Monday, January 23, 2012

THE IRON LADY’S AMBITION AND THE RIGHTEOUS

Yesterday my daughter and I went to the Margaret Thatcher biopic with Meryl Streep playing the title role.  We both had tears in our eyes as we left the theater and had to deep breathe a while before we could talk about it. 

Thatcher was the first woman to be elected (without succeeding a husband) as the leader of any country in the Western world. She left office in 1990 yet her heartfelt actions and policies continue to be debated today by both her admirers and detractors.  No leader departs office with a perfect record in everyone’s opinion and Thatcher was no different.

What is sad about this movie is the perspective from which her life is viewed. Thatcher, in her late 80s now, is suffering from dementia and that is how her story was presented. Her memory flashbacks about her life were commented on throughout the movie by her deceased husband who presented a theatrical Greek chorus response to her thoughts. 
A stunning review in Bloomberg News by Virginia Postrel coins the underlying theme of the story:  “…the loneliness of her old age represents a kind of karmic payback for her hubris in seeking to leave something more to history than her genes.”  

To elaborate on that thought, remember that women have always been limited to birthing and taking care of the male leaders in the world until the world began changing in the 20th century.  Margaret was three years old when England passed suffrage in 1928 (eight years after the US). By design or not, this movie is full of reminders about the way women historically have been culturally viewed as limited (or restricted) to the nurturing, caregiving role in life, and never capable of leadership other than in the home.

Women running for or holding public office even today can count on being questioned about how they expect to handle their home duties and their day jobs in the public sphere.  Only women have had to explain themselves and their AMBITION to be something more than the cultural caregivers and nurturers society has declared them to be. (Men, however, have routinely had to explain their behavior in relation to women, and how what they do in private reflects on their public actions.)

To gain an understanding of how women were viewed as political leaders not long after Margaret Thatcher was elected to Parliament in 1959, a BBC interview is available that reveals the early Thatcher. Thatcher was closely questioned, with her young twins by her side, about how she could successfully juggle her life in Parliament with her domestic duties. A housewife, community activist and barrister, she pointed out that she still did all the cooking and shopping and that Parliament’s recesses fell in line with her children’s school holidays.  

{To judge her beginning in politics, either search for Margaret Thatcher On Her Maiden Speech in the House of Commons; or try this link:  http:www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPplggrHpbs }


Eventually Thatcher’s close advisors and supporters in Parliament informed her that she had a highly pitched voice (apparent in the BBC video interview) and she must change it if she wanted to sound like a leader instead of a silly woman. 
In possibly the most condemning scene of a mother focused on her ambition instead of her children takes place when Thatcher drives to Westminster.  The camera shows her young twins running after her car screaming and crying “Don’t go!” while she scrapes toys off the dashboard. This is a fictional scene conceivably created to continue the critique of a woman working outside the home because her twins were adults when Thatcher was head of the Conservative party.

Now that Margaret Thatcher is in her 80s and classified as suffering dementia, will we all be still and quiet while she is ignored for her achievements as the first woman elected on her own merits as leader in the Western World?  

Will we all forget that Thatcher, the housewife/barrister who became the first woman Prime Minister, led England out of a recession, fought against Argentina in defense of the British Falkland Islands, and confronted the influence of the Soviet Union as well as socialism?

I was invited to write the section on Women and Politics in the 1996 edition of MacMillan’s Encyclopedia of the Future and included this commentary on Thatcher: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed the world that she could be as tough in leading Great Britain to war against Argentina as she was on social issues.

Margaret Thatcher paved the way in the West for more women to lead. She deserves better treatment than what this movie offers. She was not a perfect leader nor a perfect woman but she introduced the world to what women leaders can do as an offset against all male leadership, which, as we all know, has led the world to the economic condition it now suffers from in the third millennium of all male leadership.

Note:  Meryl Streep is a founding board member of the National Women’s History Museum and I am a charter member.  This is the same museum that some Congressional leaders do not want to be built on the Capitol Mall even though it is privately funded by donations.  What can possibly be the reason behind Congressional opposition to honoring the nation’s women who have achieved the impossible in a world that made it difficult for women to be far more than the ancient church declared and intended them to be?

Streep, by the way, has donated her salary of one million dollars from The Iron Lady to the National Women’s History Museum.  If you are interested in seeing this museum built, here is the address:
National Women’s History Museum
Administrative Offices
205 S. Whiting Street Suite 254
Alexandria, VA 22304
704-461-1920





9 comments:

  1. Thatcher is a rough topic for me. She may have been the first directly elected, but Isabel Peron was the world's first woman president ever, assuming the position upon the death of her husband. She was ineffectual and manipulated, but she was the first. Last week the State Department released this statement on the Falklands (Malvinas):

    "U.S. Position on the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands

    Office of the Spokesperson
    Washington, DC

    Question Taken at the January 19, 2012 Daily Press Briefing
    January 20, 2012

    QUESTION: Does the U.S. take a position on the recent posturing between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falklands?

