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Margaret Thatcher: 'Absolute trailblazer'

| Monday, April 8, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

LONDON — Watch out for the handbag.

That was the view many had of Margaret Thatcher, whose life as leader of the United Kingdom changed perceptions about women in power and altered world events in ways that are still being felt today.

“Even those people who disagree with her policies and her politics I think will agree that she was an absolutely remarkable and exceptional woman,” said Gillian Shephard, who served as a junior minister under Thatcher and is the author of The Real Iron Lady: Working With Mrs. Thatcher.

Thatcher, 87, died Monday after a stroke, leaving behind a legacy that resonates in Europe and the United States because of her staunchly conservative take on the great geopolitical battles of the 1980s against communism, capitalism and the welfare state.

She reinvigorated the U.S.-British alliance, joining the Americans in an unapologetic

confrontation against the repression in the Soviet Union and blunt its attempt to maintain communist puppets in Eastern Europe.

She defended capitalism and free markets when socialism was viewed as a better alternative. She was among the first European leaders to confront powerful public unions, and she took up the cause of privatizing huge sectors of the economy that had been overtaken by government bureaucracies.

She would witness the dissolution of the Soviet state and its clients, the embracing of Western capitalism in places like China, and a general trend against unionism and state takeovers of free enterprise.

On military force, she bragged of bombing Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and stunned the world by sending a naval fleet to the tiny British protectorate of the Falkland Islands to wipe out the invading Argentine army.

“She was tough as nails,” said Colin Powell, former secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A Soviet newspaper called her the “Iron Lady.” Powell said, “We had a lighter view; we used to say, ‘Watch out for the handbag.' She exuded influence and power. The hairstyle, the dress, her manner, the way in which she carried that handbag. When she walked into a room, you knew that somebody had arrived and you'd better be careful.”

A grocer's daughter, Thatcher rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party and is credited with solidifying what the British refer to as the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and its former colony of America.

Analysts say that one of her finest moments came in recognizing winds of change in the Soviet Union.

“She had been a stalwart opponent of communism and a stalwart opponent of the regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and yet she was then the first person to say Gorbachev is someone that we can work with,” said Ben Tonra, a professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. “So she had huge formative impact on both the end of the Cold War and the kind of Europe that came out of the Cold War.”

Tonra describes Thatcher and her U.S. counterpart, Ronald Reagan, as “ideological soulmates” — not only on foreign policy but also in the way each dealt with situations at home.

“They were almost in parallel to one another in a response to a previous administration — which had been seen to have failed, which had been seen to be left-wing, which had been seen to be compromising with trade unions, with socialism, with the left, if you like.”

Thatcher assumed power in 1979, a time when more than a million Brits were unemployed, workers' strikes were sweeping the country, and inflation was spiraling out of control. Thatcher refused to give in to the trade unions and introduced radical economic reforms, including sweeping privatization and liberalization of markets, while reducing the size of government.

“She waged war with the trade unions because the balance of power between them and the democratically-elected government had become unbalanced in the 1970s — during the period known as the Winter of Discontent almost the whole of Britain was on strike,” Shephard said.

Although many supported Thatcher, others thought her policies disastrous.

“She set about deregulating economic affairs, which I think we are still suffering from now — the recession we are in is partly down to Thatcher's policies, in terms of that,” said Donald McKenzie, 70, a retired physicist from London.

While Thatcher is viewed as having played an important role in promoting the “Chicago School” of free-market economics, Christiane Eisenberg, professor for British Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, says her ideas were as much the result of her upbringing in the family shop.

“She was a grocer's daughter,” Eisenberg said. “Her endeavors to cut the expenses of the welfare state were much influenced by the endeavors of her father not to stretch his grocery's finances.”

The policies that have become known internationally as “Thatcherism” saw her lauded by some and demonized by others from the start.

Shephard says that her unflinching ability to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions was key to her success — especially as Britain's first (and as yet, only) female prime minister.

“She would have been ill-advised to get herself pigeon-holed as someone who reacted in what the public might think was a feminine kind of way,” Shephard said. “She has a job to do, and it was a job she was doing as a woman that until then only men had done.”

With only a handful of women having taken such a powerful role on the global political stage before her, fans say she led the way for women around the world.

“It was wonderful for female rights and (something) which needed to be done,” said Matthew Whelan, 37, a nursing homes operations manager in London.

Shephard, who has had a successful career as a Conservative minister, says her former boss raised the stakes for women in British politics.

“She was an absolute trailblazer,” Shephard said.

Thatcher forged a tough answer to dealing with the Irish Republican Army, the militant group that sought independence for Ireland through violence.

In 1981, jailed IRA members went on hunger strikes demanding they be treated as political prisoners. She refused, and some starved themselves amid a lot of press coverage.

“She wasn't someone that compromised easily —⅛ certainly there is an argument to be said that during the whole hunger strike period, it was intransigence on her side and intransigence on the other side that made a bad situation worse,” Tonra said.

Despite an IRA attempt to assassinate Thatcher in 1984, she went on to sign the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which allowed the government of the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in the Northern Irish Parliament, paving the way for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

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