Remembering My Moment with Lady Thatcher

I was in the car this morning when I heard the news of the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I lingered in the car in the office parking lot to listen to the entire NPR report on her life and death. I felt sad for the loss of such a giant figure, even though she left the public stage many years ago; inspired by her legacy; and reflective on my brief time in her presence.

She has been described as “divisive, yet revered,” “a political bruiser,” “a controversial figure” with an “immense” legacy,” and “a great leader.” All of these are likely true. She became the first female prime minister in 1979, a time when women were not likely candidates to lead powerful countries in the western world (or anywhere). Yet, she did not make her gender an issue; she was not driven by feminism. She was a politician. If you have read anything about her or even just watched the biopic, The Iron Lady, it is clear that she was a politician’s politician. Further proof is found in her own words:

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.

Politics aside, I remember that she taught me a little about confidence and kindness.

Sixteen years ago I had the honor of meeting and dining with Margaret Thatcher. I attended a building dedication ceremony, as a guest of my boyfriend at that time, and she was the keynote speaker. The building dedication was followed by a private dinner; the dinner invitees included only Lady Thatcher (the proper way to address her was shared with us before the event) and 11 other guests.

I was twenty years old.

This gathering would have made a great game of which-one-of-these-does-not-belong. Looking back on the pictures of that event, it is clear that I was a young, clumsy, and an ill-prepared participant. I was the sore thumb. I had never attended an event where I needed a business suit. All the other women were in skirts and perfectly selected barely there panty hose. I had on a boxy, ill-fitting jacket with mix-and-match dress slacks. I was immediately aware that I did not fit in. This is when I realized, and wisely so, that it would be good for me to practice my be-seen-and-not-heard skills to minimize the attention drawn to me.

My plan was well-intentioned, but Lady Thatcher was having none of it. She entered the room for the pre-ceremony reception. The room quickly became quiet as everyone realized she had joined us. She quickly scanned the room and made a beeline to me.

MT 2

She introduced herself, I did the same, she smiled, and asked me for help. She was unsure of the proper way to say the last name of the family who the building was being named after and wanted to get it right. She explained how important that was to her. I explained the proper pronunciation to her and made some small talk then she thanked me and moved on. I will never know why she approached me out of all the people in the room. I feel certain that an aide or someone other than a guest could have helped her pronounce that name. She did not need me for that, but, it turned out, I needed that interaction. Her kind and gracious act of vulnerability in asking me for help made me feel comfortable and it gave me confidence. She was powerful, yet willing to ask for help; and she did not ask the most important people in the room, but arguably (and visibly) the very least important person.

Later in the evening eleven of us gathered for dinner with Lady Thatcher. I was feeling much better about my day at this point. I was also dressed appropriately – even back then I knew a little black sheath would go anywhere. As we waited in the parlor of the home for her arrival, drink orders were taken. All the men ordered scotch or whiskey. All the women ordered chardonnay and one ordered champagne. I was last. I did not want either, but felt the pressing need to fit it. So, chardonnay it was. Lady Thatcher entered the room and her first words were “gin and tonic.” I remember smiling to myself and thinking, I could have had whatever I wanted.

She knew what she wanted, she didn’t have to think about it, and it didn’t matter what anyone else was doing. You could tell this by the way she carried herself. Of course, right, she is one of the most powerful women in history. But, for me, at twenty years old and just two months after moving out of my parents’ house, it was a small but powerful moment.

Dinner, as you might imagine, was at a long table with the Lady Thatcher at one end flanked by the guests of honor. The host at the opposite end flanked by the wives of the guests of honor. This left the rest of us in the middle. In fact, I was in the dead center with my date across the table. Unfortunately, due to the ornate centerpiece I could only see him from the nose up. It was pretty clear that we were guests 11 and 12! The good news about this seating is that I could hear conversation from both ends of the table. While some at the table chatted about Princess Diana’s clothing budget, Lady Thatcher kept with her interests, she discussed welfare policy, her husband Dennis who was not able to join her on the trip, and her relationship with President Reagan. She talked about politics like an expert and spoke of her husband in a way that made it clear that she was his loving wife. Those were two sides to her one coin; a professional and a woman.

