On The Iron Lady


Two words, just two words: Meryl Streep. Given my frequent involvement in politics, I admit it certainly does relate. Margaret Thatcher was, of course, the only woman British Prime Minister, author of The Downing Street Years, The Path To Power, and Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, and finally, a good friend to President Ronald Reagan.


President Ronald Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and her husband, Denis Thatcher, at the White House (Some information on their relationship as world leaders).

According to The Telegraph article, “Margaret Thatcher: a feminist icon?,” Natasha Walter states the following:

Let’s start with Margaret Thatcher. No British woman this century can come close to her achievements in grasping power. Someone of the wrong sex and the wrong class broke through what looked like invincible barriers to reach into the heart of the establishment. Women who complain that Margaret Thatcher was not a feminist because she didn’t help other women or openly acknowledge her debt to feminism have a point, but they are also missing something vital. She normalised female success. She showed that although female power and masculine power may have different languages, different metaphors, different gestures, different traditions, different ways of being glamorous or nasty, they are equally strong, equally valid … No one can ever question whether women are capable of single-minded vigour, of efficient leadership, after Margeret Thatcher. She is the great unsung heroine of British feminism.”

Nothing I have ever written before or since has brought so much fury on my head. It was unacceptable then, as it seems to be now, for feminists to do anything but denounce Thatcher. Obviously Thatcher was no feminist: she had no interest in social equality, she knew nothing of female solidarity. I knew that then as I know it now; by the time I left school I was a veteran of protests that resounded to the chant of Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out. We should never forget her destructive policies or sanitise her corrosive legacy. But nor should we deny the fact that as the outsider who pushed her way inside, as the woman in a man’s world, she was a towering rebuke to those who believe women are unsuited to the pursuit and enjoyment of power. Girls who grew up when she was running the country were able to imagine leadership as a female quality in a way that girls today struggle to do. And for that reason she is still a figure that feminists would be unwise to dismiss.

In the same article, author Linda Grant is shown to have said the following:

Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party at the height of the women’s movement, yet she was completely apart from our campaigns, our passions and our identity. She was the middle-aged woman with the hats, the pearls, the teeth, the strangled high-pitched voice, and the policies which had nothing to do with equal pay for work of equal value, free abortion on demand or take back the night marches. Her freedom to run for office depended on the traditional accoutrements of a wealthy husband and getting the work of having two children out of the way in one pregnancy. Thatcher’s premiership was a wrong, contradictory note for feminism; we regarded her as a man dressed up in a skirt suit. Or a woman who used the traditional weapons of sex and flirting to get what and where she wanted. Perhaps she was ahead of her time and it needed Camille Paglia to understand her: she was one in a long line of powerful femme fatales like the Borgias or certain wives of Roman emperors who fused power with sex. Madonna in Downing Street.

But more prosaically, as much as feminists hated her because she had no solidarity with us, or with women for that matter – she was sui generis, for herself and of herself – there is no question that she was a role model. In the same way that after Obama it could no longer be said that America was so racist it would never elect a black president, Thatcher in Downing Street sent out a straightforward message to women that anything was possible.

The problem remains though that she was so completely unusual that no woman politician since has been remotely like her. I can’t think of anyone who, like Thatcher, is twice the man and twice the woman of any other MP.If she was representative of anyone, it wasn’t women but a group emerging in the early 80s who rejected class solidarity, knowing their place, and aspired instead: to home ownership, foreign holidays, private education, self-employment, and there were many women among them. She did a great deal to smash the ideas of class that prevailed in the 70s, but smash patriarchy? No.

Finally, in The Telegraph article, “Meryl Streep praises Margaret Thatcher as ‘figure of awe’,” Streep is to have said:

“It is hard to imagine a part of our current history that has not been affected by measures she put forward in the UK at the end of the 20th century,” wrote Streep. “To me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit. To have come up, legitimately, through the ranks of the British political system, class-bound and gender-phobic as it was, in the time that she did and the way that she did, was a formidable achievement.”

According to The New York Times review:

The best thing about “The Iron Lady” may be that viewers going into the theater with strong views, pro or con, about its subject, the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, are likely to emerge in a state of greater ambivalence, even confusion. Those who know or care little about her will also be confused, but for different reasons.

