She did not come by her “Iron Lady” sobriquet lightly. Her look (stiff suits, stiffer hair) was daunting, her demeanor imperious, her effect intimidating. That was as she wanted it. “If you just set out to be liked,” Margaret Thatcher reflected after 10 years as Britain’s prime minister, “you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”
The battles that cemented her reputation as a leader with inflexible conservative values – her promotion of free markets and battles with labor unions; her aggressive military response to Argentina’s 1982 seizure of the Falkland Islands; and her acceleration of the Cold War, hand-in-hand with her friend President Ronald Reagan – were often divisive. Yet during the 11 years she occupied 10 Downing St., beginning in 1979, Thatcher not only commanded respect for her unflinching commitment to Britain’s interests. As Europe’s first female head of state, she also inspired dreams, giving girls around the globe “reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation,” as Meryl Streep, who portrayed Thatcher in the 2011 film The Iron Lady, put it.
After a long battle with dementia, Thatcher, 87, died of a stroke on April 8. In residence at London’s Ritz hotel, she went “peacefully,” said her children, twins Mark and Carol, 59. Hailed by current prime minister David Cameron as “a great leader, a great prime minister, a great Briton,” Thatcher will be the first since Winston Churchill to be accorded the sort of funereal honors usually reserved for royalty. Thatcher dismissed talk of such pomp as “a waste of money,” evidence that her steely will—and her life-long thriftiness—remained intact. The 2003 death of her beloved husband, Denis, however, provided a glimpse behind Thatcher’s iron facade. “Being prime minister is a lonely job,” she said at the time. “But with Denis there, I was never alone.”