The Path to Power

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Path to Power is the second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs, even though it covers the early years of her life from her birth until she became prime minister of Great Britain in 1979. Although it contains considerably more information about her private life than the first volume did, it is primarily an account of how she entered politics and became a successful politician.

Thatcher’s career has drawn much comment because she overcame two important barriers to rise to the top of British politics: She was female and she was of humble origin. Her father, Alfred Roberts, owned a small grocery store in Grantham, England, and Margaret and her sister grew up in the rooms above the shop. Thatcher claims that the economic ideas for which she became famous later in her life were learned as a child as she watched her father conduct his business. Thatcher was deeply influenced by her father, a local politician who eventually became mayor of Grantham. Thatcher stresses the poverty of her home life but acknowledges that the family had a maid and that her father had sufficient money to finance her education at a private girls’ secondary school and at the University of Oxford.

Perhaps the first important turning point in her career came in 1943, when Thatcher became a student at Oxford. The significance of her time at Oxford did not involve academic achievement: She had not been offered a scholarship, and she was graduated with a second-class degree in chemistry. Much more important was her involvement in student political life. Although she had been reared as a Liberal, she joined the Oxford University Conservative Association. Thatcher became its president during her final year, even though she was denied the experience of debating in the Oxford Union because women were not permitted to become members. Being active in the Conservative Association enabled her to meet many top Conservative politicians and to form friendships with people who would later help advance her political career.

Thatcher gives credit to her husband, Denis, for important assistance in her rise to the top of British politics. They met in 1949 when she was a parliamentary candidate, but it was not love at first sight. It was difficult for them to date because his Saturdays were committed to rugby football and hers to political meetings. Yet he became an asset to her political career in several respects. Thatcher states that when they married in 1952, Denis knew as much about politics as she did and much more about economics. Perhaps even more important, he was a wealthy man; marriage to him meant that Thatcher could focus her energy on her political career. It also meant that she could combine motherhood with a political life, because she could afford a nanny for the children and a servant to help with housework.

Much of the interest in Thatcher’s life has stemmed from the fact that she was the first woman prime minister in Great Britain. This was a considerable accomplishment, not least because the Conservative Party and the House of Commons were both very masculine institutions. Thatcher says little about the gender stereotypes and male prejudice she had to overcome. Surprisingly, she is much more candid about how she benefited from being female. She admits that when she was first adopted as a Conservative Party candidate in 1949, it was partly because she was a woman and the party expected to receive favorable publicity from selecting a female candidate. After being elected to the House of Commons in 1959, Thatcher rose rapidly to high office; she acknowledges that being female was an important reason for her unusually quick advancement. She had been in the House of Commons for only a year when she was appointed parliamentary secretary to the ministry of pensions. Thatcher states that she was appointed because the post had previously been held by a woman and it was the convention that women should occupy a certain proportion of government positions. The same factor contributed to her later promotions to the shadow cabinet and then to the cabinet in 1970.

Thatcher was never a member of the women’s movement and had little interest in women’s groups. She has little to say about the efforts by feminists to make it possible for women to have opportunities to be active in public life. When she does mention feminism, it is usually in a critical way, as when she claims that feminists were responsible for diminishing the common courtesies that were formerly shown toward women. Given her lack of interest in the...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)