Thatcher blazed trails around the world

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Shopkeeper’s daughter

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born Oct. 13, 1925, in the town of Grantham in eastern England. Her father, Alfred Roberts, whom Mrs. Thatcher adored, ran a grocer’s shop and was active in local politics. Mrs. Thatcher and her sister Muriel were raised in an apartment above the shop.

Her father, who was also a Methodist lay preacher, lost a race for alderman when the Labor Party won its first majority ever on the Grantham local council.

Mrs. Thatcher showed pronounced Tory sympathies early on by becoming president of the Oxford University Conservative Association soon after arriving at the school in 1944 to study chemistry. She worked briefly as a chemical researcher after graduation, and at one point served on a team that studied new methods for preserving ice cream.

But she almost immediately became involved in politics, earning her first national notice as the youngest Tory candidate in the country in failed races in 1950 and 1951 for “safe” Labor seats in the working-class southeastern England town of Dartford.

It was during the Dartford campaigns that Margaret Roberts met Denis Thatcher, a wealthy Kent businessman whom she married in 1951. The couple’s only children, twins Mark and Carol Thatcher, were born two years later.

Despite constant ribbing for his bland, deferential public persona, the discreet Mr. Thatcher proved the ideal political spouse for his strong-willed wife. He financed her legal studies she qualified as a barrister in 1953 and provided the comfortable income that allowed Mrs. Thatcher to pursue her political career.

Modest and retiring to the last, Mr. Thatcher died in 2003. Mrs. Thatcher in her memoirs acknowledged, “I could never have been prime minister for more than 11 years without Denis by my side.”

Rise in party

Finally put forward for a safe Tory seat in 1959, Mrs. Thatcher rose steadily in the party ranks, serving in increasingly influential posts in Conservative governments in the early 1960s under Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home and in the first half of the 1970s under Edward Heath. Her tenure as education secretary in Mr. Heath’s crisis-plagued government put her in direct conflict with entrenched leftist critics in the press and academia, a foretaste of her time as prime minister.

Defeated in the 1974 general election, the Tories unexpectedly dumped Mr. Heath and elected Mrs. Thatcher, making her the first woman ever to lead a major European political party and the first to serve as leader of the opposition in the House of Commons.

Mrs. Thatcher later acknowledged that she was surprised by her victory, and many of her male counterparts voted for her on the assumption that they could oust her before the next general election. It would not be the first time male politicians would underestimate her.

She did not temper her style in her new post.

In early 1976, she issued a blistering attack on the Soviet Union in language that would find its echo in Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech six years later: “The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.”

A scathing editorial in a Soviet defense newspaper denounced Mrs. Thatcher as “the Iron Lady,” unwittingly bestowing on her the nickname by which she would become widely known.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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