Margaret Thatcher was the kind of woman who made men’s toes curl. Her savage intelligence, command of policy and what François Mitterrand called “the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula” both terrified and intrigued them. And she loved it. The woman who was prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990 declared she owed nothing to “women’s lib” and surrounded herself with men—appointing only one woman to her cabinet.
Today she is remembered as a resolute, tough-minded leader who was fond of tanks and relished a fight. Hillary Clinton, commentators cry, asks to be treated more gently because she is a woman. Thatcher didn’t have to.
What we forget is how happily Thatcher exploited stereotypes when it was convenient to do so. When she campaigned for the leadership of her party in 1976, she was so eager to counter her image as an upper-crust Tory in pearls that she portrayed herself as a regular, devoted housewife. She was photographed doing the washing up, tucking her twins into bed, dusting, cooking, peeling potatoes, baking cakes, putting empty milk bottles out on the front step and sweeping the footpath in a lacy cap. “I am a very ordinary person who leads a very ordinary life,” she said.
Just a few months later, the suburban housewife had been dubbed the “Iron Lady.” She proudly, almost coyly, owned the title the Russians had bestowed upon her in a 1976 speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you tonight in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my hair softly waved … The iron lady of the Western world? Me?”
The world’s most powerful woman was not averse to highlighting her femininity when it suited her. In this she was not alone—across the globe, women entering positions of political leadership have learned that playing to stereotypes can endear them to voters at critical junctures in campaigns, especially when it is their likability, and not their competency, that is in question.
Yes, like men, women have exploited their gender when it suits them. The pursuit of power is rarely pretty. The first few female leaders were considered so unusual, they were cast as male, or metal. In the 1960s and ’70s, Iron Ladies sprang up around the globe, breathing fire—Indira Gandhi in 1966, Golda Meir in 1969, Thatcher in 1979—women who did not shy from war and quashed any notion that women were the gentler sex. Their success created one of the most repetitive clichés for women in politics—iron maidens, iron butterflies, even steel magnolias—as journalists cooed over the fact that a woman could be (gasp!) decisive and authoritative, a marvelous combination of flesh and steel.
Such labels reflected a longstanding inability to imagine women wielding power—their ambition cast as an ugly trait, their exercise of authority as bizarrely forceful, their tenacity as a sign of psychological concern.
Much has changed in the three decades since Thatcher was first elected. Today, more than 50 women have been elected prime ministers and heads of state, from Chile’s Michelle Bachelet to Germany’s Angela Merkel. We know women can be tough leaders, but from the late 1980s, disillusioned voters began to demand something different—being female was seen as an asset by those who wanted women to prove they could change politics. Ironically, Clinton, as part of the establishment, has been trumped by her younger, fresher opponent on this front—his style is frequently described as feminine.
Clinton has not had to prove that she is made of steel. Her self-styled Boadicea—bespectacled, hovering by the phone at 3 a.m. in her most recent advertisement—is an awkward creation: happy to warmonger like a good Iron Lady but discredited for backing the wrong war. She had to prove, like Thatcher did when she posed in her lacy cap, that she was real so that women could identify with her. Others helped when they argued she was being put down by men. For what unites women most of all is seeing one of their own being belittled.
Claims to female superiority (We are more honest! Kinder! Calmer!) are a little embarrassing and retro in today’s climate.
But if Clinton is to benefit from Tina Fey’s almost Iron Lady claim that “Bitches get stuff done,” perhaps she should also recall the words of Thatcher: “It may be the cock that crows,” she said. “But it’s the hen that lays the eggs.”