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The Unknown Maggie


In the more than seven hours set aside for parliamentary tributes to Margaret Thatcher in April this year, only one member of the House of Commons dared to speak unabashedly ill of the just dead. Glenda Jackson, the actress who won two Oscars and then traded Hollywood for the lesser theater of Westminster, delivered a scorching attack on the Conservative former prime minister who had led Britain from 1979 to 1990. This anti-eulogy, more memorable than any other act in Jackson’s less than stellar political career, culminated in her response to Labour colleagues who had felt they ought to pay tribute to Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. “A woman? Not on my terms.”

Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher studying a parliamentary reference book with a colleague during her first political campaign, for the seat of Dartford, Kent, January 1950

In this, the MP was picking up a thread familiar to those who lived through the turbulent Thatcher decade of the 1980s, a period that was, like Thatcher herself, both conservative and revolutionary. Veterans of that era remember the satirical TV show Spitting Image, which rendered the politicians of the moment as foam puppets. The baritone-voiced Thatcher was shown in a pinstripe suit, often barking instructions over her shoulder to quivering underlings as she stood, legs apart, at a urinal. She was seen as a man in all but name. In similar vein, Edward Heath, who never forgave Thatcher for ousting him as Tory party leader in 1975 and maintained a decades-long froideur that became known as “the incredible sulk,” once said, “It’s a matter of opinion whether you think she’s a woman or not.”

Charles Moore, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph handpicked by Thatcher to write her authorized biography—and given access to previously undisclosed papers, friends, colleagues, and, in many hours of interviews, the Lady herself—has no patience for such doubts. He insists throughout this fluent, forensically detailed first volume of what will surely become the definitive account that his subject’s “sex”—the word he prefers over the presumably too Guardian-ish “gender”—is the key to understanding her character and her career. After the Lady’s funeral he wrote:

In understanding another person, one must never neglect the obvious. Once, she took me aside and whispered, “You know what’s the matter with Helmut Kohl?” I didn’t. “He’s a German!” she revealed. I laughed at this absurdity. Yet as I review my biographical subject, I ask myself, “You know what is the key to Margaret Thatcher?” and I answer, “She was a woman.”1

He supplies ample evidence to show how Thatcher’s being a Mrs. rather than a Mr. altered the course of events. She was able to wrest the party leadership from Heath partly because he underestimated her. “He was so surprised at the idea of being challenged by a woman, and found it so distasteful and disloyal, that he could not quite face it or work out how to deal with it,” Moore writes. Later, cabinet colleagues, restless or disgruntled, found themselves similarly at sea. Officials likened Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to Lewis Carroll’s dormouse, overawed by the mighty Queen. He would become flustered and inarticulate in her presence. “Pym was probably one of those men, quite common in his generation, who hated arguing with a woman, and found Mrs. Thatcher intimidating.”

Moore speculates that even the Irish Republican Army lost its footing when confronting a female antagonist, initiating the 1981 hunger strikes by republican prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze jail partly because it calculated, wrongly as it turned out, that Thatcher would eventually buckle, “perhaps because she was a woman.” In 1979, her advisers recommended she refuse presidential-style TV debates in her campaign against Labour incumbent James Callaghan because, “if she had won, that would have been a woman humiliating a man, and this would have been unsettling for many male voters.”

Moore makes a persuasive case that, whatever Jackson or Heath might say, plenty of those Thatcher encountered, overwhelmingly men, struggled to see her as anything but a woman. François Mitterrand famously declared that the British leader had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” while his predecessor, the high-born Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, could not shake the memory of his children’s English nanny:

She was very correct, very tidy, with a very neat hairdo. She was efficient, religious, always opening the windows, especially when the children were ill; rather tiresome. When I met Mrs. Thatcher, I thought “She is exactly the same, exactly the same!”

For quite a few men, not all of them predictable, their most immediate response to Thatcher was sexual. After a party arranged so that the prime minister might meet a dozen leading British writers, the novelist Anthony Powell reported: “I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia [Naipaul], were in complete agreement.” Moore adds that Philip Larkin was similarly smitten, the poet remarking that “very few people are both right and beautiful.” Kingsley Amis was another admirer, while David Owen, the rather dashing doctor who had served as Callaghan’s foreign secretary, is quoted telling the journalist Brian Walden, “The whiff of that perfume, the sweet smell of whisky. By God, she’s appealing beyond belief.”

The incorrigible Tory MP, sometime government minister, and diarist Alan Clark told Moore, “I don’t want actual penetration—just a massive snog.” The author concludes that “a significant factor in Mrs. Thatcher’s political success was that quite large numbers of men fell for her.” If so, it suggests that Henry Kissinger’s oft-cited declaration that power is the greatest aphrodisiac applies equally to both men and women.

