Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: PART II The 'Iron Lady'

The problem of pitch (see PART I) was only one aspect of public speaking that Mrs Thatcher took seriously after becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. She also took advice from professionals in the theatre, television and even evangelism. One of her main speechwriters was Ronald Millar, a playwright about whose influence Mrs Thatcher's biographers have noted as follows:

‘She ... turned out to be an amenable pupil to Millar's methods, which included advice on delivery as well as script. Millar has become known as the author of the jokes (he was responsible for 'U-turn if you want to - the lady's not for turning'), but his principal skill was and is playing director to the leading lady, a combination of firm steering mixed with reassurance.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, p. 161)

'The lady's not for turning' is but one of many contrastive punch lines supplied to Mrs Thatcher by Millar, and it was at his suggestion that she quoted the following four contrasts from St Francis of Assisi as she entered Downing Street after winning the 1979 general election (see video with blog entry on 1st January 2009):

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.
Where there is error, may we bring truth.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Since before the 1979 election, television producer Gordon Reece had provided Mrs Thatcher with extensive and detailed guidance on how to perform effectively on the small screen. And, during the 1983 general election, the staging of her set-piece speeches was organised by the same team that managed mass meetings for Billy Graham's evangelical crusades to Britain.

Much of this expert help, of course, had little or nothing to do with the specific problems faced by a female political leader. But some of the advice, such as that provided by Gordon Reece, was directly concerned with image-related matters like hair-styles, clothes, jewellery make-up and even which side of her face was supposed to be best for exposing to the camera.

This included advice that she should go for greater simplicity of appearance in television performances than when making major speeches. Reece and Millar were also concerned with the problems associated with pitch. To quote her biographers again:

‘A full blast Commons speech can sound like raving hysteria in a broadcasting studio. The broadcasting of the Commons (which happened to coincide with Reece's arrival) caused him special problems. He was heard to remark that the selling of Margaret Thatcher had been put back two years by the mass broadcasting of Prime Minister's Question Time as she had to be at her shrillest to be heard over the din... Millar had also taught her that lowering the voice brought the speed down to a steadier rate. He advised holding to a steady and equable tone at Question Time which would eventually drive through, not over or under, the noise.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, pp. 169-70)

Before the 1979 general election, the Conservative Party's advertising agents, Saatchi and Saatchi, were also worried about the prospects of convincing the electorate of the leadership potential not just of a woman, but of one who seemed to epitomise the typical suburban middle-class housewife.

Meanwhile, the various nicknames devised by her colleagues, such as 'Mother', the 'Leaderene', the 'Bossette', 'Attila the Hen', 'the Immaculate Misconception', etc. can be seen as reflecting a sustained attempt on their part to come to terms with the fact that they were having to work under a woman leader.

Much the same could be said of the culturally available stereotypes of powerful women that cartoonists exploited in their caricatures of Mrs Thatcher, which included Bodicea, Britannia, a witch and the Queen. But the most astute attempt to come to terms with Mrs Thatcher's position as a political leader was supplied by the Soviet newspapers when, after a speech at Kensington Town Hall in 1976, they dubbed her the 'Iron Lady'. Of all the nicknames Mrs Thatcher attracted, it was as the 'Iron Lady' that she became internationally best known. And this may well be because these two words aptly sum up one of the main secrets of her success in finding a solution to the problem of being a female in a position of power.

Given that successful women face the dilemma of being ‘damned if they behave like men, and damned if they don't', one solution is to behave in as efficient, tough and decisive a manner as possible, while at the same time making no concessions whatsoever when it comes to maintaining the external trappings of femininity. So Mrs Thatcher was committed to the importance of being smart in a conventionally feminine way, and consistently sought to make the most of her natural physical attractiveness. This included the preservation of her blonde hair by regular tinting as well as the elimination of gaps in her teeth by dental capping.

Nor was she afraid to be seen in the traditional female roles of wife and mother, even to the extent of being photographed at the kitchen sink just before competing as a candidate in the 1975 Conservative Party leadership election. Her uncompromisingly feminine appearance, and her repeated emphasis on the virtues of family life may not have endeared Mrs Thatcher to feminists. But, in the eyes and ears of a wider public, such factors had the effect of insulating her from being 'damned' for lacking culturally acceptable feminine attributes, by leaving no one with any doubt that she was anything less than a 100 per cent female of the species.

