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Margaret Thatcher Showed the World What a Woman Can Do

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Even after her death, critics revile Britain’s brilliant, trail-blazing leader and liberator as ‘unfeminine.’ Yet she reveled in her femininity throughout her career, charming men and women alike.

When my book Who Stole Feminism? was published in 1994, I was subjected to an array of feminists’ epithets — anti-woman, traitor to my gender, backlasher. But my favorite was one critic’s reference to “Christina Hoff Sommers and Margaret Thatcher — those two female impersonators." Below is a photo of Lady Thatcher and me in 1995. Do we look like female impersonators?

Well, keep that to yourself. (It was a bad era for jackets and hairdos.) But I am honored to be paired with Margaret Thatcher in any way, shape, or form. She was, in addition to being one of the greatest leaders of our age, a consummate female.

When Mrs. Thatcher (as she was called in her heyday) came to power in 1979, Great Britain was in chaos. Inflation and unemployment were ruinously high, and productivity and economic output were plunging. Violent strikes by coal miners, garbage collectors, and gravediggers produced blackouts, rotting garbage piles in the streets, and abandoned corpses. Fearful citizens were hoarding food. “To put it bluntly,” says Andrew Sullivan, “the Britain I grew up in was insane.” In his magnificent tribute, “Thatcher, Liberator,” Sullivan writes:

The government owned almost all major manufacturing, from coal to steel to automobiles. Owned … And in the 1970s, you could not help but realize as a young Brit, that you were living in a decaying museum — some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete.

The Britain that Sullivan describes was on the brink of a full-scale socialist siege, and no one seemed to know how to stop it. Enter Thatcher. The Oxford-educated shopkeeper’s daughter possessed intelligence, vision, and courage of the highest order. As a practicing politician, she had something more: an uncanny ability to use every contingency to advance her principles and policies and to transform perceptions and debate. One practitioner, Winston Churchill, once described this as the capacity to “make the weather.” Another, David Cameron, borrowed that term in his House of Commons tribute following Thatcher's death — with admiration and perhaps a bit of envy as well.

But what was the source of her great strengths? She had read Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek and absorbed their lessons about the virtues of the free market and the dangers of collectivism. But she was at least equally inspired by what we may call home economics — the homespun bourgeois aphorisms she had learned as a child. “My policies,” said Mrs. T, “are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with ... An honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.”

Like a determined housewife faced with domestic anarchy, she went about setting the country right. As Thatcher said in her 1979 campaign, “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running the country.” She confronted and defeated predatory trade unionists, sold off government-owned housing and industries, and reduced the top tax rate from 98 to 40 percent. Most of all, she tried to revive the British tradition of individual initiative and personal responsibility. Thatcherism did not solve all of Britain’s problems, but it brought it back from the brink.

Critics have reviled her for being an ambitious and “unfeminine” opportunist. In the 1988 Washington Monthly article “Is Margaret Thatcher a Woman?” Polly Toynbee called her a “surrogate man” who had “betrayed women not only politically but spiritually.” To prove she was “one of the boys,” said Toynbee, Thatcher was “twice as brutal” and “twice as savage.” But Thatcher was neither: she was in fact stern and dutiful. Those virtues come in both feminine and masculine varieties, and Thatcher’s were decidedly feminine.

Most of all, she tried to revive the British tradition of individual initiative and personal responsibility.

A colleague of mine recalls introducing Thatcher at a Washington forum in the mid-nineties. They had been discussing politics and going over the substance of her talk with great intensity. Then, when it came time to take the podium, she arranged her hair, checked her lipstick in her compact mirror, and leaned into him with a hint of anxiety, asking, “How do I look?” He was charmed by this quintessentially female gesture. Throughout her career, men and women were charmed and, more than once, smitten by her charismatic femininity.

