Whatever view historians eventually take of Margaret Thatcher, one thing can never be taken away from her. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister. She was also one of the first female leaders anywhere in the world to reach the highest office by her own efforts, in competition with male rivals, rather than as the widow or daughter of a former leader. Thatcher was a true pioneer and trail-blazer, not only for women politicians, but for women in all professions who have learned to juggle work and family responsibilities: she won the Tory leadership, appropriately, the year that Shirley Conran published Superwoman.
One has only to look back at those formal cabinet photographs, with the prime minister seated in the centre, flanked by her male colleagues—she only ever had one other woman in her cabinet, Janet Young for less than two years—to be reminded that she was quite simply different. Over 11 years we got so used to her difference that it came to seem quite natural. There were stories of young children asking their parents “Can a man be a prime minister?” and the parents almost having to think twice before replying. Once we had got used to the novelty—which happened very quickly—it made a sort of natural sense for the prime minister to be a woman and all her colleagues men. The way the office has developed in this century, the British prime minister is a different order of being from his colleagues, no longer primus inter pares but much more the spider at the centre of the web, or the queen bee served by her workers.
Once she had attained the premiership her sex was an almost unqualified source of strength to Mrs Thatcher, which she consciously and skilfully exploited. On the way up it was arguably a different story. As an undergraduate politician she was excluded from the Oxford Union. As an aspiring candidate she faced the reluctance of Conservative Associations in the 1950s to adopt a young mother for a winnable seat; and once at Westminster she suffered the patronising gallantry of men who took it for granted that a woman could only hope to rise so far. But none of these held her back for very long. She still became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association; she won adoption for Finchley in time for the 1959 election; and she was the first member of that Tory intake to win promotion. She then benefitted from the perceived need to have a token women in the shadow cabinet, and later the cabinet. On balance such prejudice as she encountered did her more good than harm. If she had to work twice as hard as male rivals to put herself in a position to challenge them, it was precisely that experience which made her so formidable when she did challenge them.
There were at least three clear advantages in being a woman prime minister which Thatcher was able to exploit. First, the mere fact of being the only woman, particularly on the world stage, made her the star of every summit she attended—the G7, European councils, bilateral meetings with kings and presidents. Mrs Thatcher loved being the star. She claims in her memoirs that she did some amateur acting as a girl, but there is no record of her taking part in plays: the truth is that she was a latent but frustrated actress who found her stage in politics. The playwright Ronald Millar not only helped to write her speeches, but directed her delivery of them: much of his success with her was that he treated her like the temperamental stars he was used to dealing with in his professional life. Though her own taste in clothes was conservative, not to say dowdy, Mrs Thatcher understood their iconographic power and was willing to be advised and moulded by her image makers—notably Gordon Reece—in a way that no man at that period would have tolerated for a moment. She was used to being judged on her appearance, as a man was not, and she made an asset of it.
Second, being a woman gave her a wider range of possible roles than is open to a man, to suit the political need of the moment. All politicians play roles, but the repertoire of female stereotypes is far more varied, sharper and more resonant than comparable male images. Thatcher’s repertoire comprised, with variations, five basic roles. In perhaps ascending order of importance, one can distinguish: the mother; the sexual woman; the housewife; the woman in authority—a broad category comprising the headmistress, nurse, nanny and other professional women; and the queen—particularly the warrior queen.
She was not very good at playing mother—the “milk snatcher” image established when she was education secretary was always stronger, and as prime minister she deliberately refused demands that she should show “compassion” for the poor, the homeless and the unemployed. Nevertheless she could play the role occasionally, when required—notably when her son Mark was lost in the Sahara; when “our boys” were at risk in the Falklands; and when visiting the victims of terrorist attacks or other disasters.
Moreover she was genuinely good at it in private. When members of her staff or colleagues had family difficulties or bereavements they always found her extraordinarily sympathetic and caring. “Whatever the demands of the diary,” Ronald Millar wrote, “when some disaster, national or personal, struck she would ignore, cancel or postpone her commitments and rush to the side of whoever was in distress.”
Likewise the flirtatious sexual woman was very definitely not part of her public image; but she could turn it on in private with devastating effect on susceptible male colleagues. People who met her for the first time, knowing only her public persona, were frequently surprised at how fragile, feminine and even sexy she could appear. Several of her colleagues and courtiers have admitted to finding her disturbingly attractive—not only self-conscious lotharios like Alan Clark and Woodrow Wyatt, but others too.
