On the death of Margaret Thatcher: notes on the evolution of charismatic woman

When I wrote 'Our Masters' Voices' (1984), Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and looked well set to win at least one more term of office (and actually won two more). The following is a somewhat revised version of what I wrote then, and will be followed in due course by some further blog entries about how she and her advisors sought to solve the problems she was up against as the UK's first woman head of government.

I first learnt of her death at an Autoroute service station somewhere between Geneva and Chambery, since when I have followed much of the commentariat on Twitter and elsewhere. Apart from the vitriol, some of it tasteless and/or insensitive, what has surprised me is the way such a death prompts the emergence so many 'experts', quite a few of whom seem, at least to some of our fading eyes and ears, rather too young to qualify as such. 

I have also been quite shocked to be reminded that so many of our journalists' are so willing to trot out so many supposedly expert opinions that are so completely unconstrained by anything approximating empirical evidence.

On publishing 'Our Master' Voices', I had thought of offering a prize to anyone who could tell hose I voted from what I had written. Nearly 30 years later, it's become rather well known that I worked closely with Paddy Ashdown since before he became leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Nor had I ever voted for Margaret Thatcher at the time when I wrote the following (first posted on the blog 4 years ago).

Having just read it again, I do however think that it comes across as a reasonably 'objective' analysis - and that it's at least as 'objective' as much of what I've had to read (or listen to) during the past week...

PART I: Cultural & Vocal Challenges

It was important for Martin Luther King's success as a communicator that there already existed a distinctive black religious tradition that could be readily adapted for speaking on behalf of the civil rights movement, because American political oratory before the 1960s had been dominated by white males. But, when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 after winning the first of three UK general elections, there were no such obvious models for women. For thousands of years before that, politics and speech-making had been almost exclusively male preserves.

There are no records of any famous female orators in classical Greece or Rome, where the early texts on rhetoric assumed that the practitioners would all be male. This was very evident in the opening pages of Quintillian’s classic work on The Education of an Orator, where he had this to say about the aim of the book:

‘We are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless as a good man; and we require in him, therefore, not only consummate ability in speaking, but every excellence of mind ... since the man who can duly sustain his character as a citizen, who is qualified for the management of public and private affairs, and who can govern communities by his counsels, settle them by means of law, and improve them by judicial enactments, can certainly be nothing else but an orator.' (Quintillian, Institutes of Oratory, or The Education of an Orator, p. 4, emphases added)

In the years before Mrs Thatcher became prime minister of the UK, a number of women had become heads of government in other countries - Mrs Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Mrs Peron in Argentina, Mrs Gandhi in India and Mrs Meir in Israel - success stories that might seem to suggest that the male-dominated political mould had already been broken and that women in the future would in be able to enjoy equal opportunities in the pursuit of political careers.

Even then, however, there were two reasons for caution in drawing any such conclusion. The first was that three of the women who’d achieved high political office also had close family ties with male national heroes who had recently died, with Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher being the only ones who had reached the top entirely by their own individual efforts.

A second reason for caution is that women faced and still face cultural and physical obstacles with which men never have to contend. In the absence of any established tradition like that in which black American leaders Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson were able to operate, female politicians still have to develop new ways of surviving and thriving in such a male-dominated profession. This raises the question of whether the solutions found by Mrs Thatcher established any ground-rules that might benefit aspiring women politicians of the present and future.

Some of the problems faced by women in politics are obviously much the same as those faced by women in any other male-dominated profession – aptly summed up by the adage that ‘they’re damned if they behave like men, and damned if they don't.' If a woman acts in a tough, decisive or ruthless manner, she risks having her femininity being called into question. But if she appears gentle, indecisive or conciliatory, her male colleagues may conclude that she’s simply not up to the job.

This is a dilemma familiar to most professional women, but female politicians face another disadvantage because public speaking is such an important part of the job – not just because the techniques of oratory and debate have been monopolized by men for so long, but also because of the difference in length of male and female vocal cords that affect the pitch of the human voice.

Pitch can be a problem for all public speakers, whatever their sex, because it tends to rise when someone is nervous or is speaking louder than usual – both of which are likely to happen in speeches. For women the problem is more acute because the natural pitch of their voices has a higher starting point than is the case for men, with the result that it cannot rise as far before reaching a level at which it sounds 'shrill'.

This might not matter but for the fact that high pitch tends to be strongly associated with emotional or irrational outbursts - a deeply rooted cultural assumption that probably derives from (and is sustained by) the screams of each new generation of infants. The fact that the sound of a woman raising her voice is more likely to be negatively evaluated as ‘shrill' or 'screeching' is probably at the heart of a source of irritation that’s familiar to many professional women, namely the tendency of male colleagues to accuse them of 'overreacting' whenever they become involved in arguments.

Nor is it just a matter of there being negative associations with high pitched voices, as there are positive associations between lower-pitched female voices and attractiveness, 'huskiness' and 'sexiness'. Shakespeare's positive evaluation of low pitch has long been enshrined in the dictionaries of quotations:

'Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman' (King Lear, V, iii).

So the fact that Mrs Thatcher took positive steps to lower the pitch of her voice was a perfectly rational response to a real problem. Under the guidance of the National Theatre, she underwent training that included humming exercises aimed at lowering her previously natural pitch. Comparing recordings of speeches she made before and after tuition reveals a clearly audible difference. When played through a pitch and intensity analyser, the reduction in pitch came out at 46 Hz – a figure that’s almost half the average difference in pitch between male and female voices.

This significant decrease was all the more remarkable because it was achieved after Mrs Thatcher had already passed the age at which the pitch of women's voices tends naturally to rise: generally speaking, it falls up to the age of about forty-five, after which the it gradually starts to rise.

The lowering of her voice had other consequences that probably contributed both to the greater clarity of her talk and to its 'statesmanlike' character. For example, the human voice-production system works in such a way that a reduction in pitch tends to slow down the speed at which we speak, and the tutored Mrs Thatcher spoke noticeably more slowly than she did before having any voice coaching.

You can inspect the change in her style of speaking in the following clip showing her in one interview just after she became leader of the opposition in 1975 and another about ten years later after she'd spent two terms as prime minister.

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.

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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Julien said...

Max - I've been waiting for an entry on MT! Not disappointed.

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Claire Duffy said...

Max are the before and after clips missing from the end of Part 1? I know I've seen/heard them your blog before and would love to do so again.

Thanks for the excellent post.