Women in Leadership: The Legacy of Margaret Thatcher and “Leaning In”

I was ten when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister on May 4,1979. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, and so was I. I was a young girl, ripe for examples of strong faith and womanhood. I remember her earnest, eloquent speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street as she paraphrased the prayer of Saint Francis: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

To me, she was an image of femininity, an elegant blonde figure in a classic blue ensemble and pearls daring to believe she could revolutionize a nation through unwavering faith, convictions and hard work. I grew into adulthood admiring her and thinking it perfectly normal for a woman to lead.

At that young age, I didn’t realize she had broken the mold. She was the first woman prime minister in Europe and the longest-serving head of government in Britain in the 20th century. She achieved iconic status in both the Conservative Party and internationally. “Thatcherism” became a label for her aggressive politics based on conviction, as well as a byword for the changed spirit of the times. She turned around the ailing British economy through staunch policies of minimal government, free market, privatization and lower taxes, shaking the nation out of its demoralized doldrums. I spoke with a friend, a Brit, the day she died. He met her on two occasions and was impressed by her charisma and kindness. But of course, not everyone celebrated her.

I probably admired her in the same way I admired Queen Esther from the Bible, Mother Teresa, or Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Carmichael and Jackie Pullinger whose biographies I read fortifying me with encouraging examples when I faced my own challenges as a missionary in Eastern Europe. Christian women today want to make a difference in the world. And this can play out in many definitions and spheres of leadership and influence.

A current advocate for a new kind of woman is Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose recent book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is a NY Times bestseller. Sandberg has shattered every glass ceiling in her way and she wants to encourage us that we can do the same. She wrote “We [women] hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” While there is some truth in this statement, her argument rings hollow when I consider the influence of Thatcher and the women’s hall of faith I mentioned above. Thatcher undoubtedly sat at the table in a man’s world and was heard, but why did she do it? And why should we? To prove that we are equal or better? To climb the ladder of success and stake our claim? Rather than a ladder of success, Sanberg describes the many paths careers can take as more of a jungle gym, going sideways and even downward on their way up. This image portrays more of a sense of life mission with changing seasons. For example, I know many women who are transforming the world while remaining primarily at home.

In this broader sense of mission or calling, I agree we should lean in. We should do so because our faith and convictions demand it. We must do it to better our world. We must do it to serve humanity. We must do it because justice for those who suffer and do not have a voice demands our involvement and our gifts. A unique sense of calling is something God places on our shoulders and in our hearts. An example of calling rang out through the voice of Margaret Thatcher as she quoted Saint Francis on the day of her inauguration. While Thatcher’s legacy is vast and varied, I will focus on three areas where she serves as an example to women today: a devout faith in God, a strong work ethic, and unwavering convictions and purpose.

Devout Faith in God

Thatcher once told a journalist that she was ‘in politics because of the conflict between good and evil’, with the conviction ‘that in the end good will triumph’. As one historian noted, “She reintroduced into British politics a missionary mood that reflected her provincial and Methodist origins.”

A devout Christian faith was the foundation of her political program and her convictions for less government, lower taxes, more freedom and greater personal responsibility. Her government essentially constituted an applied theology. She said she was “engaged in the massive task of restoring confidence and stability to our people” because “unless the spirit of the nation which has hitherto sustained us is renewed, our national life will perish”.

This ‘spirit’ of which she spoke was uncompromisingly Christian. She said: ‘I find it difficult to imagine that anything other than Christianity is likely to resupply most people in the West with the virtues necessary to remoralize society in the very practical ways which the solution of many present problems require’.

Strong Work Ethic

Thatcher did not hail from the upper echelons of Britain’s class-obsessed society, but grew up in a modest apartment above her father’s grocery store. Her Methodist family was very involved in their local congregation. Margaret and her older sister were raised in an atmosphere that emphasized personal responsibility, charity, and truthfulness. In her early years, her father, who was a member of the town’s council, introduced Thatcher to conservative politics.

She described her childhood living over the shop as “an idyllic blur,” with customers coming and going. She helped weigh sugar, tea and coffee and learned the basic tenets of economics from her father. “Individual responsibility was his watchword and sound finance his passion,” Margaret recalled. She claimed her integrity came from her father who had a fondness for sayings such as “Never do things just because other people do them”. From her mother Margaret learned the efficient housekeeping of the middle class, virtues deepened by privations of World War II.

Although Thatcher was accepted at the prestigious Oxford University where she studied chemistry, she won her place there because she was a good student. She was also an accomplished pianist.

After she married Denis, who was devoted to her and supportive of her pursuits throughout their fifty-year union, she studied law and passed the bar exam after giving birth to twins. Thatcher’s life continued to be marked by a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility.

Unwavering Convictions and Sense of Purpose

People certainly have not agreed with all that the “Iron Lady” said and did, but the majority respected her as a woman of principle and conviction. There is no doubt that she said what she thought and did what she said. Surveying the modern political landscape, a renewal of such principles and convictions would be refreshing.

The Iron Lady reputation came following a speech she made in 1976 criticizing the Soviet Union when the Red Army newspaper dubbed her the Iron Lady. Instantly, an icon was born. She used it to her advantage, later addressing a gathering, “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved: the Iron Lady of the Western World!”

While her political “marriage” with Reagan was well known, it was Thatcher who first explored a way to engage a new generation of Soviet leaders. Having attended two funerals of the old guard who ran what Reagan referred to as “The Evil Empire,” she invited a young Kremlin rival, Mikhail Gorbachev, to London. She quickly called Reagan to say he was “a man who you can do business with.” The resulting Reagan-Gorbachev summits hastened the Soviet Union’s demise. While they did not end the cold war, together they helped ensure a peaceful transition.

When Margaret Thatcher left the center stage of politics, she was more like a queen in exile, and may she remain a potent symbol now that she has passed away.

May there be many more like her.


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