Let’s stick with the first group for the moment. Nearly anyone who was alive and reading newspapers — or listening to English-language pop music — in the Western world in the 1980s probably has an opinion about Mrs. Thatcher. To the ideological right she was a hero, even more than her friend Ronald Reagan, whereas the left saw her as a monster. There may have been some mixed feelings in the middle, but she herself had little use for such wishy-washiness, reserving special scorn for the “wet” and the “wobbly” on her own side.

Nor, if the film is to be believed — and it is, in its way, a credible enough portrait — did she have much patience for the discussion or display of feelings of any kind. When a doctor asks the aging Thatcher (played with brilliant slyness and sly brilliance by Meryl Streep) how she is feeling, he is answered with an impromptu lecture on the over-emotionalism of modern culture and a stout defense of the supreme importance of thinking. Ideas are what matter, she insists, and I suspect that a great many people of various ages and political inclinations would agree.

But it does not seem that Phyllida Lloyd, who directed “The Iron Lady,” and Abi Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, are among them. Though the film pays lip service to Mrs. Thatcher’s analytic intelligence and tactical shrewdness, its focus is on the drama and pathos of her personal life. In her dotage, watched over by professionally cheery minders, she putters about in a haze of half-senile nostalgia, occasionally drawn back into the glory and pain of the past.

Between flashbacks that trace her journey from modest beginnings — the phrase “grocer’s daughter from Grantham” is attached to her like a Homeric epithet — through the leadership of the Conservative Party and beyond, Thatcher is visited by the ghost of her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), and by her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman). Carol’s twin brother, Mark, unseen in the film, is far away in South Africa, his distance emphasizing his mother’s loneliness and isolation. Denis’s shade is genial, mischievous company, but also a reminder of what has been lost and what might have been.

All of this is touching to witness. Stiff legged and slow moving, behind a discreetly applied ton of geriatric makeup, Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person. Her portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher in power, while equally impeccable, is limited by the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career. “The Iron Lady” is, above all, the story of a widow and a half-abandoned mother who happened — didn’t you know? — to have been one of the most powerful and consequential women of the 20th century.

Would the life of a male politician be rendered this way? Is this an unfair question? It seems to me that Ms. Lloyd and Ms. Morgan try to have it both ways, to celebrate their heroine as a feminist pioneer while showing her to be tragically unfulfilled according to traditional standards of feminine accomplishment. On her first day as a member of Parliament, Margaret (played in those early years by Alexandra Roach, with Harry Lloyd as a smiling young Denis) pulls out of the driveway as her children chase after her car, begging her not to leave them. Later she announces her intention to seek the party leadership on the day that Carol has passed her driving test, earning a rare rebuke from her husband for putting herself first.

As a young woman she faces down the condescension of powerful and entitled Tories with a mixture of charm and steel, communicating her acute awareness of sexism and class prejudice in a way that makes her eventual triumph inspiring. But as the film reckons the cost of this triumph to Mrs. Thatcher and her family, it suggests that the double standards she fought against still flourish. In trying to make her more human, more sympathetic, the filmmakers turn a self-made, highly original woman into something of a cliché.

They also manage to push the great passion and distinction of her life — her pursuit and exercise of power — into the background. This is not unusual in biopics, which frequently turn artists into substance abusers and sexual adventurers who just happened to cut a few records or paint a few pictures on their way to redemption. “The Iron Lady,” following this template, makes a particular hash of British history, compressing social and economic turmoil into a shorthand that resembles a chronologically scrambled British version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Miners’ strike/Falklands War/I can’t take it any more … .)

In general the film is more attuned to process than to policy, which is conveyed by means of a few catch phrases and snippets of archival news footage. We learn that Mrs. Thatcher took on the unions, the I.R.A., the Argentine junta and more than a few of her allies, at times angering segments of the public to the point of insurrection while winning three consecutive elections, a modern record. The cabinet meetings and backroom dealings are quite entertaining. Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe stand out from the crowd of grousing toffs in chalk-striped suits, though of course not as much as Ms. Streep. But it will be hard for anyone not familiar with the story to have much sense of what is at stake.

As for “The Iron Lady” itself, beyond the challenge it poses for Ms. Streep, its own reason for being is a bit obscure. It is likely to be the definitive screen treatment of Mrs. Thatcher, at least for a while, and yet it does not really define her in any surprising or trenchant way. You are left with the impression of an old woman who can’t quite remember who she used to be and of a movie that is not so sure either.


One thought on “On The Iron Lady

  1. Pingback: On Mamma Mia! | The Progressive Democrat

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