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.”

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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 …

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  1. 1

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