Margaret Thatcher was the tough-talking Conservative face of British politics throughout the 1980s. You may know about her policies, but how well do you know the woman who was nicknamed "The Iron Lady"?
1. She Started Out as a Chemist
In 1943, an 18-year-old Margaret Roberts headed to Oxford on a scholarship and began studying natural sciences. The future prime minister specialized in chemistry, and she was particularly interested in crystallography. She had good teachers, too. Her tutor, Dorothy Hodgkin, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work in x-ray crystallography.
After earning a postgraduate BSc degree and an MA, Margaret Roberts took a research chemist job with BX Plastics in Essex. However, chemistry quickly took a back seat to politics. When she was in her mid-twenties, she twice ran as the Conservative candidate for the Parliament seat of the Labour stronghold of Dartford. Although she lost both times, she gained a great deal of publicity as the country's youngest female candidate, and her political career started to gain steam.
2. Her Voice Didn't Come Easy
Thatcher's resonant voice may be memorable, but it wasn't exactly natural. Her rise from Member of Parliament to 10 Downing Street might not have happened if she'd maintained her original pipes. Thatcher felt her natural speaking voice was too high to be truly authoritative, so she worked with a voice coach from the National Theater to lower it. After intensive training, Thatcher lowered her pitch by a full 46 hertz, which put her voice at the halfway point between the typical male and female vocal ranges.
3. She Didn't Need Any "Karate Ladies"
In 1979, Thatcher attended an economic summit in Japan. She was still a fairly new prime minister when she headed to Tokyo, and her hosts were a bit apprehensive about how a female PM would be received. To ensure Thatcher's safety, they came up with a novel plan: they would offer her a detail of 20 "karate ladies" for protection.
There was only one hitch in this bizarre plan: Thatcher wanted no part of it. Recently released records quote Thatcher's cabinet secretary Sir John Hunt as saying, "Mrs. Thatcher will attend the summit as Prime Minister and not as a woman per se"¦the Prime Minister would like to be treated in exactly the same manner as the other visiting Heads of Delegation...If other delegation leaders, for example, are each being assigned 20 karate gentlemen, the Prime Minister would have no objection to this; but she does not wish to be singled out."
4. Her Husband Was a Bit of a Character
This one's no surprise to British readers, as the domestic press had a field day with Denis Thatcher and depicted him as the U.K.'s more sophisticated answer Billy Carter. For his part, Denis offered this bit of advice on dealing with the press: "'Avoid telling them to sod off. It makes them cross.''
Denis never gave interviews and rarely made public speeches, but when he did, they had a tendency to end poorly. In 1979, he decried the effect the sporting boycott of apartheid-era South Africa was having on English rugby, saying, "We are a free people, playing an amateur game, and we have the right to play where the hell we like." The remark understandably caused a bit of a furor.
During Margaret's term in office, Denis actually played to the public's perception of him as a heavy-smoking golf nut with a penchant for tippling, even referring to himself as "the most shadowy husband of all time." However, Margaret wrote in her autobiography that her husband was "a fund of shrewd advice and penetrating comment. And he very sensibly saved these for me rather than the outside world.''
In 1990 he was made a baronet and became Sir Denis, and he accepted the honor with his usual good humor, saying, 'Thanks. But more important than that, I have just been elected a member of Sunningdale golf club.''
5. Her Son Isn't Quite as Diplomatic
Although she was known for her tough talk, Thatcher understood the benefits of using diplomacy and the political process to prompt change. Her son Mark, on the other hand, may not be quite as easygoing. He ran into trouble for his part in a 2004 coup d'etat attempt in Equatorial Guinea. The convoluted scheme involved a mercenary attack to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and replace him with exiled politician Severo Moto. Financing allegedly came from British backers who wanted to get at Equatorial Guinea's reserves of oil and natural gas.
Sir Mark Thatcher gave the mercenary plot a little over $250,000 to charter various helicopters. In 2005, he plead guilty to breaking anti-mercenary laws in a South African court and received a four-year suspended sentence a $500,000 fine. Sir Mark has maintained that he thought he was funding the helicopters for a mining project, not a mercenary-led coup, but the guilty plea has haunted him. In 2005, the U.S. rejected his application for a visa even though his American wife (they have since divorced) and their children were living in the States.
Sir Mark's twin sister, Carol, made news of her own in 2005. She won the British version of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here by sticking out two weeks in the Australian jungle. The Guardian described Carol as "jaunty, decent, self-deprecating and, when she remembers to brush her hair, oddly sexy."