Margaret Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom, died Monday after suffering a stroke at the age of 87. Thatcher, a feisty, dignified woman known for her unapologetic defense of freedom and free-markets, revived a languishing British economy and society in the mid-1980s. She also had a special relationship with Hillsdale College, home to the only statue of the Iron Lady in North America.
“Hillsdale College symbolizes everything that is good and true in America,” Thatcher wrote in a 2008 letter to the college. “You uphold the principles and cherish the values which have made your country a beacon of hope.”
“She was a friend of the college, and admired it very much,” College President Larry P. Arnn said. “She was also a friend of limited and constitutional rule that Hillsdale was built to support. She was a great defender of that.”
Arnn first met Thatcher in 1981 through Winston Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert. He visited Thatcher roughly a dozen times since then, sometimes with his wife, Penny.
During Britain’s infamous Winter of Discontent in 1979 as Thatcher came to power, the Arnns were living in England. Arnn recalls “watching her do the marvels that she did,” and said, “It was better than watching sports.”
But long before Arnn arrived on campus, Lady Thatcher visited Hillsdale College, delivering the final speech of the 1994 CCA on Christianity in the 20th century. She spoke about the moral foundations of the United States to an audience of 2,500 students, faculty, and community members. An abridged version of her speech, in which she said, “The price of freedom is still, and always will be, eternal vigilance,” appeared in a 1995 issue of Imprimis.
During that campus visit, she also visited elementary students at the Hillsdale Academy. Anna Leutheuser Dunham ’10 was a 6-year-old first grader at the Academy at the time, along with other future college alumni, including Jonathan Smith ’06 and Andrew Budd ’10. The students sang a song for her and presented her with flowers. Thatcher spent a night at the Dow Center.
In 2001, Thatcher spoke at an off-campus Hillsdale event in Florida, donning a bright, immaculate gold suit that was typical of Thatcher’s outspoken manner and style. Penny Arnn, meeting her for the first time, called her “stunning,” and said she was “elegant, kind, and gracious.”
Right before the speech, Thatcher pulled Larry Arnn aside and mentioned that she was nervous. A stunned Arnn remembers replying, “Ma’am, it’s unthinkable to me that could be true.” Penny Arnn agreed, noting that “her force pervaded this crowd of about 800 people.”
The “fearless, direct” Thatcher that Dr. Arnn remembers is consistent with her broader political legacy. She fought union bosses and Tory “wets” within her own party alike. Though the first woman to achieve her position of power, she forthrightly dismissed notions of shattered glass ceilings and female liberation.
“I owe nothing to Women’s Lib,” Thatcher said famously in a 1982 interview.
Claire Berlinski, author of “There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters,” and a speaker on the 2011 Hillsdale College cruise said, “She proved herself a rebuttal to several millennia’s worth of assumptions about women, power, and women in power.”
“For women now aspiring to power, there is history before Thatcher and history after; no woman in politics will ever escape the comparison,” Berlinski said.
But her legacy transcends her title as first-woman prime minister. Thatcher stood against socialism and communism, unwavering in her commitment to preserve free society.
“Thatcher’s hatred of socialism was ideological, but it was also personal: It was her country in decline,” Berlinski said.
In the days since her death, many have asked what America could learn from Thatcher’s statesmanship. “The U.S. desperately needs a Thatcher right now,” Professor of History Paul Rahe said. “She took a moribund political party and turned it into a force for the renewal of her country.”
“She is a great sign of hope,” Arnn said.
To honor her contributions, the college commissioned a statue of Thatcher as the third piece in its “Liberty Walk” series featuring founding fathers and other notable historical figures such as Winston Churchill. Sculptor Bruce Wolfe traveled to England to visit Thatcher for the project, which took him more than a year to complete. He visited her on a typically rainy day in London and was greeted by a machine-gun armed guard at her door. Wolfe spent about an hour with Thatcher, measuring and photographing her.
“I thought she was a sweetheart,” Wolfe said. “She was such an elegant human being.” Wolfe returned to the United States with a pair of Thatcher’s iconic Ferragamo heels to reference while he sculpted.
Thatcher planned to attend the statue dedication on campus in 2008, but was prevented by her health. She sent the college a letter expressing her appreciation and approval of the project. John O’Sullivan, former special adviser to Prime Minister Thatcher, delivered remarks on her behalf.
Larry and Penny Arnn last visited Thatcher in London in 2009. The group met at the Goring Hotel, one of her favorite places for lunch, where she was known and loved by the hotel staff. Over lunch she mentioned her late husband, Denis Thatcher, a successful oil executive.
Thatcher, famously devoted to her husband and their happy marriage, said of Denis that, “He was so lovely to come home to.”
On Monday morning, she went home to Denis forever.