At the same time, there was little or nothing in her conduct of government that could be singled out to expose her as 'gentle', 'weak' or not up to the job, and this enabled her to avoid being 'damned' for possessing the sorts of stereotypical feminine attributes so often cited in attempts to demonstrate the unsuitability of women for positions of power and responsibility.

Her external image of unambiguously recognisable femininity effectively liberated her to pursue forceful policies without running any risk of being damned for behaving ‘like a man’, because any such claim would have been so transparently at odds with all the other evidence that she was uncompromisingly female. And, with lines like “a general doesn't leave the field of battle just as it's reaching a climax”, she showed no inhibitions at all about identifying herself closely with a powerful male role model, without having to worry about whether this would raise doubts about her essential femininity.

Nor was she averse to using a negative nickname to question the manliness of her male colleagues, as it was Mrs Thatcher herself who first used the word 'wet', a colloquialism for describing men as feeble or lacking in masculinity, for referring to her more liberal Tory cabinet ministers.

As for the 'iron lady', its aptness lay in the fact that it captured the two most visible and contrasting characteristics of her public image: toughness and femininity. And, when these two qualities are exhibited in the conduct and appearance of the same woman, she has found an effective way of deterring, resisting and neutralising any attacks based on male-chauvinist assumptions.

Mrs Thatcher was also quick to latch on to the advantages of this. Within weeks of the Russians dubbing her the ‘iron lady’ (and still three years before she became prime minister) she was to be heard juxtaposing her feminine attributes with the toughness implied by the nickname in a speech she made in 1976:

Seven years later, when fighting for re-election in 1983, she was still confident enough about the nickname being an asset to woo her audiences with lines like these:

Thatcher: "The Russians said that I was an Iron Lady."
Audience: "Hear-hear."
Thatcher: "They were right."
Audience: "Heh-heh-heh"
Thatcher: "Britain needs an Iron Lady."
Audience: "Hear-hear" [applause]

Nor did she ever try to deny the appropriateness of another nickname that located her firmly within a long-standing and culturally familiar category of successful professional women in positions of power, namely head-teachers. In a report by John Cole, the BBC’s political editor, during the 1983 general election, she showed no qualms about accepting the image he presented her with in a question formulated in blatantly male-chauvinist terms:

Cole: “Other Prime Ministers after all have been bossy too, but Mrs Thatcher does undoubtedly keep a fussy watch on her ministers' performances with an occasional touch of motherliness. I asked her today what she said to suggestions that she had a headmistress image.”

Thatcher: “Well I've known some very good headmistresses who've launched their pupils on wonderful careers. I had one such and was very grateful. But I am what I am. Yes, my style is of vigorous leadership. Yes, I do believe certain things very strongly. Yes, I do believe in trying to persuade people that the things I believe in are the things they should follow. And Mr Cole I'm far too old to change now.”

By saying that there is not only nothing wrong with being like a headmistress, but that it’s a role model with positive virtues, Mrs Thatcher was able to identify herself with one of the relatively few widely respected positions of power and responsibility that have traditionally been available to women. Teaching is also one of the very few professions with job conditions that include a great deal of public speaking. For a female leader to be identified with the role of headmistress would therefore seem to be something worth cultivating if it’s in your interests to promote the idea that women are perfectly capable of holding their own both on a public platform and in a position of power.

Indeed, one of Mrs Thatcher's major long term achievements may turn out to have been the undermining of age-old assumptions of the sort contained in Quintillian's observation that the perfect orator cannot exist ‘unless as a good man'. And, by finding a workable solution to the problem of being damned for being like a man and damned for not being like a man, her combination of uncompromising femininity with equally uncompromising words and deeds may have laid the foundations for a new tradition within which women politicians of the future will be able to operate.

After a year in which Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were at the forefront in the US presidential campaign, the question arises as to whether either of them showed any signs of taking on board any of these lessons from Margaret Thatcher - a theme to which I plan to return after posting this series of reflections on female charisma.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your comments remind me of Elizabeth I, who also saw the benefit of capitalising on her femininity but also adopting masculine attributes - such as referring to herself as a 'prince' and donning armour to address troops - although she wasn't so good at decisiveness :)