Deadlier than the male?

The Spectator, 1975

Of all the bouquets and brickbats tossed at Mrs Thatcher this week, the most incendiary came in the House of Commons. In the sort of speech that strips the paint from the walls, Glenda Jackson excoriated the Thatcher governments for the ‘social, economic and spiritual damage’ they had inflicted on the country. Mrs Thatcher, she acknowledged, was ‘the first prime minister of female gender’. ‘But a woman? Not on my terms’.

It was an extraordinary line of attack – but hardly unique. Throughout the 1980s, the satirical sketch show, Spitting Image, routinely portrayed Thatcher as a man: dressed in a suit and tie, using the gents’ toilets and boasting a luxuriously hairy chest. Her supporters in Cabinet always looked on her as ‘one of the boys’, while the Carlton Club – which barred women from full membership until 2008 – made an exception for Thatcher as an "honorary man". For others, by contrast, she seemed all too luxuriantly female. Profiles acclaimed her ‘femininity’ and ‘sex appeal’, while at least one resignation letter paid gushing tribute to her femininity. ‘I admire you as a Woman!’, wrote John Nott. ‘Your instinctive approach to so many issues, so very unmasculine, is the secret of your success’.

But does it really matter that Thatcher was a woman – or even the first woman in high political office? Thatcher herself seemed majestically uninterested. Her rise to the leadership, she insisted, was ‘not a victory for women. It is a victory for someone in politics’. When invited to reflect on Emmeline Pankhurst and the campaign for women's suffrage, she simply ignored the question. ‘I owe everything’, she declared, ‘to my father’.

Yet Thatcher's public image - and her hold on the public imagination - were inseparable from her gender. She was the 'Iron Lady', 'the Grocer's Daughter', 'the Leaderene' and 'That Bloody Woman'. Her class identity, the language she used to shape her politics and the language in which others described her were all understood in female terms. The political woman, of course, was an exotic species: when Thatcher became leader, there were just 27 female MPs. They even had a room in Parliament, thoughtfully supplied with an iron, an ironing board and a chintz sofa.

The election of a woman to the Tory leadership seems to have deprived many of her colleagues of their faculties. Visiting the new leader, one colleague was ‘moved to tears by the sight of a small, slight and rather vulnerable woman, getting down to her first day of work’. To Ronald Millar, who wrote many of her speeches, she seemed ‘young and vulnerable and pretty and scared. I felt suddenly protective’. Geoffrey Howe, who had wanted the leadership for himself, was another who found himself reaching for the tissues. Thatcher, he recorded, looked ‘beautiful - and very frail, as the half-dozen knights of the shire towered over her. It was a moving, almost feudal occasion, as this overwhelmingly male gathering dedicated themselves to the service of this remarkable woman’. Foreign leaders were no less captivated. Thatcher, thought Mitterand, had ‘the eyes of Caligula; but the lips of Marilyn Monroe’.

All this must have been rather tiresome, but it said less about Thatcher than about the expectations and prejudices of her time. Confronted with unfamiliar material, there is a natural tendency to organize it by established typologies. We think of David Cameron as "an Etonian" and Ed Miliband as "an intellectual", and pretend that this tells us something about their politics. The problem, with Thatcher, was that she fitted none of the established images of leadership. She was not a soldier, a king, a bishop or a sportsman. She was neither an officer nor a gentleman, and she did not look or sound like any previous party leader. So commentators drew instead on a gallery of female 'types': the bossy headmistress and the sultry temptress; the prudent housewife and the Tory grande dame. Thatcher could be Boadicea or Joan of Arc; Mata Hari or Dame Edna Everage. Everything was filtered through these feminine images.

Thatcher understood this, having spent a lifetime battling preconceptions of what a woman could and could not do. As she put it in 1978, 'Women are tired of being patronised and condescended to. We are bored by being considered as a curious and endangered species'. Her response, however, was not to repudiate these stereotypes but to manipulate them to her advantage. Like a skilled actress, she learned to play a variety of roles – and her capacity to switch between them confused and wrong-footed her opponents. As the occasion required, she could be a flirt, a scold, a headmistress or a housewife; vulnerable in one breath and indomitable in another. Her opponents never acquired the same fluidity of approach. Ministers complained that they had been taught not to argue with a woman; interviewers doubted whether it was "the form" to interrupt a lady. Neil Kinnock, who truly despised Mrs Thatcher, could never attack her without feeling ‘caddish’ - suggesting a delicacy of feeling that she rightly declined to reciprocate.

Thatcher's most effective role was as Britain's housewife-in-chief. She had a talent for expressing complex economic messages in simple, household terms. It took ‘a housewife’, she argued, ‘to see that Britain’s national housekeeping is appalling’; for ‘every housewife knows that one man’s wage increase was another man’s price increase’. She used shopping baskets to show the effects of inflation; spoke as a mother about the dangers of drugs and pornographic literature; and appealed to the wives and daughters of trade unionists to avert the menace of strikes. Public spending, labour relations and privatisation were all, in her view, good housekeeping writ large.

One role she did not play was that of feminist. Thatcher came to the leadership just as second wave feminism was at its peak; yet she treated the movement with contempt. 'What has feminism ever done for me?' she asked. ‘Some of us were making it long before women’s lib was even thought of’. She mocked feminists as 'strident' and 'unfeminine', and accused the movement of having 'debased womanliness'. In 11 years as prime minister, she appointed only one woman to Cabinet and made no effort to promote female candidates. The magazine Spare Rib, which had cautiously welcomed her election, swiftly concluded that it could expect no ‘help from Thatcher on matters specific to women’.

Why was Thatcher so resistant to the feminist label? She clearly believed that women were at least the equal of men, and had shown by her own efforts that they could rise to political eminence. What she objected to in the second wave was partly its radical view of the family. She deplored attacks upon marriage, and continued to insist that a woman’s primary obligation was to her children. She made a point of cooking her husband’s meals, and accused feminists of denigrating the stay-at-home mother. Part of her appeal - especially to the married women who made up her core electorate - lay in the image she cultivated as a working parent: the housewife and mother who also happened to run the country.

At the same time she rejected the sociological premise of feminism, as she rejected the message of socialism. Thatcher's politics were founded on an unshakeable faith in personal endeavour. Anyone, she believed, could get on in life, so long as they had the guts and determination - and so long as the state and the trade unions did not get in their way. She refused to believe in structural disadvantage, whether of class, sex or race. To have done otherwise would have challenged her faith in the market as an open and meritocratic arena. She refused to accept that her education, her marriage or her husband's money, had played any role in her success. What women needed, she thought, wasn't feminism; it was character.

For feminists, then, Thatcher was a paradoxical figure. She had smashed the glass ceiling, they complained, only to pull up the ladder behind her. She had shown that women could thrive in the masculine world of politics, yet encouraged the notion that a woman's place was in the home. Feminists thus shared the frustrations of Glenda Jackson. Thatcher, they acknowledged, was the first 'prime minister of female gender'; and for that, they honoured her. But she was not a feminist 'on their terms'; and for that, they deplored her.

Reproduced from The Gladstone Diaries, May 2013