Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister

Before Margaret Thatcher’s unexpected rise to the office of prime minister of Great Britain, no woman had held even a major portfolio in a British cabinet.

Summary of Event

Margaret Thatcher has been openly scornful of feminism, and during her unprecedented tenure as head of state in Great Britain, she made little effort to undermine the determinedly masculine traditions of British government. Nevertheless, her rise to power broke new ground for women in politics. Prime ministers;United Kingdom
Elections;United Kingdom
[kw]Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister (May 4, 1979)
[kw]First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister, Thatcher Becomes (May 4, 1979)
[kw]Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister, Thatcher Becomes First (May 4, 1979)
[kw]British Prime Minister, Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as (May 4, 1979)
[kw]Prime Minister, Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British (May 4, 1979)
Prime ministers;United Kingdom
Elections;United Kingdom
[g]Europe;May 4, 1979: Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister[03590]
[g]United Kingdom;May 4, 1979: Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister[03590]
[g]England;May 4, 1979: Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister[03590]
[c]Government and politics;May 4, 1979: Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister[03590]
[c]Women’s issues;May 4, 1979: Thatcher Becomes First Woman to Serve as British Prime Minister[03590]
Thatcher, Margaret
[p]Thatcher, Margaret;prime ministership
Joseph, Keith
Neave, Airey
Reece, Gordon
Heath, Edward

In the British parliamentary system, the prime minister is the leader of the political party holding a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Thatcher’s achievement must thus be considered in two stages: first, her accomplishment in winning the leadership of the Conservative (or Tory) Party, and second, her success in leading the party to electoral victory. When she was appointed minister of education and science in 1970, Thatcher became only the second female Tory cabinet minister in British history, so in a sense her achievement of the first stage was more unlikely than her achievement of the second.

Edward Heath’s leadership of the Tory party came into question after the party lost two elections in 1974. There is little evidence that Heath had lost control, but the backbenchers—party members with seats in Parliament but no government offices—were concerned. They also did not care for Heath’s aloof, arrogant style. Backbenchers pressured for a leadership vote. Heath ruffled more feathers by refusing even to meet with them, but he was finally forced to appoint a committee to draw up rules for choosing a leader. The system called for annual elections when the party sat in opposition (that is, when it was not the party holding the majority of seats in the House of Commons). To win, a candidate had to get a majority of the entire parliamentary party (not only those casting votes) and have 15 percent more votes than the second-place vote getter. If this procedure produced no winner, subsequent ballots, in which new candidates might be included, would be cast. An election was set for February 4, 1975, and no one, even Margaret Thatcher herself, thought that she would be a candidate.

Margaret Thatcher.


Heath’s most likely challenger was Sir Keith Joseph, who had become increasingly committed to an extreme monetarist position, focusing on inflation as the central problem of the British economy. In effect, Joseph was repudiating the policy of deficit spending followed by his own party since World War II, and he was beginning to convince Thatcher that he was right. He destroyed his own chance for the leadership in a speech on October 19, 1974, in which he suggested that because the poor were ill qualified to rear children they should be more concerned about contraception. The only other serious possible challenger, Edward du Cann, had already taken himself out of the running. Thatcher, who had committed herself to supporting Joseph, decided that she would put herself forward as a candidate. It was a risky decision, for losing would almost certainly destroy her career.

Although few thought Thatcher had much of a chance, some supporters joined her. Most important was Airey Neave, a respected backbencher who had initially favored du Cann. Neave, a war hero who had trained female agents for service in occupied Europe during World War II, had no reservations about the abilities of women, and he moved willingly into the Thatcher camp. Another key aide was Gordon Reece, a television journalist who volunteered to handle the media for Thatcher and who would in the long run do much to polish the rough provincial edges of her public persona.

