How to ‘lean in’, Margaret Thatcher style

April 10, 2013

By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death at the start of this week has temporarily interrupted the coverage of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s new book: ‘Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead.’  However, Margaret Thatcher could be seen as one of the pioneers of ‘leaning in’, doing so some 60 years before Sandberg’s book was published.

Margaret Thatcher (love or loathe her) was not just a formidable political force, but she also managed to ascend to the highest echelons of the political establishment with two children in tow and nurture a marriage, all in an era when it was completely normal for women to give up any career that they had at the first flash of an engagement ring.

In contrast, Margaret Thatcher met her future husband, Denis, at a dinner following her adoption as a Conservative candidate for Dartford, Kent. She was allowed to become a candidate even though she wasn’t on the official list because the Conservative Association was so impressed with her work as a representative of the University Graduate Conservative Association. Talk about lean in – she left a good job to pursue this opportunity to get into politics and found another so she could work full time as a research chemist and support herself.

As a married woman In the early 1950’s she ran for the Dartford seat, the youngest and the only female candidate in the election, losing both times in this Labour heartland. These knocks didn’t shatter her political ambitions, neither did having twins in 1953 who were born 6-weeks premature.  Prior to giving birth she qualified as a barrister with a specification in tax law. After a short hiatus she returned to politics in 1955, and was elected as an MP in 1959 for the North London suburb of Finchley at 34, while her two children were just six years’ old.

Although still extremely young to become an MP, she had spent the best part of a decade working through the Conservative Party ranks and winning over her detractors. This is exactly what Sandberg advocates in her book: women should stick at work, and not see marriage and children as an impediment to their careers. Sandberg is also a true believer in equal partnership in marriage, with both partners doing their share of the household duties so that both careers can thrive. Margaret and Denis Thatcher are a good example of this. While I have no idea if Denis did his fair share of the washing up or if he dropped the kids to school each day, he was a fine example of a man who stood beside his wife and her ambition, acting as the ever-loving husband.

This, no doubt, helped her career to thrive. In the 1960’s Thatcher was promoted to the front bench and then made it to the cabinet in 1970, before taking the leadership of the Conservative party in 1975 and then the ultimate prize, becoming prime minister, in 1979.

The rest is UK political history that I don’t have to go into. Regardless of whether you like her politics, there are some things women who aspire to get to the top can learn from Thatcher: 1, staying power even in the face of adversity and sometimes failure. 2, career and motherhood can happen simultaneously and you shouldn’t lose your ambition just because you have brought children into the world. 3, it is not just the work/ family questions that women have to answer, Thatcher shows that women have to make canny career choices from the start if they are to get to the top. 4, To succeed, you must be single minded and this means sacrifice. And 5, to succeed you can’t be afraid to position yourself outside of cultural norms and social circles, and you should not feel guilty for pursuing a less-travelled path. This can be tough, but you must not bow to social pressure if you want to succeed.

In many ways Thatcher is still a cultural anomaly. There hasn’t been a female prime minister, or even a candidate for the role in the UK, since she left office.  This fact is depressing, but if successful women are to become the norm and not the exception then we need more women to show the same spirit and commitment to their careers as Margaret Thatcher did throughout her lifetime.

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