National Post Margaret Thatcher’s weakness for the opposite sex

National Post - Wednesday February 1st, 2012

Alexandra Roach plays a young Margaret Thatcher, who's "appointments were based on who was good for Britain, not who was good for women."

“Was the Iron Lady good for women?” asks Janet Bagnall, the Montreal Gazette’s resident feminist, in the headline of her Jan. 20 column.

The “Iron Lady” is, of course, not only a sobriquet for Margaret Thatcher, but the title of the wonderful new Meryl Streep biopic about the former British PM. Bagnall’s predictable answer is that no, Thatcher was not good for women: “She did not pave the way for other women, as they had every right to expect her to, since she was one of them.”

Bagnall’s stated beefs are that Thatcher urged women to leave the workforce, and only nominated one woman to her cabinet. Well, so did unions of that era ask women to leave the workforce — to open up more jobs for men. And Thatcher’s appointments were based on who was good for Britain, not who was good for women.

Politically, Thatcher despised tokenism (“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she once said), but it is true that personally she preferred men to women. This was made clear in the film by the non-judgmental tenderness the older widowed Thatcher lavishes on her negligent son (who rarely visited, but inconsiderately telephones her from South Africa at 3 a.m. English time) and the casual verbal cruelties Thatcher tosses at her attentive, under-appreciated daughter.

I think it’s Thatcher’s lack of fellow feeling for women that’s really bugging Bagnall and other feminists. How could Thatcher not like women if she was “one of them”?

I daresay it’s for the same reason most of us hold prejudices about the opposite sex. I don’t think most gender antipathy is rooted in doctrine; I think we drift toward doctrines that confirm our lived experiences. So in spite of (fictional) Thatcher’s protestations to the doctor attending her in her old age that she prefers “thoughts” to “feelings,” Thatcher’s bias toward men sprang directly from her lived experiences and the feelings they engendered (pun intended).

There are three extremely brief, but revelatory scenes in the film that foreshadow Thatcher’s adult gender perspectives.

In the first one that struck me vividly — it is repeated again in the film, so is obviously meaningful — a teenage, dowdily-dressed Margaret is sweeping the sidewalk in front of her parents’ grocery store. Three stylish girls of the same age, arms linked, walk past her. As they bounce along (in slow motion, I seem to recall), they look at her and laugh mockingly. Then they throw each other knowing, alpha-girl looks and stride on.

The second scene has Margaret sitting by herself in an audience, eyes riveted on her father as he stands at a podium delivering a fiery political speech, expounding on the bourgeois principles that will later form the bedrock of her party’s program. Her mouth forms the words he is saying, showing us she has heard them many times, and her expression is one of pure adoration.

In the third scene, Margaret has just received her acceptance letter from Oxford University. She is speechless with ecstasy, holding out the letter to her father. Glancing at it, a look of ineffable joy suffuses his face. Undemonstrative by nature, he places his hand on her shoulder in a deliberate, stiff-armed “knighting” gesture. Then he says in a gruff, pride-suppressing voice, “Don’t let us down.” She beams at him. Of course she won’t!

Now Margaret turns to her mother, emerging from the kitchen and shows the letter to her. The woman is clearly dismayed or at least conflicted at this news. Avoiding Margaret’s gaze, she mumbles that her hands are wet as an excuse for not touching her. She turns and hastens back to the kitchen. Margaret’s face falls.

Even if there is any truth behind them, these three scenes don’t shed light on the singular determination and single-mindedness that drove Margaret Thatcher’s ambition. But they do illuminate the source of Thatcher’s bottomless well of self-confidence: a strong, encouraging father, a common element in the careers of highly successful women.

One of the film’s leitmotifs is the song, “Shall we Dance,” from the musical The King and I. A memory of the adult Margaret and her husband Denis twirling romantically to this song recurs in flashbacks. After her father, Denis was the great love of Margaret’s life, because, like her father, he loved her for her strength, and supported her ambitions. And while some male politicians did try to thwart her, the majority of her party came to adore her.

Perhaps the headline of Ms. Bagnall’s column should have read, “Were women good for the Iron Lady?” The answer in that case would be: No. But the important men in her life were. And that is why she preferred them.

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