While her team busily rounded up votes among the Conservative members of Parliament, Thatcher made good use of her position as opposition spokesperson on budget matters. She began to show signs of embracing Joseph’s ideas, and her lifelong tendency to be extremely well prepared paid off. Her clever, sardonic remarks assaulting the Labour Party’s budget in January and February did much to strengthen her challenge to Heath. Furthermore, although she found doing so distasteful, Thatcher began to court the press, forging links that would last through the more than eleven years she would eventually run the government.

Despite her gains, no one gave Thatcher a meaningful chance as election day approached. The most anyone really expected was that she would deny Heath the required 15 percent majority, forcing him to withdraw so that one of his lieutenants—most likely William Whitelaw, Whitelaw, William who would not stand against his leader—could enter the second poll and represent the principles of the existing leadership. Few realized how unpopular Heath had become, and when he refused to stand aside, Thatcher won the first poll, although not by the required 15 percent. The vote was really against Heath personally, but Thatcher had momentum and Whitelaw was unable to catch up. On February 10, Thatcher won the party leadership.

Thatcher called the victory “a dream,” and that was an apt metaphor. She had not yet even fully developed the economic ideas with which she would eventually be identified. Although the party rank and file across the country overwhelmingly favored Heath, Thatcher rode a groundswell of distaste for his aloofness among the Tories in Parliament. Without broad support, Thatcher likely would have only one chance to win an election before the party selected another leader.

The challenges were numerous and great. Heath, still very influential, was hostile and refused any position Thatcher would give him in her shadow cabinet. She was a neophyte in foreign affairs. The Labour government, led by Harold Wilson Wilson, Harold (and, after Wilson’s unexpected retirement in 1976, James Callaghan), Callaghan, James had a small majority but little incentive to call an election. Thatcher had little choice but to retain most of the party leadership, although she did work her supporters, such as Joseph and Neave, into party office. William Whitelaw willingly joined her forces.

When Thatcher traveled abroad she gained attention that was rare for the leader of the opposition party, primarily because she was a woman in an unusual position of authority. The way she handled this attention did much to give credibility to the notion that she could handle foreign relations as British prime minister. Gordon Reece convinced her to take elocution lessons to modulate her affected and sometimes shrill speaking voice; he also convinced her to inject some human warmth into her image and wardrobe.

As Thatcher worked to mold herself into the image of a prime minister, several factors combined to bring the Labour government to grief. The Labour Party was divided over the question of devolution (autonomy for Scotland and Wales) and survived a 1977 vote of confidence on the issue only by entering into a pact with the small Liberal Party. Public concern was growing over the question of nonwhite immigration from the Commonwealth and the issue of whether holding a British passport gave an individual the right to settle in England. Thatcher adroitly tied the Conservative Party to the anti-immigration position without openly speaking against nonwhites per se.

By 1978, an election seemed imminent, and the advertising firm of Saatchi & Saatchi Saatchi & Saatchi[Saatchi and Saatchi] was hired to mount a campaign against the Labour Party. The campaign was so effective that Prime Minister Callaghan decided to postpone the vote. Meanwhile, British labor unions were growing increasingly restive over government efforts to limit wage increases, and the winter was marked by strikes and industrial unrest. In March, 1979, a devolution referendum was soundly defeated in Wales but met with ambiguous results in Scotland. The government stalled, unsure of its next move, and Thatcher struck. A motion of no confidence carried by one vote, and Callaghan resigned. It was the first time a prime minister had been forced into a general election since Stanley Baldwin had ousted Ramsay MacDonald in 1924.

The general election campaign was furious and marked by tragedy. Two days after it started, Airey Neave was killed by an Irish terrorist’s bomb. Staggered, Thatcher kept working to make herself seem more personable and to get the Tory message across. Party platforms dealt in generalities as candidates spoke grandly of the future. Personalities were emphasized: sunny Jim Callaghan versus the “Iron Lady.” A point behind in the last poll, Thatcher spent election day in her district, Finchley, and then went home to await the results. By early the next morning, it was clear that the Conservative Party had won and Margaret Thatcher would be the next (and first female) prime minister of Great Britain. On the afternoon of May 4, 1979, Margaret Thatcher was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be sworn in.