The evening ended with pictures and autographs. It was clear that this was something she had down to an art – she teased people and made appropriately timed jokes as she smiled for the camera and signed her name. When it was my turn she called me by my name and asked me how to spell it. She signed my dinner menu, wished me well, and the evening ended.

It occurs to me now that she may have just been bad with names, although I doubt it. Either way, in just a few moments she made a lasting impact on me. In a few moments she demonstrated that you can be powerful and vulnerable, confident and feminine, and order whatever you want to drink.

I feel very grateful and privileged that I was able to experience the presence of this kind, confident, and powerful woman. Her actions speak volumes, still.

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.

Rest peacefully Lady Thatcher.

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127 thoughts on “Remembering My Moment with Lady Thatcher

  1. While, how lucky to be able to have meet Lady Thatcher. One famous quote of her’s that I will always agree with is: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” – 1965, speech to National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds Conference! Thank you for sharing this blog with us.

  2. That was quite an honor for you to meet Lady Thatcher. Something similar happened to me when I was 20 years old back in 1980. I drove to Omaha, Nebraska to St. Mary’s College to listen to William F. Buckley speak. I wore blue jeans, a shirt with a buttoned-down collar, a tie and hiking boots—all the men wore expensive business suits and the women wore expensive dresses. I really felt out of place, but it was a great honor to listen to Bill Buckley speak.

    I know that Reagan and Thatcher were good friends. I thought Reagan was a great President.

    “Ronald Reagan’s Dream”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/ronald-reagans-dream/

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  4. What a nice tribute. As said above, a lot has been said about Margaret Thatcher, but not much quietly personal. Thank you.

  5. What a charming account of your encounter with Mrs Thatcher. It was fascinating and far more engaging to read than some of the other articles that have been written in recent days. Thank you.

  6. I wonder if Thatcher and Reagan were to be the current leaders of UK and USA in 2013 how their controversial “ideas” on several important issues today would be accepted OR criticized by the “LIB-DEMS” in UK and the “REP-DEMS” in USA.

    • Judging from my Twitter feed yesterday morning, they’re too clueless to understand. Some reporter even had the nerve to say Margaret Thatcher didn’t do anything special with her life nor had any impact on the world.

    • Maybe you’re right, I know my parents weren’t a massive fan of Thatcher (they respect her position and that she was a human being with a family etc) but maybe she was too ahead of her time making radical decisions more suited to todays politics which is why people hated her so much in the 80’s. Great post by the way.

      • Thanks for for reading and for your kind comment, she was a human and she was ahead of her time at least from the gender-role perspective for sure. Thanks, again!

  7. I also met Margaret Thatcher when I was a young woman. I was 18 and served her tea at the hotel where I worked part-time. She had been Prime Minister for about a year and was visiting a couple of manufacturers in my town. She didn’t look at my face or thank me personally; I hadn’t expected she would.
    What strikes me from your post and the comments that follow is that you Americans have such a romantic and rose-tinted view of her and what she did to our country. For those of us living in the UK, especially those in the North and the industrial heartland it was a different story, believe me.

    • Well I am also from the North of England and I disagree with you about that. While it’s true opinion was divided about her she did inherit a country that was in a terrible mess. Not just in terms of it’s economy (inflation peaked @ 22% in 1980 as she struggled to overcome the legacy left to her by the former Labour government). The unions were out of control and restrictive practices were killing many businesses and public sector budgets were out of control. On top of that were were regarded internationally as the “sick man of Europe” – in the 13 years of her rule she left a Britain that was highly respected on the global stage after playing a key role in ending the cold war among other things. She also left the countries finances in far better shape than she found them. Even Tony Blair in the opposition party (and thereafter) greatly admired her for the brave reforms she made to drag this country out of the mire.
      She had some very tough choices to make but she didn’t shy or shirk away from doing what was necessary. While it’s true many hated her for closing down uneconomic coal mines (esp. faced with stiff competition with cheap coal from abroad) she only closed 22 pits where Harold Wilson had closed 90 plus.
      She won three terms in office and those victories didn’t come without substantial support from the working class in the North of England who also benefited and appreciated her help in their being able to liberate themselves from social housing and own their own homes.
      She was a truly remarkable woman and this country was highly fortunate to have her at a time when we needed strong, decisive leadership.

