Women of Steel

Associated Press, left; Reuters/Jeff Haynes, rightMargaret Thatcher, left, in India in 1981; Michele Bachmann, right, in Iowa in 2011.

It had to happen. For female politicians, invoking the name of Margaret Thatcher at a crucial time in your campaign is one of the canniest, most clichéd and most predictable of tactics.

What’s surprising about Michele Bachmann is that it took her so long.

As America’s “iron lady,” Bachmann told Iowans several times during the run-up to the caucuses, she would “stand up for the free market, stand up for job creation, and turn our economy back round so that we also can have tremendous job growth.” You can turn the economy around, Bachmann says, if you just have “the will and the resolve to do it.” Easy.

Now her most recent ads, broadcast at the conclusion of her campaign in Iowa, also claim that Bachmann is not only made of iron, but has a “titanium spine.” It seems unlikely that Bachmann remembers that Thatcher once accused a Conservative colleague of having a spine that did not reach his brain, but who knows?

Michele Bachmann is certainly not the first wannabe Margaret Thatcher. The nickname Iron Lady — not so affectionately bestowed by the Soviets — quickly spawned imitations around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, inspiring labels that juxtaposed femininity with strength: the Steel Magnolia, the Iron Butterfly and even, in Australia, the Steel Sheila.

In the 1980s, few women could enter politics in western countries without being asked if they were like Margaret Thatcher. The very term “iron lady” reveals a basic discomfort with women in power – they must not be like other women to succeed, they must be like steel, iron, titanium. Just like another great cliché – the iron fist in the velvet glove – metal is somehow encased in the softness of a woman’s body.

It’s part of our grand Western tradition of taming, patronizing or marveling at female politicians. Their authority and exercise of power is too often depicted as surprising, secondary, or, in this case, appropriately severe. Toughness and decisiveness, it is implied, do not come naturally to women.

The problem is that when most women compare themselves to this Thatcher it is usually a reminder of how unlike her they are. Thatcher was actually a pragmatic world leader who was deeply schooled in free-market philosophy and kept her faith largely private. As a young politician, she did not balk at supporting the legalization of homosexuality, nor at widening access to abortion (she voted for it “under controlled conditions” in the early months). She was not a moral crusader – unlike Bachmann.

We also forget that Thatcher was a chemist and a barrister who was in politics for 16 years before leading her party, and 20 before leading the country. Bachmann has served in Congress for five.

Thatcher simply outworked and outshone those alongside her. She thrived on work, and was fond of grilling disheveled, tipsy cabinet colleagues at 3 a.m. on some of the finer points of policy. Journalists cooed about her legs and porcelain skin endlessly – Christopher Hitchens described her as surprisingly sexy — but this meant little. One member of her cabinet, John Biffen, described her as a “tigress surrounded by hamsters.”

Thatcher won an intellectual battle with a consistently coherent free-market capitalist political philosophy that conflated, defined and rebranded classic liberal ideas in her own name, as Thatcherism: low taxes, low spending, free markets, anti-union, pro-deregulation and privatization. Yet in so many discussions in American politics, Thatcher is described simply as a cartoonishly tough, freakishly successful woman.

Now her specter is looming even larger given Meryl Streep’s dazzling performance in the film “The Iron Lady.” In an attempt to humanize her, the film depicts an extraordinarily successful leader as a demented, forlorn and slightly regretful old woman.

If Bachmann has seen the movie, she will know that despite Streep’s fine efforts, the film is a travesty, reducing the longest serving British prime minister of the past century to a tetchy political anomaly. As she suffers from dementia, her entire career is viewed through flashbacks of a woman who sees apparitions and hears things. The moments of her greatest triumph – winning the leadership of the Tories in 1975, and her three consecutive election victories – are glossed over or forgotten. She seems merely cranky and determined.

In fact, she was stroppy, as the British say — rather belligerent and easily annoyed.

The film focuses not on the acuteness of Thatcher’s mental faculties, but the loss of them. So much so that rather than providing an inspiring example of what women can do, it serves as a cautionary tale about women who work, who might in their old age wonder if their families suffered for their now foggily remembered achievements. It was depressing.

Bachmann’s bid for the title of Iron Lady is understandable given the desire of the American public for effective, strong leadership at a time of recession, the longstanding love of Republicans for Churchill as well as the fact that we don’t want any politicians to be spineless. “The lady’s not for turning,” Thatcher defiantly told her Conservative colleagues in 1980, when she refused to change course on the economy. But we hardly hanker for a lady who is for turning.

Perhaps Bachmann will need to rely on some of the former prime minister’s resolve as the primaries roll on in the coming weeks. “Defeat?” Thatcher said. “I do not recognize the meaning of the word.”

Julia Baird is an Australian journalist who was previously a deputy editor at Newsweek. She is writing a book about Queen Victoria and is the author of “Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians.”