Some people remember former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the quick-witted "Iron Lady" who resolutely lead the UK through the end of the Cold War. Others recall her as a heartless conservative hardliner who tore down labor unions while stripping away the country’s public resources. Some newcomers just know her as a new character on Netflix’s The Crown. The United Kingdom's first female prime minister was one of the most influential and divisive leaders of the 20th century. Here are 10 things you might not know about Margaret Thatcher.
1. Margaret Thatcher’s family took in a Jewish refugee during the Holocaust.
Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on October 13, 1925, to Albert and Beatrice Roberts of Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. Her older sister, Muriel, amassed pen pals. In 1938, one of them, Edith Mühlbauer, wrote to ask to stay with the family. She was the daughter of Jewish bankers in Vienna. The Nazi army had occupied the country, stripping Jews of their rights, shuttering their businesses, and burning down synagogues.
Albert Roberts ran a grocery/tobacco shop and the family had neither the time nor the money to permanently take in Edith, who was then 17. However, he felt compelled to help and took the letter to the local Rotary Club. Members agreed to pay for her passage and rotate hosting duties.
In January of 1939, she stayed with the Roberts family. According to Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality by Jonathan Aitken, Mühlbauer generated gossip among the prim and proper denizens of Grantham. She wore lipstick, smoked cigarettes, and flirted with boys. She also gave Margaret, then 13, a firsthand account of Nazism that affected the future PM deeply. Margaret, who was already a studious learner, read up on Nazi anti-Semitism. In the months preceding England’s entry into World War II, the precocious Margaret was keen to debate international policy, once shouting down a man in a fish and chip shop for complimenting Adolf Hitler’s leadership style.
2. Margaret Thatcher worked as a food scientist, testing cakes and ice cream.
Margaret Roberts studied chemistry at Oxford University from 1943 to 1947. Her first job was at BX Plastics in Essex. However, college associates recommended her as a possible parliamentary candidate to the Dartford Conservative Association. Looking for a more convenient base from which to launch a campaign, she relocated to London and took a new job at the food conglomerate J. Lyons & Co. There, her work centered on testing the quality of cake fillings and ice cream. She also researched saponification, a chemical process involved in soap-making.
Contrary to some aggrandizing myths, Thatcher did not invent soft serve ice cream while working at J. Lyons. The company invented machines popularized in Mr. Whippy ice cream trucks, but there’s no evidence Thatcher worked on that project.
3. Margaret Thatcher often used fierce wit and household economics to argue for lower taxes.
Margaret Roberts became Margaret Thatcher when she married Denis Thatcher in 1951 (they were married for more than 50 years, until his death in 2003). Two years later, the couple welcomed twins Mark and Carol. And it was six years after that, in 1959, that Thatcher was first elected to Parliament—after 10 years of losses and jockeying for candidacies within the Conservative Party.
Perhaps giving in to the public’s expectations for a wife and mother, she often promoted the Conservative Party’s mission of lowering taxes in household terms, according to Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore. While speaking against the Labour Party’s tax plan, she said, “So once more, the married woman who goes to the butcher, grocer, and dry cleaner and then, when she finishes and wishes for a little pleasure, to the hairdresser, will find the prices going up.”
As she spoke out against the Labour government, which was in power from 1964 to 1970, Thatcher sharpened her wit and developed a rather caustic public persona.
She took aim at governmental classification and price-control of consumer items, stating in an interview, “One cannot control the price of a garment which has a mini-skirt in July, but a skirt four inches below the knee in January. I doubt very much the president of the Board of Trade would even notice the difference.” It was a jab at the apparent cluelessness of trade president Douglas Jay—and a pretty edgy insult for that era’s British politics.
Thatcher was also a popular guest on the BBC's radio panel show Any Questions?; she appeared 10 times between 1966 and 1970, and seemed to make a sport out of cutting off long-winded male guests.