It also undermines the Glenda Jackson view of Thatcher as essentially sexless. So too does the find that probably counts as Moore’s freshest discovery, a cache of letters from the young Margaret to her older sister Muriel. These flesh out the earliest chapters, in which the bright, ambitious daughter of a provincial grocer simultaneously chafes against and learns at the feet of her strict, devoutly Methodist father. Established early is the complex and contradictory relationship Thatcher would come to have with British tradition, at once zealously deferential to it and desperate to shake off (some of) its stifling weight and usher in the new.

Still, the letters to Muriel are remarkably free of politics. Instead, even when the epic events of wartime rage around her, Margaret Roberts is usually most exercised by the pressing matter of what to wear. “Mrs. Prole has made me a smaller black velvet hat with a white ostrich feather on it and it looks very charming. Not so dressy as the green cock feathers—much more a hat for any occasion.” Moore quotes dozens of letters in this vein, also dwelling at length on his subject’s first romantic involvements, usually with men substantially older than her. Partly his motive is the understandable one of any biographer given first access to new material: he’s got it, so he wants to use it. But it’s clear he is also out to explode the Spitting Image once and for all, to confirm how very feminine was the first female prime minister.

Plenty of feminist readers will readily cede this point, insisting that what matters more is Thatcher’s record on what might loosely be called women’s rights. Here the mountain the Thatcher defender has to climb is steep. In all the cabinets she formed, scores of appointments over eleven and a half years, Thatcher only ever selected one woman to sit at the top table. That single, low-profile exception apart, Thatcher surrounded herself with men. She was regularly accused of pulling the ladder up behind her, of being unsisterly. In Thatcher’s Britain, Richard Vinen’s crisp primer on the period, we learn that the Lady was adamant that she was no feminist and once told a TV studio audience of children:

I think most of us got to our own position in life without Women’s Lib…[which], I think, has been rather strident, concentrated on things which don’t really matter and, dare I say it, being rather unfeminine. Don’t you think that? What do the girls think, don’t you think Women’s Lib is sometimes like that?2

But Moore has some unexpected, countervailing evidence. In the first stages of her career, as a candidate in the 1950s, an MP in the 1960s, and a minister in the 1970s, Thatcher repeatedly spoke as a woman, voicing what would now be deemed at least a version of feminism, albeit of the high-flying, having-it-all variety. In 1960 she wrote a newspaper article under the headline “I Say a Wife Can Do Two Jobs.” In 1952, in an article titled “Wake Up, Women,” she made the case for the “career woman,” insisting that such a person need not be “hard” or unfeminine, but would “be a much better companion at home.” She called for the removal of “the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places,” asking her readers, “Why not a woman Chancellor—or Foreign Secretary?” In the Commons and as a junior minister she spoke up against aspects of tax or benefit policy that discriminated against women. When she made her first extended trip to the US, she specifically asked to meet “some women members of the Congress.” Against type, Moore writes of this period that “Mrs. Thatcher was working to what would now be called an agenda, and it was a feminist one.”

If that was indeed the case, Thatcher’s feminist impulse seems to have faded as her career advanced and as she proved that she at least could succeed in a man’s world. The volume ends with a victory dinner following the Falklands conflict of 1982. There had been no room for spouses, who were invited only to after-dinner drinks in the drawing room. This meant Thatcher was the sole woman present at the main event. After her speech and the subsequent toasts, the prime minister rose in her seat and said, “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?” Moore thinks this “may well have been the happiest moment of her life.”

Even so, the larger point stands: Thatcher’s gender is central to her story, central to what we might call her myth. Strong female leadership exerts quite a hold on the British, and especially English, folk memory. From Boudicca to Elizabeth I to Victoria, those few women who have sat at the apex have earned a lasting place in the national consciousness, one achieved by few of their male counterparts. This myth-making habit is in full swing again now with the current queen: witness the West End hit The Audience, which projects Elizabeth II as a paragon of preternatural wisdom and constancy.

This, it seems, is what the British do to their female leaders, making it plausible that the Thatcher legend—which this book certainly does its best to foster, explicitly ranking her alongside Henry VIII, Admiral Nelson, and Winston Churchill—will endure. As Moore points out, Thatcher became, with the Falklands, “the first female war leader with executive power in the British Isles since Elizabeth I.” The all-but-state funeral granted to her, an honor accorded to no prime minister since Churchill, was an attempt to put aside the fact that she had been one of the most divisive figures in recent British history and to seal her place in the pantheon of the greatest Britons. If that effort succeeds, it will in no small part be owing to the fact that Thatcher was a woman.

  1. 1

    Charles Moore, “Radical, Egotistical, Romantic, Innocent—the Real Margaret Thatcher,” The Daily Telegraph, April 19, 2013. 

  2. 2

    Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 26. 

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