When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain, only three modern nations—Sri Lanka, India, and Israel—had had female heads of government. Five years later, the campaign of Geraldine Ferraro Ferraro, Geraldine for vice president of the United States suggested that a woman on the ticket was still a liability in American politics. It was thus no mean achievement for a woman to emerge as party leader and prime minister in one of the major states of Europe. Thatcher’s success clearly gave hope to women seeking a share of political power and office all over the Western world. She became a symbol for women as well as for political conservatives.

Thatcher’s political philosophy blocked her from, and her personal views inclined her against, using her success to further women’s progress in politics or elsewhere. No one, she suggested, including women, should lean on the government for aid. People should instead achieve by personal effort. Thatcher certainly had. Her cabinets were as dominated by males as were those of her predecessors, partly because there were few women at the top of Tory ranks. Thatcher made no effort to support the rise of women into those top ranks, so while she may have symbolized the rise of women into political power, she did little to further it in practice. Furthermore, she showed little interest in what are generally considered women’s issues. When she was minister of education, a colleague once embarrassed himself by asking in her hearing, “Is there any truth to the rumor that Mrs. Thatcher is a woman?” As rude as this remark was, coming at a time when Thatcher was under great fire for following government policy by reducing subsidies for free milk for schoolchildren, it is one that many feminists might endorse given her performance.

Thatcher’s career did, however, make it clear that doubts about the ability of women to handle politics and foreign policy at the highest levels are ill founded. Although Thatcher created controversy with her economic policy, many consider her to be one of the most successful prime ministers in British history. She held her own in domestic politics and in statecraft. She also led her nation through the Falklands War, proving adept as a war leader. Although many women felt that the high level of her success made it all the more regrettable that Thatcher did so little during her career to advance the rights of women in Britain and around the world, it is clear that Thatcher’s bold leadership was, in and of itself, a major achievement. Prime ministers;United Kingdom
Elections;United Kingdom

Further Reading

  • Bruce-Gardyne, Jock. Mrs. Thatcher’s First Administration: The Prophets Confounded. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Firsthand account of Thatcher’s Conservative Party organization by an author who served on the party’s staff. Despite some apparent bias in favor of the party, does a good job of presenting the issues clearly and honestly. Includes insightful commentary concerning Thatcher’s rise to power.
  • Harris, Kenneth. Thatcher. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. Excellent biography is filled with thoughtful analysis based on solid, fact-filled narrative. Provides useful information about the people around Thatcher, showing how they influenced her career. Aimed at readers who have some knowledge of British politics and of economics.
  • Junor, Penny. Margaret Thatcher: Wife, Mother, Politician. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1983. Popular biography makes a fairly successful effort to show Thatcher in her various life roles. Not a particularly in-depth study of the political aspects of her career.
  • Lewis, Russell. Margaret Thatcher: A Personal and Political Biography. Rev. ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. Effective study attempts to look at both the personal and the professional aspects of Thatcher’s personality that made her a success. The result is a reasonably well-rounded biography that is quite useful for giving an understanding of the motivations behind her activities.
  • Mayer, Allan J. Madam Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher and Her Rise to Power. New York: Newsweek Books, 1979. Journalistic account provides good background on Thatcher during the period before her conservatism became controversial.
  • Sherman, Alfred. Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude. Charlottesville, Va.: Imprint Academic, 2005. Examines the factors that led to Thatcher’s rise to prime minister. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Thatcher, Margaret. The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher. Edited by Robin Harris. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Collection includes campaign speeches, major addresses Thatcher made as prime minister, and lectures she delivered following her tenure in office. Provides information on Thatcher’s views on a wide array of topics.
  • Young, Hugo. The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. Solid scholarly biography does an effective job of analyzing Thatcher’s economic ideology and showing how it was passed to her. Presents a thorough narrative of Thatcher’s rise to power and her career through 1987.

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