In politics,” Margaret Thatcher once acidly observed, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
Few women are better qualified to form such a judgment than the 49-year-old Lincolnshire grocer’s daughter who has become the first woman leader of Britain’s Conservative party. Due in the U.S. this week to meet with President Ford—and to establish her credentials in foreign affairs—the trim, steely-eyed Mrs. Thatcher has never shrunk from the simple declarative. “You were lucky, Margaret,” a school headmistress once observed after her pupil had won a prize for reciting a poem. “I wasn’t lucky,” young Margaret retorted. “I deserved it.”
An outspoken foe of big government in Britain, who has vowed to “sweep the country clean of socialism,” Mrs. Thatcher was nurtured on a stern gospel of self-reliance. She went through school on a series of scholarships, graduating with a B.S. in chemistry from Oxford’s Somerville College. An ardent Tory, whose grocer father bought her private elocution lessons to speed her political progress, she became the second woman president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After campaigning unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament in 1950, and again only 18 months later, she postponed her political career to marry fellow Tory Denis Thatcher, man-aging director of his family’s paint company. (“They say I am the most shadowy husband of all time,” Denis admits.) That same year (1951), Margaret began studying for the bar. She became a barrister in 1954, only four months after the birth of her twins, Carol, now a lawyer herself, and Mark, a would-be racing car driver who recently flunked his accountancy exam.
Returning to politics, she was elected to Parliament in 1959, and became a member of the Tories’ shadow cabinet from 1967 to 1970. When the Conservatives came to power from 1970 to 1974, she was named Education Minister and implemented a decision to curtail free school milk. It earned her the sobriquet, “Mrs. Thatcher, milk snatcher.” Her proposal to give universities more control over student unions resulted in near-riots. “The criticism was vicious,” she said later. “My greatest strength, I think, is that come what may, I somehow cope.”
Ex-Tory leader Ted Heath would agree. When the chance came for Mrs. Thatcher to challenge his party leadership last winter, she seized the opportunity without a tremor. “It might have put me on the back benches for life,” she admits. “But one thing I seem to have is the power to make a decision when it has to be made.”
Although she dismisses as “wholly wrong” charges that she is driven by ruthless ambition (some foes call her “The Iron Butterfly”), she presides over her life with an almost inhuman efficiency. Thriving on only 4 or 5 hours sleep each night, she is up at 6:30 a.m., cooking breakfast for her family, then looking after the day’s laundry and shopping. She likes classical music and tailored clothes, bleaches her hair, doesn’t smoke, has a single whiskey before bed and is known as the fastest eater in the Commons dining room. Although she has feminized Heath’s old quarters in the Palace of Westminster with two comfortable sofas and some tasteful redecorating, no one has accused her of political softness—least of all Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the man she fervently yearns to replace. “Mr. Wilson has been around a long time,” observes Mrs. Thatcher, casting a covetous eye on No. 10 Downing Street. “And he is beginning to look it.”