    ANSWER: This is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom. We encourage both parties to resolve their differences through dialogue in normal diplomatic channels.

    We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands but take no position regarding sovereignty."

    We recognize the UK's de facto administration. We have far from recognized that as legitimate and did not at the time. There were many who disagreed with that war, I had hoped a woman PM might have found a different kind of solution.

    As a mother, she showed precious little sympathy for the mothers of the Long Kesh hunger strikers. Meryl, whom I love, has been about the business of trying to paint Thatcher as a progressive. She even used that word in discussing the movie. Thatcher was never a progressive. For me, she was an enormous disappointment as the first directly elected head of government.

    I did cry for Argentina. I also cried for the moms of the hunger strikers. I thought she was a cold, cold woman. I still do.

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  2. Thank you for your comment and your thoughts on this subject! My thoughts on Thatcher are based on my personal experience as a woman elected official, even though it was a low level of state office; plus, I watched what Hillary was put through in 2008. Policy positions are a legitimate way to criticize a leader but using her femaleness and her home duties to criticize any woman is inexcusable. You have my utmost respect for speaking your truth!

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  3. Thank you. She truly disappointed me. I was so ready to be behind her, and it broke my heart that she took the positions she did. I have no elective experience, but I could identify with the citizens when she rose to power and wanted her to succeed. I guess she did, but not in ways of which I approved.

    I honestly think she stoked the fires on conflict in Northern Ireland and made the situation worse - more deadly rather than less - without a thought for the little kindergarten children terrified of bombings and gunfire on their way to school. I expected better from a woman with children.

    The only good thing that came of the war in the islands that I call the Malvinas was that the military regime fell ending the "Dirty War" in Argentina that raged following the overthrow of Isabel Peron. No one knows how many thousands were "disappeared" but I doubt that was on Thatcher's agenda. It was a side effect. I don't think her war was meant to further the cause of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.

    I just expected better and learned not to vote identification politics. I voted for Hillary and will again no matter what the ballot looks like because she listened to us, understood us, and had firm clear workable plans. I didn't vote for her just because she's a woman. But I have noticed how she has done a great deal to heal the wounds in Northern Ireland that Maggie Thatcher caused. The Irish would vote for her if they could.

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    1. I think part of Thatcher's long term problem as a leader is her lack of breadth in her studies at Oxford. She earned a chemistry degree without any liberal arts education. Many colleges today require more than she had in the 1930s and it makes a huge difference in balancing the thought processes! It also matters that she was the youngest child in her family and did not learn much about child care until she had her twins. That, too, makes a difference. In the long run, Thatcher made many mistakes in policy decisions and more will be revealed in the future. She did what she thought was right with the advice and help of her conservative colleagues but some things are doomed no matter what. Keep in mind that the Pope gave Ireland to Henry II whose regime proceeded to set up today's conflict between the Catholics and Protestants! All in all, Hillary Clinton learned more between 2008 and today than Margaret Thatcher was ever given a chance to learn.

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    2. Henry II - murderer of Thomas á Beckett (well the major domo -as it were - demanding the hit). That must have been a pope who feared Beckett - sounds like a reward to me. Henry, obviously, had a similar mind set.

      No matter what set the situation up - the Clintons together have done a great deal to bring peace. I have family up there. Have heard the stories. I get a bit passionate about the subject. They are not, by any means convinced peace will come and last. But they love and believe in the Clintons. No love is wasted on Thatcher.

      During Thatcher's time, I could not understand why all the African, Asian, Oceania, and Caribbean colonies were given independence but not Northern Ireland. A colleague looked me right in the eye and said, "But honey. they're right at their doorstep!" Whoa! Like they were Cuba! Or would "get the bomb!"

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    3. The Clintons have undoubtedly done more for peace in Ireland than most people know. Thatcher's attitude apparently was an inherited one developed from the strife between the religious groups in Northern Ireland. You are right about Thatcher's standing with the Irish...but she isn't the only one who is hated...seems there is enough hate to go around....Thanks for your update!

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  4. Although I had and continue to have disagreements with PM Thatcher's policies, I am against the sexist treatment that she was subjected to. I haven't seen the movie, yet, but your blog will certainly inform how I view it.

    Barbara J. Berg, author of Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future

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  5. Thanks for your comments Barbara! Sexist treatment of women is a disease that has never disappeared.

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  6. I suppose it is Margaret Thatcher as the "first" if you look at western culture as all European. I would actually take a good look at Golda Meir from Israel. She was born an American in the upper Midwest and then made Aliyah. You could say it was she who paved the way for Thatcher, and it probably was because Israel had sufficient interaction with Europe during Thatcher's lifetime.

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