LONDON - Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister and uncompromisingly conservative "Iron Lady" of the 1980s, has died. She was 87.
She died following a stroke.
"We've lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton," Prime Minister David Cameron said.
Thatcher suffered a series of minor strokes in recent years. She rarely appeared in public after doctors forbade her from talking to large groups in 2002 for health reasons. But she continued to meet and dine privately with old friends in recent years who guarded details of her health and condition.
Thatcher was one of the most recognizable political figures of the second half of the 20th century. She was a political soulmate of conservative U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with whom she stood shoulder to shoulder against communism in the twilight decade of the Cold War.
Her free-market policies rolled back decades of state socialism in Britain and ushered in what her fellow "Thatcherite" conservatives say was an era of prosperity that endured until recently.
"She would be one of the major figures of the 20th century as far as Britain and British politics are concerned," Roger Duclaud-Williams, who had lectured on politics at England's University of Warwick and was an expert in the welfare state, said in 2008. "She was strongly anti-Soviet and anti-communist. She altered the nature of British politics. A lot of people feel the strength of the (British) economy is due to her."
With her bouffant hairdo, ever-present handbag and high voice, "Maggie" Thatcher offered a radical break with the past for a nation that had strong queens but never elected a female prime minister before she took office in 1979.
By the time she left the post in 1990 after three consecutive terms, she was Britain's longest-serving prime minister and Britain's most recognizable leader after Winston Churchill. A biographical film in 2011 starring Meryl Streep brought her life story to many who had never known her.
"She was in office for a long time," Declaud-Williams said. "There are few prime ministers who have done as much."
Thatcher never questioned that a woman could lead the nation, and never doubted Britain's role as a force in the world. She held power as resolutely as a Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria.
"In politics," she once said, "if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman."
To get what she wanted, she could alternately play a various roles for which foes would dub her a regal "Her Magggiesty," a scolding nanny or "Attila the Hen."
Her most enduring nickname was "Iron Lady," given to her by the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star after she criticized Moscow in a 1976 speech for being bent on world domination.
The Iron Lady was the title of the 2011 film that depicted Thatcher's political life and for which actress Meryl Streep won the Academy Award for Best Actress for portraying her.
The nickname applied to her unalterable stand on many issues: free-market capitalism, a strong defense and pro-American policies. She seemed to relish it.
"If you lead a country like Britain, a strong country, a country which has taken a lead in world affairs in good times and in bad, a country that is always reliable, then you have to have a touch of iron about you," she said.
Thatcher allowed the United States to base nuclear cruise missiles at British bases and backed U.S. deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe. But When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced greater openness in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, she greeted the change warmly and branded Gorbachev a man the West could "do business with." She was able to witness the collapse of communism before leaving office.
Her relationship with Reagan went beyond ardent anti-communism. She shared his conservative, free-market economic ideas and an inherent distrust of government.
She is most remembered on the domestic front for replacing socialist economic policies with her brand of free enterprise in an effort to halt continuing economic decline. It also made her a divisive figure in Britain up to her death.
"She was certainly divisive at the time," Declaud-Williams said. "She wasn't afraid to do the unpopular thing. Some say she even reveled in it."
She cut taxes, sold off government-owned industry and broke the hold of trade unions on major sectors of the British economy. In 1985, she crushed a major strike by miners protesting the closings of coal pits, from which the labor movement has never recovered.
Conservatives say her free-market policy - later subsequently embraced by Labor Party prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - paved the way for Britain's prosperity and positioned it for greater global competitiveness until current recessionary times.
In January 2008, then-Conservative Party leader and now Prime Minister David Cameron said Thatcher's actions had rescued Britain "from economic disaster" and dispelled the notion that its leaders could only "manage decline gracefully."
The left, however, says she drove people out of work, making unemployment its worst in 50 years and undercutting the fabric of society in a new celebration of greed.
"Her 11 1/2 and a half years in Downing Street were probably the most divisive years of the post-war era," The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper, wrote in 1999 in a 20-year reflection of her taking office. "Greed seemed to replace compassion as a core value."
Thatcher revived a sense of pride and British military might by sending troops to the Falklands after Argentina invaded the Latin American islands in 1982. Victory came in two months, and her popularity soared with it.
She survived the closest assassination attempt on a British prime minister in 1984. She barely escaped injury when an IRA// bomb exploded at her hotel at the Conservative Party's annual meeting in Brighton in southern England. The room next to her's was badly damaged.
One of her last acts as prime minister was to prod President George H.W. Bush to deploy troops to the Persian Gulf after to drive Saddam Hussien's Iraqi army invaded Kuwait in 1990. out of Kuwait, which it invaded in 1990. In her memoirs, she recounted that her advice to Bush was, "This was not time to go wobbly." Britain was among the 34 nation-coalition to send troops.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born Oct. 13, 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, in England's East Midlands. She was the second daughter of a grocer and local conservative official.
She studied chemistry at Oxford, where she was president of the Student Conservative Association. Chemistry eventually took a backseat to politics. She ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as the youngest female candidate in the country in 1950 and again in 1951.
She married Denis. Thatcher, a successful businessman, in 1951. They had twins in 1953: daughter Carol and son Mark. Sir Mark Thatcher later proved a source of embarrassment for, among other things, being implicated in a 2004 unsuccessful coup in Equatorial Guinea.
Denis Thatcher, however, was a popular figure for his sense of humor, which came in handy serving as the first male spouse to live at No. 10 Downing Street, home to British prime ministers. He died in 2003.
She became a lawyer in 1954 and was elected to the House of Commons in 1959. When Conservative Edward Heath became prime minister in 1970, he named her education secretary. Thatcher often found herself shouted down at campus speeches during those radical student days. She later said the experience helped toughen her.
After the Conservatives were defeated in 1974, Thatcher challenged Heath for the party leadership and won. Voters returned the Conservatives to power in 1979, and Thatcher became prime minister.
Controversial policies - including a per-head "poll" tax in place of local council taxes and her opposition to greater unification with Europe - split the Conservative Party. In November 1990, she agreed to step down and be replaced as prime minister by party leader John Major.
In 1992, she left the House of Commons and moved to the House of Lords after being named Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
In an age of feminism, Thatcher didn't embrace women's liberation in her rise to power. She was comfortable as "Mrs. Thatcher," "Lady Thatcher," "Prime Minister Thatcher" or "Baroness Thatcher." Nor did she have to invoke her power to remind men that she had it.
"Being powerful is like being a lady," she said. "If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."
By Jeffrey Stinson and Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY