WASHINGTON — When I met Margaret Thatcher she was out of office, watching with more than a touch of amusement as her successor, John Major, meandered from crisis to disappointment to sticky wicket. Major seemed in thrall to events, not in command of them. Thatcher, who had been ousted by her own Conservative Party, was feeling vindicated.
She leaned close to deliver a final verdict on Major: “If only he were a man.”
Thatcher, who died Monday at 87, was a towering but polarizing figure. Many aspects of her legacy — the transformation of Britain into a postindustrial society — will long be debated. But one of her greatest contributions is beyond dispute: She showed that a woman could be a bold, decisive, swashbuckling leader on the grandest of stages.
Thatcher never thought of herself as a feminist — she once reportedly told an aide that feminism was “poison” — and probably would be aghast at being considered an icon of the women’s movement. She didn’t believe in movements that coursed through society. “There is no such thing as society,” she said. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
But Thatcher also believed in paying attention to what people do, not what they say. And what she did to advance the cause of female empowerment was extraordinary.
She had no wealth or family connections to boost her political rise. A shopkeeper’s daughter, she relied on brains and determination to get herself into Oxford — a traditional spawning ground for the British elite — and, after graduating, ran unsuccessfully for office several times before winning a seat in the House of Commons. She patiently worked her way up the Conservative Party hierarchy until she became the party’s leader in 1975.
“I stand before you tonight in my … chiffon evening gown,” she said in a 1976 speech to the party faithful, “my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world. A cold-war warrior, an amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter. Well, am I any of these things? … Yes, I am an Iron Lady … yes, if that’s how they wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.”
She led Conservatives to an election victory and became prime minister in 1979. She recognized that her party, which was identified with the landed gentry, could succeed only if it managed to appeal to middle-class voters. In effect, she redrew the lines of British society — despite professing not to believe in society, she did speak of it occasionally — by painting the working class, and especially the labor unions, as an impediment to middle-class prosperity.
She was shrewd and ruthless. In 1981, coal miners threatened a crippling strike. She backed down, knowing this was not a fight she could win — yet. Her government began stockpiling coal and preparing for another confrontation, which came in 1984 when the National Coal Board announced plans to shut down 20 unproductive, money-losing mines.
When the miners responded by going on strike, she portrayed them as “Marxists” who wanted “to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics.” After a year punctuated by violent clashes between strikers and police, the union crumbled.
She showed similar machismo in responding to Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands: Rather than negotiate, she sent warships and took the islands back. “When you’ve spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment, it’s exciting to have a real crisis on your hands,” she said.
Thatcher’s reputation for swaggering bravery — and uncommon luck — was enhanced in 1984 when she survived an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army, which bombed the hotel in Brighton where she and other Conservative Party leaders were staying. Five people were killed and 34 injured. Thatcher delivered a speech as planned later that day as “a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
She insisted on being seen as a lady — and on using her femininity whenever it offered an advantage. Former French President Francois Mitterrand famously said that she possessed the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe. Whatever that’s supposed to mean, he was definitely paying attention.
Thatcher lived by her own definition of what it meant to be a woman. That has to be called feminism, whether she would have liked it or not.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.