In posing her successful challenge to former Prime Minister Edward Heath last week, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, 49, became the first woman ever to make a serious bid for leadership of a British political party. Only a few months ago, she would hardly have rated in any list of contenders. Mrs. Thatcher herself allowed that she did not think that the Conservative Party would be ready for a woman chief in her lifetime. Whether or not she manages to secure a second-ballot victory this week, the controversial M.P.whom the London Sun once dubbed "the most unpopular woman in England"is now firmly entrenched as a major force in the traditionally male world of British politics.
Perhaps a greater political liability than her sex is Mrs. Thatcher's frosty, class-ridden public image. Her impeccably permed hair, unabashedly tweedy wardrobe, ever-present strand of pearls and garden-party hats draw parodists' attention more irresistibly than do similar badges of class in male M.P.s. Says one Conservative backbencher: "She's not only a woman. She's the wrong sort of woman. She might be acceptable in the suburbs and seaside resort areas. I cannot see her making much of an impact in the industrial northeast and Scotland. After all, she's a very suburban lady."
But the caricature does not quite fit. Beneath that unruffled exterior is a steely, strong-minded woman of disciplined ambition and impressive intelligence. A grocer's daughter, she won a scholarship to Oxford, where she earned an M.A. in chemistry. At 23 she was a practicing research chemist, a law student in her spare time and a parliamentary candidate running for her first office all while preparing for her marriage to now wealthy Oilman Denis Thatcher. She lost that election, but after giving birth to twins and working several years as a barrister specializing in tax law, she entered the House of Commons in 1959 as Member for the London suburb of Finchley.
Mrs. Thatcher finally reached Cabinet rank in 1970, when Heath named her Minister of Education and Science. She survived nearly four stormy years in the post, upholding the then unfashionable principle of meritocracy against the open-enrollment school policies established by the Labor governments of the '60s. In one furiously criticized venture, she raised the price of school lunches and cut off the free milk rations for some 3.5 million children, earning for herself the bitter playground chant, "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher." The $20.7 million per year that she thus saved was used to help finance an ambitious educational-reform program.
In recent months, Mrs. Thatcher has become the Conservatives' principal frontbench spokesman on economic and tax policy. A feisty debater, she has repeatedly discomfited Labor ministers with relentlessly logical and prodigiously well-informed attacks. Her continuous salvos against the Wilson government's proposals for higher tax rates on inherited wealth finally provoked Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey to call her "La Pasionaria of Privilege."* Mrs. Thatcher's rejoinder: "Some Chancellors are macroeconomic, some are fiscal; this one is just plain cheap."