    • Dear Bridget – Thank you for your sharing your story of meeting Lady Thatcher and your perspective on her work as prime minister. I appreciate hearing your side of the story.

  8. This is probably the only 1 of few reads I’ve come across that puts a light view on her. I know quite a few Brits who were angered and directly affected by her leadership. I feel every leader world-wide will have it’s own effect good/bad. She undoubtedly made her stamp in history and (political) history cannot be rewritten.

  9. An interesting post. You’re right, “her actions speak volumes still.” Unfortunately for many of us whose formative years were spent under her premiership in the UK the volumes her actions speak of are the destruction of communities, mass unemployment, civil unrest, and the celebration of personal greed at the expense of a humane and considerate society. I could go on, but a blog comment box isn’t the space for a detailed, reflective, evaluation of such a significant historical figure. Suffice to say that I am pleased that you have a good memory, but that you must also understand that millions of us in the UK feel nothing but rage when we look back at those years that she was our Prime Minister, and fury at the legacy that Thatcherite policies have left our country. She remains a divisive figure here in the UK, and many do consider her to have been a great leader, but it is also true that she, as a symbol of much hated policies, continues to inspire deeply felt anger in a massive section of the British population.

    • Thank you very much for taking time to share your response. Your respectful and balanced comment is appreciated. I do like to hear the other side of the story – as one always exists.

  10. This was such a beautiful read, you must have felt so privileged to have met such a women as Lady Thatcher.. And to all of the people who show remorse for her, I would like to say that she was a dignified and hard-working, intelligent lady who knew exactly how she wanted things to be carried out. Once again, a lovely post.

  11. Lady Thacher was a very intelligent and skilled politician. I also met her at a a Conservative party conference in Llandudno and the sharpness of her intellect was astounding. Truly a great person and an influence that will be greatly missed.

  12. I feel as if comments on Lady Thatcher’s policies are misplaced here. The author is clearly focusing on other aspects, indeed as she mentions in the post early on.

    • Thank you for your comment; you are correct. I appreciate a good, respectful, and lively political discussion and am happy to host that here, but it was not the intention of the post. The response indicates to me just how passionately people feel about Lady Thatcher on both sides. It is an interesting topic of debate and discussion.

  13. A somewhat romanticised view, but wonderfully and sensitively written.

    I get the feeling that this reaction to Thatcher says more about the author herself than it does about the ex-PM. Not too much delving has to be done to uncover the many miseries she inflicted on the lower end of society, some of whom were my clients when I worked in an Advice Bureau. People were reduced to hopelessness and despair as the gap between rich and poor was widened strategically – many of those who were reduced to poverty took the ultimate way out and committed suicide.

    That’s a bleak view of her Premiership, but I lived through it and saw the grisly end of things. This is just to introduce a note of reality, and not in any way to detract from what was a beautifully-written piece by someone who’s world view is clearly a lot sweeter and less cynical than mine.

    • Thank you for your kind compliment and your thoughtful and respectful response. I appreciate all the insight into the views of those who lived through her tenure at prime minister.

  14. Beautiful tribute. Thank you for saying all this. I don’t see much news so this was the first I’d heard and I find myself weeping quite unexpectedly. I was born in 1973 and so she was quite an icon of feminine power to me growing up. I’m stricken. Thank you for presenting the news so sweetly. ❤

  15. Wow, so vivid, interesting, I could easily placed myself there; great story. Indeed, Margaret’s an iconic force, a gifted politician. I never met the woman personally but nevertheless it saddens me of her passing.

  16. Wow, what a great experience. I would have loved to meet her too even though she has been vilified by many. For me personally, I’ve always been impressed by how uncompromising she was in the face of so much criticism. She really believed in what she was doing and it’s a trait that I find lacking in so many politicians today. Of course, I don’t necessarily agree with everything she’s done but I still think she was impressive. Thanks for sharing!

  17. The perception of Mrs. Thatcher that we carry is of being the only ‘man’ in her cabinet. She was a great visionary and a true leader who came at a crucial juncture for Britain and led it successfully. There are some uncanny similarity I find in today’s India and there is a strong leader who is rising against the tide. Hope Mr. Narendra Modi is successful in his endeavor and recalled 30 years from now in similar style.

