7 January 2009

Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: PART III The education of a female orator

Although Mrs Thatcher took the business of public speaking very seriously after becoming leader of the Conservative Party (see parts I & II), it’s important to remember that she had already come a very long way in the years before she got there and must have found a way of surviving in the male-dominated world of politics long before Ronald Millar, Gordon Reece or Saatchi and Saatchi came on the scene. In this connection, her biography shows that, from a very early age, the former Margaret Roberts had far more opportunities than most English girls of her generation to become accustomed with being treated on equal terms with men.

Mrs Thatcher's father was very active both as a local town councillor in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and as a Methodist lay preacher. According to her biographers, the young Margaret was not just exposed throughout her childhood to the political discussions that regularly took place in the Roberts household and across the counter of their grocery shop, but was also actively encouraged by her father to take part in them.

At the same time, she was listening to weekly Sunday sermons in the local Methodist church and, more occasionally, heard speeches by national politicians who were visiting the town. That she showed early promise in making the most of these experiences is shown by the fact that, at the age of nine, she won a poetry-reading competition at a local drama festival. It’s also reported that such talents continued to blossom while she was a pupil at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School:

‘She was a studious girl, but enjoyed the dramatic society, which made her at one time consider becoming an actress, and also question and answer sessions at the end of visitors' lectures, as long as the subject was current affairs. She is well remembered by a girl in the year above her, Margaret Goodrich, for cross-questioning Bernard Newman, the expert on spying, with a confidence not normally expected from such a young girl.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, pp. 34-5)

For her higher education, the future prime minister could hardly have gone to a university more dominated by men and male traditions than the Oxford of the 1940s. Nor could she have chosen a subject studied by fewer women or by fewer aspiring politicians than chemistry - Mrs Thatcher is not just the first woman, but also the first, and so far only, science graduate, to have become prime minister of the UK.

At the same time, part of the experience of living in an all women's college for three years involved taking it for granted that female academics were perfectly capable of performing on equal terms with men. Her chemistry tutor at Somerville was Dorothy Hodgkin, who subsequently went on to win a Nobel prize. During this period she also kept up an active interest in politics, and became president of the University Conservative Association, a post that brought her into direct contact with many of the then leading national politicians, as well as her own student contemporaries who were later to achieve cabinet rank, including Tony Benn, Anthony Crosland and Edward Boyle.

In her subsequent careers, first as an industrial research chemist and later as a tax barrister, Mrs Thatcher continued to live and work on equal terms with men in professions where women were still extremely under-represented. So, by the time she won a seat in parliament, she had already accumulated two decades of experience at succeeding in male-dominated environments. Even allowing for the inevitable tendency of biographers (and obituary- writers) to select facts from a life story which fit in with whatever the subject eventually became, it would seem that Mrs Thatcher underwent a lengthy and highly relevant apprenticeship, similar to that recommended by the classical Greek and Roman writers on the education of male orators.

As can be seen from her speeches, there is no doubt of her ability to deploy the full range of rhetorical techniques, and to do so in such a way that her essential femininity was never seriously called into question.

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1 comment:

Whitney Johnson said...

Love! Margaret Thatcher is, as for many women, a terrific role model. Great to see you dissect her style.