Thatcher was educated at Somerville College, Oxford (B.A., 1946; B.Sc., 1949; M.A., 1950), where she became the first woman president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. She subsequently worked as a research chemist. Her marriage to a prosperous businessman also enabled her to read for the bar, and she specialized in tax law. She first stood for Parliament in 1950 but was unsuccessful, despite increasing the local Conservative vote by 50 percent. Not until 1959, when she was selected to fight the relatively "safe" Conservative constituency of Finchley, in north London, did she enter Parliament. She was joint parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1961-64) and secretary of state for education and science (only the second woman ever to become a Conservative cabinet minister) under Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-74). Thatcher succeeded Heath as Conservative leader in 1975 after the party's loss of two general elections in 1974. The Conservatives' decisive victory in the general elections of 1979, which elevated her to the prime ministry, was thought partly to have resulted from her denunciation of trade-union-induced chaos in the previous winter's strikes.
Thatcher was seen as belonging to the newly energetic right wing of the Conservative Party, who during her administration became known as "Dries," as opposed to the old-style, liberal Tories, known as "Wets." She advocated greater independence of the individual from the state, an end to allegedly excessive government interference in the economy, and reductions in both public expenditures (enabling personal taxes to be cut) and the printing of money (reflecting the policy known as monetarism). But unemployment, which had been rising mildly throughout the late 1970s, nearly tripled during her first two terms--from 1,100,000 to 3,000,000--and her term in office saw the growth of a substantial underclass. Moreover, business losses and bankruptcies increased during the austerity that accompanied her administration's policies for reducing inflation. Though the Conservative Party's parliamentary majority was large, it won with only a little over 40 percent of the vote in 1987; that figure reflected the lowest share of the vote for the Conservatives since 1922.
Abroad, Thatcher presided over the orderly establishment of an independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in 1980 after 15 years of illegal separation from British colonial rule under a white minority. In 1982 Britain successfully recaptured the Falkland Islands following a 10-week Argentine occupation. The electorate's memories of Thatcher's decisive leadership during the Falklands conflict helped give her a landslide victory in the general elections of June 1983.
Throughout her terms Thatcher pursued the policies that earned her the appellation of "Iron Lady": strict dominance over the ministers of her cabinet; pursuance of a strong monetarist policy; increased subjection of trade unions to legal constraints; and "privatization" of state-owned enterprises. In her later years she extended her "Thatcher revolution" from the economics of finance and industry into new areas of social policy, through the further privatization of education, health care, and housing. She affirmed Britain's strong commitment to NATO and Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, a stance that proved popular with the electorate, given the Labour Party's repudiation of Britain's traditional nuclear and defense policies. She also continued to support the retention of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, although a terrorist bombing in Brighton, Sussex, in 1984, allegedly the work of Irish separatists, nearly succeeded in killing her and several senior members of her administration. A split in Tory ranks over her policy regarding European monetary and political integration led to her resignation from party leadership late in 1990. In 1990 Thatcher received the Order of Merit, and in 1992 she was made a baroness.
Margaret Thatcher's political correspondence and papers (1959-1995) are held presently at the Churchill Archives Centre, University of Cambridge, while transcripts of her recent memoir are held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford