8 January 2009

Clinton, Palin and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher


In the last few blog entries on Margaret Thatcher, I've been suggesting that she had found a solution to the professional woman’s problem of being damned if they behave like a man and damned if they behave like a woman – which involved being tough and decisive in her actions while being uncompromisingly female in her external appearance – and that this was summed up by the nickname the 'Iron Lady’. Although first used by the Soviet media, it was something that Mrs Thatcher was quick to take on board and use to her own advantage.

Whether or not Sarah Palin and her advisors were aware of this when she juxtaposed toughness and femininity by dubbing herself a ‘pit bull with lipstick’, I do not know. But, judging from news reports of Republican campaign expenditure on her wardrobe, and widespread coverage of her enjoyment of rugged outdoor pursuits like hunting and shooting, it looks as though she or her advisors had taken on board Margaret Thatcher’s lesson about combining unequivocal femininity with toughness.

However, leaks from Hillary Clinton’s aides (and casual observation of her preference for trousers/pants over skirts/dresses) suggest that they hadn’t quite got the point about Mrs Thatchers success in image mangement.

On 12th August 2008, the following headline appeared in the Daily Telegraph (click here for full story).

HILLARY CLINTON'S FAILED STRATEGY INSPIRED BY MARGARET THATCHER
'Hillary Clinton's flawed strategy for winning the White House was rooted in her chief strategist's admiration for Margaret Thatcher as the "best role model" for her, according to a leaked campaign memorandum.'

My immediate reaction on reading this was to wonder whether these 'strategists' or Mrs Clinton herself had actually understood the key components of the ‘role model’ so successfully established by Mrs Thatcher more than 30 years ago . What followed suggested that the author of the leaked document had not understood it at all, and that he’d made the mistake of concentrating exclusively on the mature Thatcher of later years (in her second and third terms in office) rather than on the younger Thatcher who had won her way to the top in the first place. The Telegraph article continued:

"We are more Thatcher than anyone else - top of the university, a high achiever throughout life, a lawyer who could absorb and analyse problems, "Mark Penn wrote to the former First Lady in a "launch strategy" document in December 2006.

The Democratic candidate, he argued, had to show the kind of decisiveness the former British prime minister had shown when she was first elected in 1979 - "her mantra was opportunity, renewal, strength and choice" - and avoid the temptation to try to be loved.

"Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving Prime Minister in British history, serving far longer than Winston Churchill. She represents the most successful elected woman leader in this century - and the adjectives that were used about her (Iron Lady) were not of good humour or warmth, they were of smart, tough leadership."

The memo was part of a trove of internal Clinton campaign documents leaked to the Atlantic Monthly magazine that reveal a campaign that was fatally undermined by internal dissension, an incoherent strategy and - ironically, given the Thatcher comparison - Senator Clinton's hesitancy and failure to take decisions.

But what about the other half of the story?
The flaw in Penn’s analysis was to concentrate only on those components of Thatcher’s ‘role model’ that had insulated her from being damned for behaving like a woman (e.g. ‘decisiveness’, ‘strength’ and ‘toughness’) to the exclusion of those that had insulated her from being damned for being unfeminine (e.g. carefully coiffured hair, dental capping, make-up, dresses – yes, dresses, not trouser/pant-suits, à la Hillary Clinton).

How could Penn, Clinton or anyone else who bought into this ‘analysis’ have missed such an obvious point as Thatcher’s uncompromising femininity – even to the extent of making much of the ‘tough’ implications of the first word in the ‘Iron Lady’ nickname while completely ignoring the essentially female connotations of the second word?

The age factor?
At the risk of sounding ‘ageist’, the most likely explanation of this extraordinary gaffe is that it did have to do with age, both of the advisor and of his client: in 2008, Mrs Clinton was ten years older than Mrs Thatcher was after she'd already spent six years as prime minister (and was only two years away from winning her third general election).

And unless Mr Penn, as a 21 year old, took far more interest in European politics than most Americans I know, it seems highly unlikely that he would even have noticed when a rather good-looking and well turned-out 50 year old English woman won the Conservative Party leadership campaign in 1975 (still four years away from making it to the top job). But by the time he became a strategist/consultant, all he could see was a much older woman who was, by then, more famous for her toughness than for her femininity.

Thatcher and Palin?
As for Mrs Palin, her record in Miss Alaska competitions, her willingness to wear skirts and dresses and to boast about being a 'hockey Mom' suggest that, like Mrs Thatcher, she had no qualms about combining uncompromising femininity with the toughness associated with her outdoor sporting pursuits.

However, from a distance of 6,000+ miles away, and on the basis of cursory research into her education and career history, I have to say that her background seems to be a bit lacking in the impeccable credentials of Margaret Thatcher, who graduated from a top university (Oxford) and had worked as a research chemist and tax lawyer before winning a seat in the House of Commons and embarking on a career in politics.

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