Much more central to her repertoire was the practical housewife. To the despair of feminists, she positively embraced and exploited this image both in speeches and in interviews with women’s magazines, as she had done from her first days in politics as a candidate in Dartford and Finchley. Knowing that it would otherwise be turned to her disadvantage, she early on decided to make it an asset, pretending to be much more of an ordinary housewife than she really was, emphasising that as a woman she knew about prices in the shops (unlike a man) and knew from personal experience how economic policies affected people in their daily lives; that she would run the national budget like a household budget, thriftily and efficiently, spending only what the country could afford and being sure to get value for money from public spending; that she could clean up the mess left by previous governments; and finally that she, as a housewife and mother (as well as running a full-time career), was used to juggling her time and doing six things at once (unlike a poor one-dimensional man). In 1982 she specifically compared running the Falklands war with running a household, boasting that “every woman is a manager twenty-four hours a day.”
The homely imagery of housewife economics was a brilliant way of making the harsh and theoretical doctrine of monetarism politically acceptable: no man could have made controlling the money supply sound so much like common sense. Another way of administering nasty medicine to the electorate was by playing nurse or Doctor Thatcher. “After any major operation,” she told the country in a party political broadcast in 1980 as both inflation and unemployment soared, “you feel worse before you get better. But you don’t refuse the operation when you know that without it you won’t survive.”
This image did not have to be popular to be effective. The novelist Julian Barnes shifted it subtly from nurse to nanny in looking forward gloomily, after the 1983 election, to another four years of “cold showers, compulsory cod liver oil, the fingernail inspection and the doling out of those vicious little pills which make you go when you don’t want to.” But all these images of professional women helped reinforce Mrs Thatcher’s authority by associating her with figures whom men—with memories of childhood—were used to obeying. These were on the one hand moralistic images, drawing on a woman’s authority in matters of right behaviour; but they were also disciplinarian images, associated with women in uniform—which also merged into images of spanking, bondage and torture, the dominant woman disciplining her willing male slaves. The amateur Freudian Labour MP Leo Abse wrote of public school-educated Tory MPs voting for the cane in 1975 and devoted a whole chapter to what he saw as the “sado-masochistic affair” between Mrs Thatcher and the electors; and Denis Healey called her economic policy “sado-monetarism.” Consciously or unconsciously, this image played its part in Thatcher’s hold on the imagination of at least half the nation.
Finally there are the regal images, both historical and mythical. First there were the ancient or mythical warrior queens like Britannia and as Boadicea. This was an image which took hold particularly during the Falklands War. Marina Warner in her book Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form has shown how a particular front-page of the Sun in June 1982—a few days before the re-conquest of Port Stanley—helped to establish her identification with Britannia, and how Mrs Thatcher then moved on to adopt an existing iconography of female patriotic heroines, notably Elizabeth I and (less often) Queen Victoria. Julian Critchley irreverently dubbed her “the Great She-Elephant”; and Private Eye called her “The Supreme Ruler of the Universe.” These epithets all evoked a powerful combination of wilful, quixotic femininity with absolute power which helped to lend Thatcher an authority and a capacity to inspire fear that is not available to a male prime minister, however large his majority. Archetypal male tyrants—Stalin, Caligula, Idi Amin—are simply loathed, without the element of admiration that a powerful woman inspires in both sexes. Unfortunately there was little she could do to act these mythical roles. She did not mind playing the warrior in a modern context—think of the famous picture of her in a tank, wearing a headscarf (above).
The historical image she could play up to was Queen Elizabeth—the virgin queen, presiding over England’s greatest period of mercantile expansion and confidence, surrounded by her court of flatterers and buccaneers, all ready to do her bidding, all dependent on her favour. Until very near the end this was all good myth-making propaganda, which she exploited brilliantly. But in the real world she also usurped Elizabeth II’s role as the anointed embodiment of Britain, especially on her foreign tours. Being the same age and sex, but with real power and better dress sense, she easily eclipsed the Queen at her own game, so that children and foreigners came naturally to believe she was the Queen. She took to using the royal plural, not only when it could be explained as a proper sharing of credit with her ministers, but when she was talking solely about herself. “When I first walked through that door”, she said in 1988, “I little thought that we would become the longest-serving Prime Minister of this century.” And unforgettably, “We are a grandmother”.