  18. A comment about why MT approached you specifically. From the info in your blog you’re a thinker. I believe this is visible in an individuals countenance. I’m involved in many book signings and find I can evaluate whether individuals are candidates to buy a book by what I see in their eyes and face. Readers are thinkers. Those “TV people” have a glazed-over quality on their countenance. Public figures become expert at that same evaluation. Ms Thatcher simply made that decision.

  19. I wish there were more stories of personal interactions with Lady Thatcher. She was truly marvelous leader and really cared that people get up and live with dignity.

  20. Your piece is well written and drew me in. However, I must add that whilst she made a lasting impact on you of one kind, she left quite another lasting impact on the UK. We are still feeling the effects now, not least in the way she ripped the heart out of our society and made even greater the divide between rich and poor.

  21. Very engaging post you wrote about Lady Thatcher. What I respect about her was the courage to follow through with her convictions and she was a very strong woman. You showed the human side of Lady Thatcher and it would be nice if there were more stories like this in the media right now instead of focusing on the controversy and what people did not like about her. I read one story of two young girls going up to her at a public event after she was out of office. Lady Thatcher asked them what they want to be when they grow up and they said, ” Prime Minister”. That in my opinion is Lady Thatcher’s legacy and one that should be more focused on.

    • Dear Susie – Thank you for your comment. I had hoped to give readers a different perspective on a leader that people feel so passionately about from both sides. I especially appreciate you sharing the story of those two little girls. Whether she intended to or not she did make a lasting impact on women in politics. I appreciate your thoughts.

  22. A well written post and thoughtful. I don’t wish to be rude and ruin your story but I don’t think everybody has the same opinion of her. I remember the riots and her wrecking thousands of lives of minors and printers. I was a printer and worked an apprenticeship for four years to earn my money at the time. With her actions people walked into the same job as I was doing one the same money unable to do the job with the skills required. I wish her no harm and she did a great job in the Falklands War. It’s a shame there are Thatcher Parties taking place. She was bloody minded and it was required at the time. A great woman no less to you and many others.
    A great post and thought provoking.

    • Dear Mart – Thank you for your kind compliment. You did not ruin my story, I sincerely appreciate your respectful and thoughtful comments on Lady Thatcher. Good luck to you.

  23. I too am a Northern British woman and I love your piece, I was no great fan of Lady Thatcher, but as a mother of five girls I had to point out the importance of voting and how it was possible to remove the glass ceiling for women in power and Lady Thatcher was the perfect example of a professional woman,regardless of her politics!
    You have shown us her humanity, thank you for sharing,I was moved to write a poem on her death,with a follow up poem the next day as I watched the news coverage in disgust! you can read them here: http://gwalshwhiteside.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-death-of-the-iron-lady/
    http://gwalshwhiteside.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/this-is-not-one-ladys-legacy/

    Thank you for writing such a positive story about a once great Lady. G.W.W.

    • You are welcome. I enjoyed writing it and it is always wonderful to read comments such as yours. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It sounds like your five girls are in good hands!

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  25. Thank you for sharing a positive review of Lady Thatcher. Being in the UK right now is not much fun as there is an awful lot of hate and raw emotion being exposed in a way that is probably not going to be beneficial to anyone long term.

  26. Nicely written and a striking contrast to what has been happening on Twitter and Facebook. I was trying to raise a family in the years before Maggie took over the reins and I owe her a personal debt for getting a grip on, what was then, a failing nation.

    The sad fact is that no one who followed her had an ounce of her conviction and drive and wasted her inheritance. That’s why we are in the state we’re in now.

    No one is perfect, least of all a politician, but she was as close to it as I’m ever likely to see in what is left of my life.

  27. Great post but Im not sure you can call a woman who orders the attack of a retreating ship kind? Thatcher was instrumental in the gulf war and found friendship with dictators such as Pinochet. She was also against the apartheid.
    Authoritarian is a better word for her. Megalomaniac is another.
    What’s interesting about your story is that it sounds like she spent most of the evening talking about politics which confirms my fear that people who get to positions of power or fame have got there by being completely singleminded and obssessive about their chosen interest. In my view that is not a particulary good trait.

