The Iron Lady, an Anti-Feminist Film?

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher Photo Credit: Alex Bailey / Courtesy of Pathe Productions Ltd
In the movie The Iron Lady, there is one line in particular that stands out in my memory.  “I don’t want to die washing the dishes,” Margaret Thatcher said that to her soon to be husband in the midst of his marriage proposal.  I sat there nodding my head, thinking that she and I had a lot in common.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a British writer and director, and written by Abi Mogran, two women, I had high hopes that this film would take me through the journey of how one woman in the UK transformed herself into one of the most well-known politicians we’ve ever had.

At the start of her career in politics, Thatcher married, had a family (twins) and stepped into the traditional home maker’s role even though she clearly had bigger fish to fry. She clearly chose her career over her family, as the film shows her driving to a meeting in London, with her children chasing after her,begging her not to leave them. Later she announces her intention to seek the party leadership on the day that Carol has passed her driving test, earning a rare rebuke from her husband for putting herself first.

As I watched her become the highest ranking official in British Parliament of her time, the shot of her standing in her blue dress in a room full of men remains etched in my memory.  It looked like the film could have taken a feminist direction, but that was the last I heard of her status as the only woman in British Parliament in the film. We watched her battle with men over big decisions, and she certainly held her head high during every argument, which, of course, I admired.

The film shows that she made choices, as we all have to do, but as a leader, she focused on the kinds of issues that men care about – war, strikes, the economy.  She didn’t really seem to address women’s issues, like abortion, rape,  nor did she try to push them on her agenda, and she certainly wasn’t fighting to bring other women into Parliament from what we could see as every scene was full of men pushing their Tory agenda onto her’s.

About feminism, Thatcher herself, once said, “I owe nothing to women’s lib. The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

However, on the other hand, her husband did watch her career from the sidelines.  She did put motherhood on the backburner.  She was pleased when her husband tried to cook a meal to help out.  The film was made by feminists, including Streep herself, so it’s not completely anti-Feminist, and how can it be?  It’s about a fearless leader who supposedly transformed her country and stayed in power longer than any other Prime Minister.  But it does concentrate on Thatcher’s dementia and deteriorating state, and perhaps the only memories she is looking back on are meant to provide a certain picture as there are many things she did that were look out, and perhaps there were moments where she defend herself or women’s rights that we are not being witness to in this film.

Streep is outstanding, as always, in a role that covers 35 years of her life.  At one point, my husband said she played the role so well that he could hardly tell the difference between the real Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep.

I am sure that in her own way, Thatcher was a feminist and certainly did believe that women could do anything they set out to do based on her own achievements.  But the more tea she served in the movie, and the more blue suits and handbags I had to look at, it made me wonder if she was just “one of the men” and that is how she achieved her success.

There is a very interesting article  from the Guardian on whether she improved women’s lives without really ever meaning to.   It states, But for those of us whose world did improve, who saw opportunities swing open and had the background, wealth, education and circumstance to maximise them, she did something unmatchable. 

What do you think?  Was Margaret Thatcher a feminist or anti-feminist?

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  1. It is true that Margaret Thatcher was a “woman ruling proudly in a man’s world” (Gibbons, quoted in A.Fraser, The Warrior Queens, NY: Knopf, 1989, p.321), but there is little evidence that she was anything more than a role model to other women considering positions in public service/government globally. There is no visable evidence that she purposefully promoted the advancement of other women into Parliment. In fact, she was party to the demotion of Baroness Janet Young, who was leader of the Cabinet’s House of Lords, “to a minor role in the Government outside the Cabinet” (A.Fraser, 1989: pp. 318-319). An excellent resource regarding Thatcher’s style of leadership “as being a woman” is provided in Hugo Young and Anne Sloman’s The Thatcher Phenomenon (1986: p.142). There is evidence and testimony from Thatcher herself, that she saw no advantage in supporting the Women’s Movement, “What has it done for me?” Unfortunately, she could have done a lot more for the Women’s Movement and the rise of women in public service had she believed what Former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright predicts: THERE IS A SPECIAL PLACE IN HELL FOR WOMEN WHO DON’T SUPPORT OTHER WOMEN!” And I would add–because so many youth today (male and female) view feminism as the path to diminishing the oppression of people (regardless of gender)–that Thatcher was more interested in promoting herself as the “Iron Lady” or the modern day “Boadicea” (who also neutered all males in her way), than she was ever interested in opening pathways for more and more women to follow in the footsteps she forged.

    She was indeed a remarkable woman and leader–but she was more of an ‘honorary male’ in a men’s world than a woman warrior who would shape the world with more feminine attributes (e.g., collaboration, relationship-building, and mentorship/ sponsorship of more women into public office). Admittedly, she hailed from a long history of female leaders in England (e.g., Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria) who saw no benefit in the principles or practicality of civil rights for women as equals. Perhaps it was the context of the times that encouraged her to dismiss the Women’s Movement–but it did, nonetheless, shape her as less of an inspirational woman leader for today’s emerging woman leaders, and for this author.

  2. I can’t wait to see this movie!!! I live in Guatemala, and everything will take much longer to get here.

    I don’t think she’s either feminist or anti – I think she was a strong woman that knew what she wanted and got it!!!

    Good for her.

    I can’t wait to see Meryl Streep, she’s amazing always.

  3. I think people wanted to label her as a feminist because she was a woman with power. But pushing a feminist agenda was not why she wanted to be PM. Thatcher wanted to prove if you are good enough no mater what gender you are you can be on top by being yourself. So, I do believe just by becoming PM and proving equal opportunity in that position was a success for feminists but nothing more then that.

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