Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to hold the post in one of the longest terms in modern history, died today at age 87.
A family spokesman said Thatcher suffered a stroke.
Nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her steely resolve to institute economic reforms and stand up to opponents at home and abroad, Thatcher served for 11 years as prime minister, from 1979 to 1990. Her rise to power in the Conservative Party was unexpected, even to her. She told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1974 she did not think a woman would serve as party leader or prime minister during her lifetime. A year later, she held her party’s top post, and four years later, she moved into No. 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher was one of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s strongest allies during the last years of the Cold War. She famously decided Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was someone the West could “do business” with, setting the stage for Reagan’s dealings with the Russians.
Although Thatcher is known in the United States and Russia as a champion of freedom for her role in helping to topple the Soviet Union, she is best known at home for her strong conservative positions on economics and a free market economy. Her political positions mirrored those of Reagan, whom she affectionately referred to as “Ronnie.”
Thatcher oversaw the privatization of state-run industries during a time of recession. Bitter fights with the country’s unions marked her early years in office. She successfully challenged Britain’s socialist traditions and welfare state, reshaping the country’s economic and political landscape.
While England’s economy recovered in the late 1980s, Thatcher began to lose grip on her Conservative Party, eventually giving way to her successor, John Major, to take over its leadership.
Her final, failed, political play was an attempt to institute a flat tax, dubbed by opponents as a “poll tax.” She wanted to move Britain away from a property tax system, but even her political allies believed it was a step too far. She left power, forced out by her own party, eight months after rioters filled London’s Trafalgar Square. Family members said she still felt a keen sense of betrayal years later.
After retiring from politics, Thatcher wrote several best-selling memoirs and stayed busy with speaking engagements. Her Thatcher Foundation, formed to promote conservative values, took up much of her time.
In her memoir, Thatcher said she learned everything she needed to know about economics from watching her father’s business: “The economic history of Britain for the next 40 years confirmed and amplified almost every item of my father’s practical economics. In effect, I had been equipped at an early age with the ideal mental outlook and tools of analysis for reconstructing an economy ravaged by state socialism.”
She first suffered a stroke in 2002, and mostly withdrew from public life after that. Many were surprised that she traveled to America in 2004 to attend Reagan’s funeral. In her later years, she suffered from dementia.
The British government will give Thatcher a ceremonial funeral with military honors, one step short of a full state funeral. The date for the service has not been set.