4. Margaret Thatcher nearly ended her political career over an uproar about milk.
After the Conservatives gained power in 1970, Thatcher was appointed secretary of education. In an attempt to cut spending, the Treasury ended a 1940s-era program providing milk, free of charge, at schools to children ages 7 to 11. The preceding Labour government had ended a similar program for older children with little controversy, but the same could not be said for Thatcher.
The press and Labour politicians were brutal to Thatcher, painting her as a cold-hearted miser stealing milk from children, according to Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality. In public hearings, Labour PMs called Thatcher “the most mean and vicious member of a thoroughly discredited government” and a “reactionary cavewoman.” The Sun asked in a headline, “Is Mrs. Thatcher Even Human?” “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher” was one of the kinder taunts to come from the streets and pubs.
Although she allowed free milk deliveries for malnourished schoolchildren who were prescribed it, Thatcher did not budge from her position. Internally, however, she was unnerved by the personal nature of the insults and considered quitting politics. In her autobiography, The Path to Power, she reflected that she had made a miscalculation: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”
5. A Soviet propaganda newspaper gave Margaret Thatcher her “Iron Lady” nickname.
After the Labour party retook power in 1974, Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. In January of 1976, she gave a speech decrying what she saw as complacency in the face of Soviet military build-up. “The Russians calculate that their military strength will more than make up for their economic and social weakness,” she said. “They are determined to use it in order to get what they want from us.”
Robert Evans, the Reuters bureau chief in Moscow, was trudging through what he would later recall as “miserably slushy” day in the city when he came across a copy of Krasnaya Zvezda, a Soviet army propaganda paper. Its headline stated "Zheleznaya Dama Ugrozhayet," which Evans translated as “Iron Lady Wields Threats.” It was a Saturday. With little else to report on, Evans wrote a small article about how the Soviets perceived this rebuke from a British politician.
Thatcher reveled in the designation. A week later, she gave a speech to conservatives. “I stand before you tonight,” she said, “in my Red Star evening gown, my face softly made up, and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world.” The Iron Lady nickname followed her throughout her career.
6. Margaret Thatcher’s government sold $115 billion worth of state-owned assets.
With the election of a Conservative government in 1979, Thatcher became the first female prime minister of the UK Privatization. The selling off of state-owned industry to private companies became a central tenant of the neoliberal doctrine dubbed Thatcherism.
“Our challenge is to create the kind of economic background which enables private initiative and private enterprise to flourish for the benefit of the consumer, employee, the pensioner, and society as a whole,” she told a conference of young conservatives in 1976.
After World War II, the UK had amassed a vast portfolio of government-owned companies in the energy, manufacturing, telecommunications, and transportation sectors. During Thatcher’s tenure, British Aerospace, British Cable & Wireless, British Telecom, Britoil, British Gas, British Steel, British Petroleum, and British Airways were all sold off.
In 1995, two economists calculated the total worth of the assets sold from 1979 through the early ’90s, at £45 billion, which is about £87.16 billion—or $115 billion—today.
7. Margaret Thatcher got into an argument with a schoolteacher on TV.
One could make a playlist of ’80s rock songs savaging Thatcher—from Pink Floyd, The English Beat, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, and more—but the person who really got under her iron skin was a 57-year-old geography schoolteacher up on her current events.
In 1982, acting on long-held territory disputes, the military government of Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, which the British claimed as a colony. Thatcher sent British troops and warships, leading to the 10-week Falkland Islands War. She ordered the Navy to sink the Argentinean warship ARA General Belgrano, killing 323 onboard. This was half the Argentinean casualties in the war.
One year later, Thatcher appeared on the BBC news show Nationwide for an election special. Producers solicited Britons to ask Thatcher questions live via a live video feed. Diana Gould, who taught primary school in Cirencester, grilled Thatcher about the sinking of the Belgrano.
“When the Belgrano, the Argentina battleship, was outside the exclusion zone and actually sailing away from the Falkands, why did you give the order to sink it?” Gould asked. Thatcher repeated, “When it was sunk, it was a danger to our ships,” but Gould would not back down, noting several times that it was not in an “exclusion zone” the British had deemed unsafe for ships.
