Margaret Thatcher, the iconic former British prime minister, died Monday at age 87 after suffering a stroke. Although she was a towering presence on the world stage in the 1980s, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow conservative President Ronald Reagan, some people may have forgotten her contributions.
We decided to highlight five things you ought to know about her:
She helped break the glass ceiling in politics:
At a time when many people thought social progress for women could only come from the political left, conservative Thatcher showed otherwise. She not only became Britain’s first woman prime minister, but earned a reputation for being as tough, if not tougher, than any man in the job.
In 1973, during her time as secretary of education, Thatcher said: “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.”
Within six years, the sometimes pugnacious Thatcher had proven herself wrong.
“Well behaved women seldom make history,” she famously remarked.
And despite her conservatism, Thatcher didn’t shy away from occasionally taking sides on the gender issue: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman,” she said.
To be sure, some have questioned her contribution. Guardian columnist Michele Hanson called Thatcher’s rise “an achievement of sorts” for women but says that overall, she “set feminism back by setting such a bad example of a woman in power.”
She was one of Britain’s longest-serving prime ministers:
Thatcher’s 11 years and 209 days in office makes her the longest-serving premier of the 20th century and the longest continuously serving prime minister since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th century.
She was an inspiration to American conservatives:
With pithy axioms often delivered as revealed wisdom, Thatcher helped crystallized the ideals of the American right. Among the often quoted favorites: “The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”
Her rise, says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, came at a time when “a lot of conservatives in the United States thought Europe is lost [to socialism] and America is next.”
“She has shown and continues to show that if you stick to the principles of individual freedom and free markets, you can overcome the naysayers,” says Luke Coffey, who was an adviser to the British government before becoming a Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
The relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Thatcher blossomed in the 1980s, drawing the two countries closer.
“They were really working off the same playbook,” Brooks says.
She helped solidify a lasting U.S.-British partnership:
When Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982 to reclaim the occupied Falkland Islands, the United States stood by London in a renewed display of the “special relationship” between the two countries. Although the U.S. and U.K. enjoyed a close alliance in World War II, that relationship had frayed at the edges in the intervening years. The personal bond between Thatcher and Reagan helped burnish it.
As we reported earlier:
The touchstone event that came to symbolize the new relationship came in 1982, when Argentina’s military junta occupied the Falkland Islands, a British territory that Buenos Aires claimed as its own.
Thatcher responded militarily, and the U.S. backed her.
“Thatcher has said that without help from the U.S., including U.S. Sidewinder [anti-aircraft] missiles, Britain would not have been able to liberate the Falklands,” Coffey says.
The special relationship between the two countries has endured through both Gulf Wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the ongoing campaign against al-Qaida.
She helped end the Cold War:
Thatcher was a staunch Cold War warrior and even earned the nickmane “Iron Lady” from the Soviet press. In a series of deft chess moves, helped box in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. As The Telegraph writes:
“By offering immovable support, she helped Reagan to accelerate the end of the Cold War. She also won a degree of influence in the White House unmatched by any other Western leader. Sometimes, she would speak for both America and Britain at summits, declaring what ‘Ron and I both think’.”
But she was also one of the first leaders to recognize that Mikhail Gorbachev, who became Soviet premier in 1985, was a different kind of leader and a man “we can do business” with. She helped win over a skeptical Reagan. That in turn set the stage for Gorbachev’s offer to dismantle nuclear forces and climb down from the war of words with the West that had fueled the Cold War for decades.