Who was the first British woman Prime Minister?


Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century as well as the first woman Prime Minister.

Known as “The Iron Lady” because of her uncompromising style of leadership and political views, she served as PM from 1979 until 1990. 

Elected as an MP in 1958, she rose to become the Secretary of State for Education in 1970. Although a supporter of grammar schools she actually approved over three thousand plans for comprehensive schools. The cuts in education spending she instigated removed free milk and she became known as “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” to a generation of pupils and their teachers.

When Edward Heath lost the 1974 General Elections, Mrs Thatcher became the Leader of the Opposition prior to her successful move into Number 10, Downing Street in 1979. After the coup which toppled her in 1990, Mrs Thatcher retired from the House of Commons in 1992 when, as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in the county of Lincolnshire, she entered the House of Lords.

Margaret Thatcher’s early life is fascinating.

She lived in a substantial flat above her parents’ grocery shop in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her father was a staunch Methodist with a strong sense of civic duty. Margaret worked hard at school and in 1939 was commended in her head teacher’s Speech Day report for achieving over 80% in her form work , the best in the class. She took part in music festivals, gave recitations in chapel and acted in children’s plays. She was a member of the Young Leaguers Union which raised funds for the National Children’s Home and orphanage and in 1934 she dressed up as a silver fairy in order to receive all the silver paper collected by the other young leaguers during the course of the preceding year. Along with used postage stamps also collected by the children this was sent to the association’s headquarters to help the fundraising. The Grantham branch of the Young Leaguers was founded in 1907 and had managed to raise £615 of which £16 was raised in 1933/34.

Margaret attended Somerville, an all-women’s college of Oxford University. In 1945 she was awarded the Shaw-Lefevre Exhibition and the Kircaldy natural science prize. Also in 1945, she was reported accompanying her father in his civic duties as Mayor of Grantham when she cut the Christmas cake for the children and staff of the local day-nursery while her father helped Santa to hand out the presents. The following year she was the youngest after-lunch speaker at the Grantham Rotary Club’s August meeting. She gave a talk about her life attending Oxford University and pointed out that the student population had more than doubled since the end of the war with the ex-Service people flocking back to their studies. This was causing a problem in finding accommodation and some landladies were taking advantage of the situation by charging seven guineas a week for a room with breakfast. She was also invited, as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, to give a talk to the Grantham Young Conservatives. Her talk was in two parts: the basis of conservatism and the Conservative Party today. This went down well with the audience and she was thanked profusely.

A couple of weeks later Margaret was a judge at the competition for Carnival Queen at the first Grantham Youth Association Carnival. Miss Betty Adams aged sixteen was the winner and her prize was to include a free holiday at Butlin’s holiday camp as well as leading the carnival procession. On the day of the carnival Margaret and the Hon Caroline Cust, (the only daughter of the 6th Baron Brownlow, of Belton House near Grantham, a former Lord in Waiting to King Edward VIII) performed the Carnival opening ceremony along with Miss Pamela Bramah, the 1946 Butlin’s Holiday Princess of Great Britain.

Having completed her studies Margaret became a research chemist with B.X Plastics based in Manningtree, Essex. Her community involvement in Grantham stood her in good stead and by February 1949 Margaret had been selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for the strongly socialist constituency of Dartford. At the age of twenty three she was the youngest prospective candidate ever selected. 

In the 1950 General Election, despite vigorous electioneering and the support of both her father and sister on the campaign trail, Margaret failed to defeat the sitting Labour MP. On an 85% turnout she took just over a third of the votes. She didn’t stand for Parliament in 1955. Her two year old twins, Carol and Mark, were taking much of her time. However, she was selected for the safe Tory constituency of Finchley for the 1958 election and the rest, as they say, is history!

Image credit: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons