Thirty years ago, I was a young woman living and working in London. In those days, Britain was a class-bound and male-dominated society, where over half of the working population belonged to powerful trade unions. Fewer than 15 percent of high school graduates went on to college. Given a choice, married women with children simply didn’t work outside the home.
A grocer’s daughter named Margaret Thatcher shattered the glass ceiling in multiple ways. She studied chemistry at Oxford; after graduation she was rejected for a job after the company’s personnel department assessed her as “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.” She entered parliament as an MP after two unsuccessful attempts and eventually rose to become the first woman to lead a British political party before becoming Prime Minister. She broke the trade unions, won two more elections, and was the hailed as the most remarkable British leader since Winston Churchill.
Despite these achievements, my female friends and I did not see Maggie as a role model. Quite the opposite: she practically made us cringe. Thatcher was parodied relentlessly in the British media — portrayed day after day in cartoons amid a swarm of male cabinet ministers, whacking them with a giant handbag or boxing their ears. The tabloids called her a witch, a bitch, “Attila the Hen,” and much worse. Rowan Atkinson, of Mr. Bean fame, did an infamous skit where Maggie kneed a man in the groin at the same time she was smiling and shaking his hand. The ups and down in her children’s lives were depicted as evidence of an appalling lack of motherly instinct, with serious articles tut-tutting about how difficult it must have been for poor Carol and Mark growing up with her for a mother. Husband Denis Thatcher, a self-made businessman, was ridiculed as a gin-swilling buffoon. But the public took pity on him. After all, being married to Maggie would drive any man to drink.
Another female figure loomed large in our lives: Princess Diana. Thatcher came to power in 1979, two years before Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles. We all watched the fairy tale “wedding of the century.” Princess Di was the woman we envied. We were fascinated by her glamorous and emotional life — continually caught up in the drama of her romances, or eating disorders, or struggles with her mother-in-law. She was pictured in the media happily skiing with her adorable boys and hugging AIDS patients and wearing beautiful clothes. Diana was seen as all feminine heart. Maggie, on the other hand, was heartless. She couldn’t care less about all those starving coal mine workers! The message to young women was that Thatcher was unfeminine, aggressive and a bad mother — in short, not a role model we ought to embrace.
What a difference 30 years makes.
Three decades later, the feminist social movement du jour, pioneered by 43-year-old Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, is that young women should “lean in” to their careers. They should be more assertive in the workplace, speak up more forcefully in meetings, instead of sitting on the sidelines. Thatcher epitomized this philosophy. She not only leaned in to the table, she grew the wood, chopped down the tree, built the table and banged her fist on it. She did not try to be liked. In fact a lot of women (and men) detested her precisely because she was emphatically not the gentler, sweeter, self-doubting Diana-kind-of-woman. She was the ‘Iron Lady’ who was “not for turning.”
Yet, just like Diana, Thatcher used enormous charm and feminine wiles to get her way. Compared to Diana, she seemed old and matronly, but she was an attractive woman in her own right, one who took great care with her appearance and diet. Looking back at the photos, I see her differently. I notice her dazzling smile and smooth skin. I see that she was always well groomed and impeccably dressed, often wearing clothes designed to show off her figure.
Although she despised the word, in many ways Thatcher was the ultimate feminist. She did not come from a privileged family. She was not part of a political marriage (unlike Hilary Clinton). Unlike the Queen, whose reign had been forced upon her by the abdication of her uncle, Thatcher chose to pursue power and status. She was remarkably frank about her life, her ambition, her marriage, and her attitude about men. She outfoxed the lads, most of whom she viewed with contempt. “One thing that politics has taught me,” she said, “is that men are not a reasoned or reasonable sex.” She believed a lot of men were all talk and no action. She was also famous for saying, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want it done, ask a woman.”
She had an extraordinary career, enjoyed real power and influence, and secured a place in history. At the same time, she managed to balance a happy and successful marriage (Denis adored his wife and took great pride in her accomplishments) and raise two children. She was remarkable. She had it all, and she earned it.
And yet we took her for granted. She was emancipated long before my contemporaries and I were. She was “leaning in” long before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase. She was the woman we all now strive to be. She ought to be the ultimate feminist icon, and today, 30 years into my career, for me, she is.