Of course there are hostile images of powerful women too: bossy, strident battleaxes and tweedy harridans, the nagging wife, or scold, the wicked witch. But these were somehow rendered harmless by being hallowed stereotypes. All these images of strong women, both positive and negative, had the effect of diminishing the men around her, so that they all appeared as wets, wimps, vegetables and creeps. As a woman, she was shamelessly able to boast of the superiority of women and the general uselessness of men, in a way that would have been quite unacceptable the other way round. “I just think that women have a special ability to cope,” she told Michael Aspel in 1984. All this praise of women, however, was essentially self-praise. She found very few others of her own sex worthy of promotion either within government or in the wider public service. Mrs Thatcher frankly did not like other women, and was jealous of any rival who might steal her limelight.
From her own point of view, then, Mrs Thatcher’s sex was almost pure advantage, which she exploited brilliantly to establish and maintain her political authority. But what of the country? How did the fact of being a woman affect her attitudes and performance as prime minister? What distinctive qualities did Margaret Thatcher bring, as a woman, to the government of the country? Here the verdict is more ambiguous.
First, it has to be said that she did not bring to politics that gift for human sympathy which is generally—perhaps sentimentally—held to be specifically feminine. Mrs Thatcher did not in any way feminise politics. She did nothing, except by example, to assist or attract other women into politics; nor did she do much specifically to improve the lot of women in general, for example by increasing childcare provision for working mothers. Instead, she increasingly told women—contrary to her own example—that their first duty was to stay at home and look after their children. She positively denied the possibility of a softer, more feminine style of politics by the way she prided herself on beating the men at their own game, being tougher and stronger than them, sending out the message that a woman could only get to the top by being thoroughly masculine, hard-headed and hard-hearted. She was happy to use specifically male language. As late as 1989 she treated her party conference to her vision of “Freedom that gives a man room to breathe … to make his own decisions and chart his own course.” She had no truck with political correctness or equal opportunities. “What has women’s lib ever done for me?” she once demanded; and she nursed a particular loathing for Elspeth Howe of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
The question of her sex was thrown into sharpest focus by the Falklands war. Mrs Thatcher was actually a more ruthless and bellicose war leader than most men would have been— certainly than any of the possible alternative prime ministers around her. Precisely because she had no military experience—and little imagination—she was less inhibited than her male colleagues by the horror of war. Willie Whitelaw, Peter Carrington, Francis Pym and most of her other senior ministers had all been in the second world war; even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who enraged her by praying for the Argentine war dead, had won the Military Cross. Certainly Thatcher wept for the British casualties and wrote letters of sympathy to their grieving mothers. But she saw a military job to be done and did not know what Britain maintained armed forces for unless to do it. Because she had no military experience, she let the professionals get on with it, without political interference, to a greater extent than most male prime ministers would have done, and as she herself would have done with no other group of professionals (economists, teachers, lawyers, or even the police). So if it was right to fight the Falklands war at all, her sex actually made her an exceptionally good war leader.
But there is a wider aspect to Thatcher’s lack of military experience, which goes to the heart of her political uniqueness in her generation. Her experience of the second world war was fundamentally different from that of any of her male contemporaries. While they were in Europe or North Africa or the Far East fighting, she was at school in Grantham and then at Oxford—doing her homework under the kitchen table while sheltering from air-raids, listening to Churchill’s famous broadcasts, following the war with little flags on maps, listening to the sound of American bombers flying from Lincolnshire air bases and witnessing the invasion of American airmen spending their leave and their dollars in Grantham. She had no brothers or friends fighting in the war, either; her father had not even fought in the first world war, having been medically unfit.
This sheltered experience of the war still fundamentally shaped her understanding of international relations forty years later. First, it shaped her negative view of the continental Europeans: they were all either wicked, intrinsically aggressive Germans who had to be stood up to and defeated; or else feeble and corrupt French, Italians and Belgians who had needed to be rescued by Britain and America in the war and could not be relied on now. These are crude stereotypes; but there is plentiful evidence that her private conversation was full of such scornful generalisations. Second, it shaped her positive view of the Americans as the generous soldiers of freedom and the leaders of the free world, the great ally from whom Britain should never be parted. Finally it gave her an essentially romantic and heroic view of war. All her life she retained a more positive view of war as a means of defending moral causes than most of her contemporaries—or the national service generation which came after her—could often bring themselves to feel.
This was the big difference between Thatcher and all the men around her, beside which other differences are trivial. It was a huge difference of political outlook, and one which was specifically attributable to her sex.
A version of this article was originally published in Telling Lives: From WB Yeats to Bruce Chatwin, edited by Alistair Horne