Mrs Thatcher: Britain’s tough-love sweetheart

Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, Meryl Streep

‘The Iron Lady’, award-winning film reprisal of the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman who revelled in being female and powerful

The point about Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, free-marketeer and deeply divisive ideologue, was that she enjoyed being a woman politician and favoured attractive men in the same trade. (We should remember this in the light of the recent kerfuffle about President Obama and his praise of Kamala Harris’s looks and the stew about the New York Times’s obit on rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s beef stroganoff.)

As Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, Mrs Thatcher was not above using dress as a political weapon. She saw no reason to deny her femaleness. In fact, she used it – to great advantage. Contrast that with her lack of support for “soft” issues, for so called “women’s issues” and her determination to take on hard (male) subjects such as the economy.

Even so, however politically incorrect it may seem to say it, Margaret Roberts did one of the best things a strong woman with aspiration can do – she got herself the right helpmate, the ideal man,  a rich devoted husband who freed her up to achieve what she really really wanted. Mrs Thatcher was girl power before the Spice Girls. “Being powerful,” as she said, “is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Remember her sartorial staples, as described by Vogue? They were a political statement as much as they were a style. “The string of pearls, pussy bow blouses, an Asprey handbag and a seemingly-endless supply of fitted skirt suits in every shade of blue from royal to navy.” Obviously, dress was not hostage to political ideology; it was the other way round. As Harvey Thomas, her ‘image guru’, says, it was all about finding the best way, the “right way” to send the right message.

As this scholarly paper on fashion and politics says (in admittedly clunky academic jargon), “the micro-politics of dress translated into the macro-politics of power in Margaret Thatcher’s private and public performances of dress.”

She dramatized herself most clearly as the ‘Iron Lady’ on January 31, 1976, using words to create an image that politically correct women’s rights activists would denounce as sexist today: “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the “Iron Lady” of the Western world,” she told a dinner ‘do’ in her Finchley constituency.

It was a half-mocking, seemingly gushing description that might have been straight out of Mills & Boon. She meant it cannily though, becoming “the lady and the warrior”, incidentally contributing to the growth of English metaphors. It was Mrs Thatcher’s habitual toting of the handbag and her ways that caused the Oxford English Dictionary to include the term “to handbag” as a definition of political and diplomatic behavior.

She was Britain’s tough-love sweetheart and proof, if any were needed, is its complicated conflicted emotions about her even today.