The late Christopher Hitchens loved to tell the story about his encounter with Thatcher at a 1977 book party held in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. Almost everyone in the press, he said, thought the Tory party had gone mad electing this “shrill suburban housewife.” But upon meeting her, he found himself “bewitched.” He and Thatcher got into a political argument, but rather than carry on like a bore, he graciously acquiesced, and told her she might be right. Whereupon she ordered him to bend over, and thwacked him on the backside with a roll of parliamentary papers. “As she walked away she looked back over her shoulder and gave an almost imperceptibly slight roll of the hip while mouthing the words: ‘Naughty boy.’” Hitchens was taken aback. This was no suburban housewife, he thought — and she understands her power. “Nothing that happened to the country in the next dozen years surprised me in the least.”

She was also adept at turning her charm on her adversaries. There is a wonderful 1976 video of Thatcher giving a speech at a formal gathering soon after the Soviet politburo organ, The Red Star, had dubbed her “The Iron Lady.” The Russians intended it to be a slur, but she loved the soubriquet and used it to full advantage. In the video, a radiant Thatcher, dressed all in red, says to the audience in a lilting voice,

I stand before you in my Red Star Chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my hair gently waved … The Iron Lady of the Western World … A “cold war warrior,” an “amazon philistine” …Well, am I any of these things? [The audience shouts NO!] Well …Yes, I am the Iron Lady … if that is how they wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.

She was asserting her passionate devotion to democratic ideals — but, at the same time, being playful, reveling in her femininity, and outmaneuvering her Soviet detractors in a manner that foreclosed any riposte.

She was asserting her passionate devotion to democratic ideals — but, at the same time, being playful, reveling in her femininity, and outmaneuvering her Soviet detractors in a manner that foreclosed any riposte.

In 1984, the future Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev came to England to meet the Iron Lady. Their conversation over lunch was initially so combative that some in the room may have thought they were witnessing an international incident. What they were witnessing was, in fact, the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Thatcher and Gorbachev agreed on very little, but both found the other disarmingly open, intelligent, self-confident, and engaging. After lunch the two leaders sat by a fire and talked intensely — for hours. (Gorbachev recalls that she took off her shoes and curled up in her armchair.) It was after this encounter that Thatcher announced to the world, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Gorbachev credits these famous conciliatory words with opening his way to pursuing mutual understanding with the West. I am not a great believer in the idea that women’s leadership style is all that different from men’s. Still, it is hard to imagine a British or American male leader, at the height of the Cold War, having this sort of blunt, undiplomatic exchange with a Soviet adversary — and then publicly declaring their friendship with plain sincerity. The Iron Lady was a peacemaker.

During the recent House of Commons tribute to Thatcher, Labor Member of Parliament Glenda Jackson (the former actress) outraged many in the chamber by launching an invective. She accused the former prime minister of heartless cruelty and blamed her for “wreaking the most heinous social and economic damage on this country.” She ended with the inevitable assault on Thatcher’s femininity. “The first prime minister of female gender, OK. But a woman? Not on my terms.”

Maybe not on your terms, Ms. Jackson. But in terms recognizable by ordinary mortals, Thatcher was a brilliant, trail-blazing leader and liberator. She was not only the first female British prime minister, but a prime minister who bears comparison to Winston Churchill. Female impersonator? Surrogate man? To the contrary: among her many remarkable qualities and larger virtues, Mrs. Thatcher was the embodiment of female excellence. Her biographer, Charles Moore, said it best: she showed the world what a woman can do.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Sommers also writes “Lessons from a Feminist Paradise on Equal Pay Day,” “Is a Woman’s Place at Work?” and “Tina Brown's Post-Feminist Summit.” Paul Wolfowitz observes, “Margaret Thatcher Was a Woman of Iron — with a Wicked Sense of Humor.” Jonah Goldberg examines “What 'The Iron Lady' Forged” and Arthur C. Brooks comments, “Margaret Thatcher Was a Powerful Voice for Free Enterprise and Liberty.”


Image by David Fowler /


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