So, as you’ve all doubtless noticed, Margaret Thatcher is dead. As an Aztec historian, I am spectacularly ill-suited to make historical comment on her life or legacy, but as a gender historian I have been extremely struck by the media coverage. It’s not just that it’s wall-to-wall, but how prominently her sex (or rather her ‘femininity’) features in the discussion.
There has certainly been plenty of comment on Thatcher’s political and historic significance, but the emphasis on her gender has been striking, with some commentators making the case that ‘even if she was powerful, she was still feminine’, as if influence is incompatible with the fairer sex.
Political heavyweight Liz Jones of The Daily Mail is (perhaps unsurprisingly) the most blatant in her gendered assumptions: ‘Margaret Thatcher proved you didn’t have to dress like a man to be powerful’. Delighted though I am to hear that Maggie used to ‘twirl like a little girl when trying on clothes’, I cringe inwardly at the idea that this is somehow a positive endorsement of her female nature. Jones even appears to believe that her defence of Thatcher’s ‘controlled’ and ‘regal’ look is a feminist statement, as Thatcher’s power dressing proved ‘we are not all ruled by our hormones and the school run’. 1
Also for The Mail, Cynthia Crawford, Thatcher’s ‘personal assistant and lifelong friend’ claimed: ‘My chum Maggie loved Vogue, hated trousers and only used Clinique on her porcelain skin’. I’m sure that the minutiae of Thatcher’s life which produced this headline may fascinate style columnists, 2 biographers, maybe even some cultural historians, but the powerful need to invest Thatcher’s persona with perceived ‘feminine’ traits is a fascinating aspect of the recent coverage.
The point is more subtly made by The Guardian in their article on ‘The Margaret Thatcher look’ in which they dissect the ways in which she ‘worked her look’ (apparently) to suit the political situation. Is the fact that ‘her suit and lipstick were both blood-red’ for her resignation speech REALLY a hint on ‘her feelings about the events that took her out of office’? Now this is not to say that male politicians are immune to criticisms of their fashion sense (remember the fuss about Cameron and Clegg’s choice of holiday footwear?) but rarely has it been seen as so intrinsic to their personal and political style. 3
There has also been a disproportionate interest in the ‘refashioning’ which Thatcher underwent after she came to prominence; we are told that she ‘softened’ her hair and voice, straightened her teeth, and lowered her ‘shrill’ voice. It is an interesting comment on both social attitudes and the increasing importance of television rather than radio as a medium that Thatcher’s image was seen as so critical to her success, but I don’t for a moment believe that she is the only Prime Minister to have received help with her image. Nonetheless, it is her image (rather than her reality) as the ‘Iron Lady’, sailing forth with twinset and handbag, which prevails in public discourse. For The Telegraph Thatcher is a ‘fashion genre’ who ‘understood the power of clothes’ and ‘showed that a woman could be authoritative without compromising her femininity’. Now, I defend the right of any woman to wear lipstick (or not) if she wants, but is the colour of her lipstick (‘peachy’ apparently) really the most interesting thing we can find to say about a Prime Minister who, whether you weigh her contribution good or bad, was a political heavyweight and a figure of enormous significance in twentieth-century history?
The fact of her gender is, in itself, historically interesting. As Britain’s ‘first and only female Prime Minister’ (a description which has been so ubiquitous as to make crediting a specific source redundant), she was a pioneer (albeit one who arguably failed to blaze a trail for other women to follow her). Her gender was a matter of dispute and debate from the very beginning, and is not an aspect of her life or legacy which should be ignored. Gender was seen as a weapon in the toolkit of opponents who chanted ‘Ditch the Bitch’ to ‘Atilla the Hen’. So my point is not that Thatcher’s gender should be ignored, but that, perhaps less obviously than in the 1980s but no less profoundly, preconceptions about what it means to be a woman are still implicit in the judgments being made about our ‘first and only female prime minister’.
Addendum: When I wrote this I hadn’t seen any coverage that went so far as to be unequivocally sexist, but congratulations to the The Times for sadly proving me wrong with the headline ‘Margaret Thatcher: A better politician than wife or mother‘. With thanks to @EverydaySexism for highlighting this shocker.
Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History and a historian of gender at the University of Sheffield. She is delighted to say that her much-better-informed colleague Julie Gottlieb will be making more substantive reflections on the feminist context of Margaret Thatcher’s career in a future blog. [Now available here.]
- Funnily enough, the UK’s least politically correct newspaper, The Sun, took a surprisingly gender-neutral approach, although with a spectacular lack of irony, they did carry news of Thatcher’s death above a large article entitled ‘The breast and worst celebrity boob jobs!’ They also couldn’t resist a reference to the other immortal feminine icon of our times, telling us that she will have ‘a Princess Di- style funeral’. (Okay, I admit it, I was impressed they got the hyphen right.) ↩
- Indeed, Style have helpfully given us ‘Beauty Lessons To Be Learned From Margaret Thatcher’: http://www.style.com/beauty/beautycounter/2013/04/diane-kruger-for-chanel-skincare-beauty-lessons-to-be-learned-from-margaret-thatcher-and-more/ ↩
- This is not to deny, however, that Thatcher also made deliberate use of her ‘femininity’ in fashioning her political image at times; she very deliberately embraced the myth of the ‘Iron Lady’ (significantly, not the ‘Iron Woman’). ↩