As the most powerful woman in the Western world, British Prime Minister Margaret Roberts Thatcher seems awesomely miscast. A matronly arch-conservative with a plummy voice, the shopkeeper’s daughter came to power calling nostalgically for a return to economic Calvinism: hard work, self-reliance, upward mobility. To the beleaguered middle class of a nation teetering toward economic ruin, that message of moral and fiscal rearmament was irresistible. But for those who thought the first female head of government in modern European history would be a feminist example, Thatcher, 54, has been a disappointment. “I did not get here by being some strident female,” she says. “I do not like strident females. I reckon if you get anywhere it’s because of your ability as a person and not because of your sex.” So much for the revolution. “Margaret Thatcher is a woman,” British editor Eileen Fairweather allows, “but she certainly isn’t a sister.”
Among her cabinet—all of it male—she is known half-admiringly as “Attila the Hen.” She runs her government with the clockwork efficiency of a strict schoolmistress—and gets things done. In eight months in office Thatcher has managed to forestall civil war in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia with aggressive diplomacy, to reduce taxes from 80 to 60 percent in the upper brackets (still not as much as she wants)—and to compensate unflinchingly with deep cuts in government spending for education and social services. Inflation still runs at a breakneck 17 percent annually, but she is determined—even at the cost of jobs—to curb it.
If any politician was ever the reflection of her background, Margaret Thatcher is. Growing up in a flat above her father’s grocery store, she was pushed to strive and achieve. “My father and mother worked very hard,” she recalls. “They both saved. My sister and I were brought up in the belief that you work hard to get on.” Armed with a chemistry degree earned on scholarship to Oxford, she took a job with an industrial firm outside London, then began studying nights and weekends to become a lawyer. After marriage in 1951 to oil executive Denis Thatcher and the birth of her twins, Carol and Mark, two years later, the future PM was admitted to the bar in 1954 as a specialist in patent and tax law.
“She’s more like Richard Nixon than the normal English High Tory,” Laborite Shirley Williams once observed, and Thatcher’s early days in politics justify the assessment. She worked tirelessly for the party, standing twice for Commons in a hopeless Labor district. The Tories finally rewarded her loyalty with a safe seat in 1959. A dozen years of studious application later, she had become one of the most disliked politicians in Britain. But she was also one of the boldest: In 1975, when others shrank from the distasteful task, she led a revolt against the ineffectual party leadership of Edward Heath and thus paved her way to 10 Downing Street.
Her new job has forced adjustments in Thatcher’s personal life; she no longer cooks for her husband regularly and sees less of her family than she used to. Mark still lives in the Thatchers’ private home in London; Carol is a newspaper reporter in Australia. But success has not changed the public person. She still works her advisers mercilessly (she gets by on five hours’ sleep), upbraids them often and listens, on most issues, to no one but herself. Those close to her say she expects to be Prime Minister of England for the next 10 years—and no one familiar with her breathtaking self-confidence and sense of mission is taking the thought lightly. Her goal is nothing less than a wholesale reshaping of British society. “It is a herculean task,” as she put it last month, “but we are not fainthearted pilgrims. We will not be deflected by a stony path.”