LONDON—Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, who died on Monday aged 87, will be remembered as “The Iron Lady” who helped end the Cold War and whose economic reforms divided the country.
Behind the bouffant hair, trademark handbag and schoolma’am voice was an uncompromising Conservative who regularly cut her male colleagues and opponents down to size with a sharp tongue and even sharper political brain.
Right-wingers hailed her as having hauled Britain out of the economic doldrums but the left accused her of dismantling traditional industry, claiming her reforms helped unpick the fabric of society.
On the world stage, she built a close “special relationship” with US president Ronald Reagan which helped bring the curtain down on Soviet Communism. She also fiercely opposed closer ties with Europe.
But in the final years of her life, Thatcher — the 20th century’s longest continuous occupant of 10 Downing Street, from 1979 to 1990 — cut a subdued figure.
After a series of minor strokes, she was told by doctors to quit public speaking in 2002 and, as dementia took hold, she appeared increasingly rarely in public.
Her daughter Carol revealed the former premier had to be repeatedly reminded that her husband Denis had died in 2003.
Meryl Streep portrayed both her rise to power and her period of failing health in the Hollywood film “The Iron Lady”, which hit the screens in December 2011.
Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925 in the market town of Grantham, eastern England, the daughter of a grocer.
After grammar school and a degree in chemistry at Oxford University, she married businessman Denis in 1951 and two years later had twins, Carol and Mark.
She was first elected to the House of Commons in 1959 and succeeded former prime minister Edward Heath as opposition Conservative leader in 1975 before becoming premier four years later.
Her enduring legacy can be summed up as “Thatcherism” — a set of policies which supporters say promoted personal freedom and broke down the class divisions that had riven Britain for centuries.
Pushing her policies through pitched Thatcher’s government into a string of tough battles, though.
When Argentina invaded the remote British territory of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher dispatched troops and ships, securing victory in two months.
Two years later, an Irish Republican Army bomb planted at her hotel in Brighton on the southern English coast, nearly killed her and her Cabinet during the Conservatives’ annual conference.
And her government crushed a coal miners’ strike against pit closures in 1984-1985 after a bitter struggle, and union powers were curbed.
But it was the same uncompromising style that initially earned her respect which eventually proved her undoing.
One of her closest allies, Geoffrey Howe, resigned in 1990 with a devastating speech which blamed Thatcher’s fierce Euroscepticism.
She faced a leadership challenge soon afterwards and quit after failing to receive the expected level of support, to be replaced by her finance minister John Major.
After a tearful departure from Downing Street, she was appointed to the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
She also wrote her memoirs and delivered lectures around the world.
But her public appearances became increasingly scarce in recent years as her health deteriorated. She was even forced to miss a planned 85th birthday party at Downing Street.
Thatcher did, however, live long enough to see another Conservative, David Cameron, return to Downing Street after a gap of 13 years — albeit at the head of a coalition government.
“We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton,” Cameron said following her death.