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Margaret Thatcher’s place among historic female leaders

April 8, 2013 by NCC Staff


The passing of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on Monday has sparked talk about her trailblazing role as a woman who was an active global leader.

Thatcher visits the U.S. in 1981.

Today, part of Thatcher’s mantle has been passed on to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Forbes ranks as the most powerful female leader in the world.

In fact, Merkel, 58, is ranked by Forbes as the second most powerful leader in the world, trailing only America’s president, Barack Obama.

But Merkel is hardly the only woman who is the functional head of state or the leader of a major international organization in today's world.

Prominent leaders include South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye; Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff; International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde; Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; India’s Sonia Gandhi, who leads the nation’s biggest political party; Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi; Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia; President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines; and Thailand prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In the United States, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is a leading, but undeclared, candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, while Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, and Janet Napolitano have prominent government roles. At least six women in addition to Clinton have been discussed as potential 2016 candidates: Republicans Kelly Ayotte, Condoleezza Rice, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Sarah Palin; and Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren.

However, at least in Forbesranking of the 71 most powerful people in world, the glass ceiling is firmly in place: There are only six women in the list of business leaders, politicians, and philanthropists.

In Thatcher’s time, few world leaders held as much power, regardless of gender. Her rise to prime minister in 1979 was a novelty at the time. Indira Gandhi of India, Golda Meir of Israel, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka preceded her in leadership positions at the helm of nations.

During Thatcher’s term in office, from 1979 until 1990, Gandhi was elected again as prime minister, only to be assassinated. Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was elected in 1988, but she was out of office before Thatcher was. Bhutto was assassinated as she attempted a political comeback in 2007.

Thatcher was a staunch ally of her personal friend, Ronald Reagan, and she was victorious as the leader of the Conservative Party in three elections. It was a squabble inside her own party that led to her resignation in late 1990.

In 2010, Time magazine named Thatcher one of the 25 most powerful women of the 20th century.

“A woman with high standards and a short temper, Margaret Thatcher was not known as Britain's Iron Lady for nothing,” Time said, also noting Thatcher’s role in the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Thatcher had to fight her way through the British political system to obtain a Cabinet-level post in 1970. Six years later, she became the leader of the Conservatives.

According to one biography, the quick-witted Thatcher caught the ire of Prime Minister Edward Heath, who she felt was ignoring her at Cabinet meetings.

“If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” Thatcher told a group.

Thatcher replaced Heath as party leader in 1975 and led a successful no-confidence vote in 1979 that made her prime minister.

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