Margaret Thatcher and Leaning In: A Twenty-Something Thinks about Leadership and Power

“Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics, who set her country on a rightward economic course, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday in London. She was 87.” (The New York Times)

I found out that Margaret Thatcher died on Twitter during my Monday, “pause and reflect” moment in between grant proposals and answering emails. I wondered about it – how, when death arrives, we scramble to suddenly make sense of a life. People have written books about Margaret Thatcher, her leadership, her politics, her ideals and beliefs yet when we are faced with her death, we suddenly scramble for the right sentences and ideas to capture the essence of Margaret Thatcher. The article in the Times was about her politics; the BBC History site =, her place in 20th century Britain and world events; the Telegraph suggested she was a force, not only in politics, but in British economics and even culture. 

As the Times reminds us, “Mrs. Thatcher was the first woman to become prime minister of Britain and the first to lead a major Western power in modern times. Hard-driving and hardheaded, she led her Conservative Party to three straight election wins and held office for 11 years — May 1979 to November 1990 — longer than any other British politician in the 20th century.”

So I read these articles and I am inexplicably reminded that not long ago (in fact, just on Thursday), I was sitting in the Sanders Theater at Harvard University, listening to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of the new conversation starting (and controversy-inducing) book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. These two women are, in many ways, very different. One works in the private sector with a technology that was only invented a few years ago; the other served as her country’s political leadership during the Cold War and through Britain’s economic crisis in the 1980s. All the obituaries of Margaret Thatcher nod to the fact that she was the first woman to be prime minister in Britain; but most of the ones that I read focused far more on her agenda than her gender; her politics rather than the example she set for women with similar ambitions and aspirations.

 The title of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, suggests that the work ahead of women is to lean in: to say yes to opportunities for more responsibility, more opportunities, more promotion – to rid ourselves of internal barriers to pursue positions of power and influence.

The message is not one I’m unfamiliar with, as a young woman entering the workforce fresh out of college. The statistics are not necessarily new, the questions raised by bright Harvard and Boston College undergraduates at Ms. Sandberg’s talk at Harvard last week aren’t new (some are even eerily familiar). But as I thought about it this week, and the news of Lady Thatcher’s death popped up on my iPhone screen, my homepage, our newspapers… I could not help but wonder whether we are inadvertently asking people (maybe particularly women) to want leadership for its own sake. To have a corner office because that’s more powerful; to seek promotion because, gosh darn it, there aren’t enough women running things (and there aren’t enough!). I worry that in our push to get women to say yes and lean in that we aren’t wondering – for what purpose?

Isn’t it more important that Margaret Thatcher arrived in office with the intent to reverse Britain’s economic downturn, than that she arrived at all? Isn’t it more important that her ideas about the role of the state – “Monetarism, privatization, deregulation, small government, lower taxes and free trade — all these features of the modern globalised economy … crucially promoted as a result of the policy prescriptions she employed to reverse Britain’s economic decline” (The Telegraph) – were her priority in office, rather than which one she occupied

I want to pursue leadership. I am fearful that my desire for leadership isn’t for the pursuit of ideals, of policies, of justice; rather a scramble to be influential and assume the ideas will come to me later.  In light of Margaret Thatcher’s death, I feel compelled to think more what my ideas are and why I have them. What would I seek power for? What do I believe in as firmly as the Iron Lady?

Before leaning into anything, whether it appears to be powerful or not, shouldn’t we first feel called to a task, a set of ideas, a vision for justice?

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at and tweets at @hilarysherratt