Published April 08, 2013
The world learned the sad news of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death at age 87 on Monday.
Leaders around the world rushed to praise her role in winning the Cold War, reversing Britain’s economic decline, ushering in a new age of peace and prosperity and being the last of the era of strong, principled leaders.
I saw first hand how she remade Great Britain and then helped Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev remake the world. I could go on for hours on her significance as a transformational leader.
But what gets lost in the mists of time is the significance of her being the first woman to lead a great world power, and ushering in a new era for women everywhere.
Margaret Thatcher didn’t just shatter the glass ceiling, she burst through it all by herself.
She didn’t get the job of Prime Minister by riding on the coattails of a husband or a father or by being from an already powerful family.
She didn’t get the job because the Conservative Party was looking for a token woman. She got the job despite being a woman. She did it by sheer dogged determination, the power of an overwhelming personality and the steadfast courage of her convictions.
In today’s world, where women head major corporations, run for political office and anchor network news shows, it’s easy to forget that 30 years ago the world was a very different place.
When Margaret Thatcher was making her way up in the world women were still in the shadows.
In those days a smart girl might get a university degree but she was unlikely to get the same job offers the less smart guy in her class did. She certainly wasn’t paid as much, or promoted as frequently.
If she had a degree in English, she was likely slotted for a secretary’s position while her male counterpart was hired as a research assistant. He could move up the corporate ladder to become a top executive; the highest she could aim for was probably an administrative job.
Even just a few months before Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, most commentators dismissed her chances.
When she won, many called it a fluke.
The irony is some of those same pundits now say she was the one of most consequential peacetime Prime Minister’s in British history.
I first got to know Baroness Thatcher when I was in the Reagan administration, and speechwriter for her good friend Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger.
Years later, I sat with her at Cap Weinberger’s funeral.
I was running for the U.S. Senate, and she gave me some practical advice. She said women candidates had to be better prepared and more informed that the men they were running against.
She knew I had gone to Oxford, as had she, and she said just do the same thing you did at Oxford: write a 5-page essay on each of your main issues and memorize it. Chances are the person you’re running against will have someone else write those points, and he will never know them as well as you.
She also recommended bringing two dresses for every TV interview – just in case the first one clashed with the background.
Can you imagine a man giving that advice?
But more than anything the key to Thatcher’s success was that her strength of character dominated every room she entered. She wasn’t called "The Iron Lady" for nothing.
I was at a small London birthday party dinner for her shortly after she left office. There were a dozen men at the long dinner table, all senior British leaders in industry, business and government. They had been Thatcher assistants and supporters and revered her.
She and her husband Dennis were enjoying the wine and good spirits, and both had nodded off while one after another of the great men gave long toasts to Mrs. Thatcher. They knew she was napping, but none had the nerve to tap her on the shoulder and wake her up. So they droned on …and on. After a while, both Thatchers had their eyes closed, heads back, and were actually snoring.
When the toasts were finished everyone looked nervously to Lady Thatcher for her response.Would she wake up? What should they do if she didn’t?
Then, as if on cue, she snapped her head forward, pushed her chair back and stood up at her seat. She leaned over with both fists anchored on the table, purposeful and alert. She thanked them for their compliments. But she said she nothing she did would have been possible without a "few good men" at her side.
She looked around the table, addressing each one in turn. She said to one, "We couldn't have turned Britain around without your help in taming the labor unions.
To another she said, “I needed your help to privatize British industries.”
And to yet another, “without you we couldn’t have won the Falklands war. "
She gave a stirring speech that brought most of those high-powered men to tears. They may have stared down union strikebreakers, reorganized entire industries and fought a war half way around the world. But they were putty in Margaret Thatcher’s hands.
It was that moment, more than any, when I realized Margaret Thatcher was a leader for the ages.