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.
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.