others.
In foreign affairs, Thatcher, an opponent of communism, had a close relationship with Ronald Reagan, who served in the White House from 1981 to 1989, and with whom she shared a number of conservative views. Yet she also forged ties with Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. Thatcher famously said after meeting him, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together,” and her leadership played an important role in helping to end Cold War tensions between America and the Soviets. In other foreign policy issues, Thatcher, controversially, spoke out initially against international efforts to impose economic sanctions on apartheid South Africa, arguing such sanctions wouldn’t work.
After being elected to an unprecedented third term in 1987, the hardheaded Thatcher experienced dissent in her own party over her opposition to further economic integration between Britain and the rest of Europe, and her introduction of a widely unpopular poll tax system. In November 1990, at the urging of her fellow party members, she resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by John Major. When she departed 10 Downing Street, Thatcher was the longest continuously serving prime minister in more than 150 years.
She left the House of Commons in 1992, and was appointed to the House of Lords, with the title Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. She went on to pen her memoirs and travel the world giving lectures. Following a series of minor strokes in the early 2000s, Thatcher largely retreated from public view. Meryl Streep earned an Oscar for her portrayal of the former prime minister in the 2011 biopic “The Iron Lady,” which generated criticism from some Conservative politicians for its depiction of Thatcher’s decline into dementia during her later years. After Thatcher died in April 2013, more than 2,000 guests from around the world attended her funeral at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, which in 1965 was the site of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s funeral.