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    • Dear Robert – Thank you for sharing. Your essay was enlightening and honest. It makes me ask the unanswerable question: what GB would have been like today without her years as PM? Would be interesting to play out the potential scenarios if things had gone differently in 1979.

      • As “what if” questions go, that’s the Grand-daddy of them all, the $64,000 one. Who could hazard a guess? It might make a good plot for a thinking person’s alternate reality novel!

        Thank you very much for reading, and for your feedback. Happy writing!

  29. I had the opportunity to meet the “Iron Lady” several times when I was a young Marine Corps officer assigned to the security detail at the American embassy in England. I basically was always assigned to her whenever she was at the embassy and on several other occasions and over the course of the almost two years I was stationed there I actually developed a bit of a friendship with her. Even though she had a well deserved reputation of being “tough” and “cold” she was also kind and compassionate and she actually had a good sense of humor and she would jokingly tell people that she knew she was safe because of her “handsome American Marine” protecting her.
    My mother had breast cancer at the time and Mrs.Thatcher would always ask me how she was doing whenever she saw me and you could tell that she really cared that my mother had that “dreaded disease” as she called it. After almost two years at the embassy I received orders that I was being reassigned and would be returning to the states in a couple of weeks. About a week later I was told that the ambassador wished to speak to me. I had no idea why he wanted to speak to me so I went to talk to him. It turns out that Prime Minister Thatcher was having a formal state dinner for the visiting German Chancellor and a couple of other dignitarys the following night that the ambassador was going to attend and to my surprise (And his!) she requested that I also attend as one of her personal guest.
    So the following night I got all dressed up in my dress “blues” uniform and went to the dinner with the ambassador and his wife. The dinner was absolutely amazing! There were about three hundred people there and even though it was very formal in typically British fashion everybody was relaxed and very friendly. I was nervous at first and thought I was going to be out of place but as it turned out I met so many people who wanted to meet me just because I was a Marine and thank me and my fellow marines for our service and all the sacrifices that we had made all over the world through the years in order to fight injustice and for freedom everywhere.
    Anyhow, I was enjoying a drink and was talking to a dignitary from India and a couple of British politicians just before dinner when someone came up behind me and grabbed/held my hand and as I began to turn around to see who it is I hear “James my handsome Marine I am so glad you could make it.” Obviously it was Prime Minister Thatcher. We talked for a couple of minutes and then she had to go and greet/talk to some other guest before dinner began because that’s what politicians have to do. Dinner was incredible and afterwards everyone was enjoying some drinks, listening to the orchestra and talking. It was getting time to leave when a member of Prime Minister Thatchers security detail came up to me and told me that the Prime Minister wanted to speak to me and to follow him which I did. We left the ballroom went through a couple of doors up some stairs and down a long hallway until we reached a area that was guarded by several security team members.
    After a couple of passcodes were exchanged I was lead to a couple of double doors. My escort knocked on the door and exchange another passcode and then both doors opened up and there was Prime Minister Thatcher sitting on a couch with her shoes off relaxing with some of her friends and a couple of her aids. When she saw me she told me to come on over and have a seat next to her on the couch. She introduced me to her friends and then we talked for about six to seven minutes when she told one of her aids to give her a large envelop that he had in his briefcase. She handed it to me and told me to open it when I got back to the embassy. It was time to leave and I reached out to shake her hand and instead she gave me a brief hug with a gentle pat on my back and said goodbye.
    When I got back to the embassy I went to my quarters and opened the envelope and inside there was a picture of her and I together that she had signed and a hand written note saying how much she enjoyed meeting/knowing me, thanking me for my service, telling me to take good care of my mother as she battles that “dreaded disease” and telling me that I had a very bright/good future ahead of me and she ended it with a quote that read “In the end it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years!”
    I was a twenty five year old kid when I experienced all this and it almost feels surreal when I think back on the whole experience. The whole world knows her as the “Iron Lady” the Prime Minister of England but I know her as a kind and compassionate lady who had a very positive impact on my life and I truly feel honored to have known her.

    P.S. I am sorry this turned out to be such a long reply to your wonderful article.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story! I really enjoyed reading it and am happy that you had such a rewarding interaction with Lady Thatcher. Also, thank you so much for your service to our country. God bless you.

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