"The Iron Lady" is a nickname most commonly associated wth former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but it has been applied to a variety of other female heads of state throughout the 20th century. It contrasts two traditionally opposite ideas; the harsh, unyielding strength of iron and the stereotypically calm gentleness of femininity.

As is often indicated, the title is often earned by demonstrating strong will and determination, usually to the point of drawing ire from both critics and counterparts.

The relationship to the term "iron maiden" should also be noted; while "iron lady" has come to define a woman of great determination, strong will and iron-clad principle, it was (as will be explained later) not originally intended as a positive label.

Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher was first dubbed the Iron Lady on January 24, 1976 by the Soviet Red Army newspaper, the Red Star. The paper was covering a speech she had given at Kensington Town Hall on January 20, 1976 wherein she criticized the USSR and communism when it first referred to her as the Iron Lady. It was not intended as a compliment. Some have even speculated that the Soviet newspaper had intended to allude to the iron maiden, being a torture device.

Despite the USSR's intention of villifying her (and, perhaps, because of it), Thatcher took great delight in the nickname. She would make both explicit and implicit references to it in subsequent speeches, including her famous declaration "the lady's not for turning." She would also poke fun at it and embrace it at another event a mere seven days after the speech that spawned it, saying:

"I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world. A cold war warrior, an amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter…  Yes I am an iron lady, after all it wasn't a bad thing to be an iron duke, yes if that's how they wish to interpret my defence of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life."

The most recent of her references to the label came earlier this year when a bronze statue of her likeness was unveiled at the British parliament buildings.

"I might have preferred iron, but bronze will do. And I do hope the head will stay on this time."

The second part of that statement was a reference to a marble statue of her at a London town hall that was decapitated by a protester.

Despite the fact that it may have been used to describe other prominent women before Thatcher, ask anyone who the Iron Lady is and they'll most likely tell you it's Maggie.

Indira Gandhi
There is little evidence to suggest that Gandhi was ever actually called the Iron Lady during her lifetime (if anyone can correct me on this, do it). She is often referred to by this name, or by the more descript "Iron Lady of India" in biographical documents. Other sources refer to her as the "original Iron Lady," perhaps as a reference to the fact that she predated Thatcher as prime minister.

Golda Meir
Certain sources, including the BBC claim that Meir was being described as Israel's Iron Lady long before the Red Star newspaper conferred the "title" on Thatcher. Other sources dispute this. While Meir was undoubtedly one of the figures more commonly referred as the Iron Lady, a Google search for her name and the term bring up 1,900 results. This is less than the 2,700 results for "Indira Gandhi" and "Iron Lady," and certainly less than the staggering (and expected) 82,000 results for "Margaret Thatcher" and "Iron Lady."

Other variations
Over the course of the 20th century -- and especially since the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher -- variations on "the Iron Lady" have been used to describe other female political and public figures. In Canada, for instance, former New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough has been described as "the Iron Angel." Former U.S. secretary of state Madeline Albright has been described as "the Titanium Lady." Imelda Marcos was "the Iron Butterfly," and so on.

The term has also been used to describe German chancellor Angela Merkel, partially because she has been compared to Thatcher for a number of reasons (particuarly her centre-right politics). While it hasn't caught on, the label has also been used to describe U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (mostly by supporters). Chinese politician Wu Yi has also been called the "Iron Lady."

http://www.freeindiamedia.com/ book_review/25_may_book_review.htm