A visibly agitated Thatcher retorted, “I think it could only be in Britain that a prime minister was accused of sinking an enemy ship that was a danger to our navy, when my main motive was to protect the boys in our navy,” adding, “One day, all the facts will be revealed and they will indicate as I have said.”
After the interview, Thatcher and her husband abruptly left the studio. Denis Thatcher muttered that the BBC was “a nest of long-haired Trots and wooftahs.” Her critics reveled in seeing an average citizen make Thatcher lose her cool.
In 2011, declassified documents showed that intelligence reports, reviewed by Thatcher, indicated the Belgrano was heading into the warzone.
8. Margaret Thatcher was more popular out of office than in leadership.
Thatcher has done well in rankings of prime ministers. She topped a 2019 YouGov poll of the general public; 21 percent of respondents selected her as the UK’s greatest leader since 1945. As for rankings by historians and academics, Thatcher ranked fourth most successful among the 20 prime ministers of the century in a 2004 survey conducted by the University of Leeds and she came in second in 2010 survey of experts of only post-war prime ministers. Clement Attlee (prime minister from 1945 to 1951), who built the welfare state Thatcher worked to dismantle, ranked highest in both.
Britons were less favorable to Thatcher when she was in power. On average, during her premiership, 40 percent of the public was satisfied with her job performance while 54 percent were dissatisfied. Predictably, she was least popular in working class areas like the Midlands. Her popularity peaked at 59 percent in June 1982, after British forces repelled the Argentineans from the Falklands, and sunk to 20 percent in March 1990, after the proposal of a “poll tax.”
That poll tax was her downfall. Not be confused with the antiquated American voter suppression tactic of charging a tax to vote, the tax was a single payment made by each adult in a jurisdiction to pay for local government services. It led to riots. Thatcher, characteristically, would not budge. Rather than complete a fight for leadership within her own party, Thatcher conceded her premiership and left Parliament in 1992.
9. Margaret Thatcher returned to public life to eulogize Ronald Reagan.
Few world leaders had tenures as parallel as those of Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose administration overlapped much of Thatcher’s premiership. Both were free-market conservatives who came into office with hardline stances on the Soviet Union. Thatcher’s refusal to give in to a coal miners strike mirrored Reagan’s firing of striking traffic controllers. The two were staunch allies and friends. Thatcher helped to convince Reagan to develop a working relationship with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
When Reagan died in 2004, Thatcher had retired from public speaking due to a series of strokes. At the former president’s request, she gave a eulogy at Reagan’s state funeral via a prerecorded video. Reagan “sought to mend America's wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world,” she said, “and to free the slaves of communism. These were causes hard to accomplish and heavy with risk.”
At the funeral, she sat next to Gorbachev.
10. Margaret Thatcher was a longtime supporter of Chilean dictator Agosto Pinochet.
Another one of Thatcher's longtime alliances was more controversial. In 1998, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet traveled to the UK for medical treatment. A Spanish judge ordered his arrest for human rights violations and the British government placed him under house arrest.
In 1973, Pinochet, a general, toppled the socialist government of Chile in a coup. While beating the country into submission, his regime murdered at least 2279 people and tortured another 27,255. He also may have enriched himself via tax evasion, arms deals, and embezzlement. In 1990, Pinochet left his self-declared position as president of the Republic to take a seat as senator-for-life.
Although they never met when either was in power, Thatcher was enraged at the Labour Party government’s arrest of Pinochet, who had been seen as an ally against the spread of communism in Latin America and who provided intelligence to Thatcher’s war room during the Falklands War.
“I don’t know when or how this tragedy will end,” Thatcher said in 1999, “but we will fight on for as long as it takes to see Senator Pinochet returned safely to his own country. The British people still believe in loyalty to their friends.”
The UK released Pinochet back to Chile on medical grounds in March of 2000. He never faced a trial for human rights crimes. While under house arrest in the UK, he received a bottle of liquor from Thatcher and a note reading, “Scotch is one British institution that will never let you down.”