Historians have paid much attention to Margaret Thatcher’s father, a grocer and Methodist alderman from Grantham. Thatcher adored and emulated her dad: in many ways it was his work ethic and family-business values that laid the foundations for Thatcherism itself.
When we look back at the iron lady’s life, perhaps it’s equally significant that her mother was a dressmaker and seamstress.
Her political stance was uncompromising and strident – and so “Thatcher the image”. Yet brand Thatcher has an important, somewhat unexplored legacy.
The first female UK prime minister could brandish a handbag like no other. Her boxy, royal-blue tailoring and small pearl earrings became a powerful, regal, iconic uniform. No female leader since her premiership has managed to use a look to their advantage with such precise political effect. Thatcher dressed to command.
Even the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood credited her as being one of the world’s best-dressed people. (While adding that she, of course, loathed her politics.)
Westwood was one of her most vociferous critics but she understood the power of brand Thatcher. This was clearly parodied when she posed as Thatcher on the cover of Tatler magazine in 1989 under the slogan “This woman was once a punk”. The public would do a double take, in Maggie’s regalia she looked uncannily similar.
Brand Thatcher was a matron, a mother and something of a flirt. Unlike many other women leaders around the world who so often play down their femininity, Thatcher used it to her advantage at every turn. She was impeccable in public, but in private some biographers, such as Claire Berlinski, have described her as positively sensuous. In meetings she would slip off her shoes and snuggle into an easy chair with her feet tucked under her.
When it came to war she was also warrior-like. She seized the drama of the moment. She was caught on camera many times during the Gulf War, flanked by the Union Jack, with a Lawrence of Arabia-style headdress billowing in the wind. At other times, her elegantly coiffed hair, manicured grooming and pastel-coloured tailoring echoed the Queen. She was a role model.
But Thatcher was far from a feminist. By all accounts she did little or nothing to promote women in her cabinet. She preferred to be surrounded by a coterie of suited male ministers. Once in power, she largely avoided the issues of domestic violence, rape, abortion and parity in the workplace. Only one woman under Thatcher – Janet Young – was promoted to the cabinet, as leader of the lords.
For these reasons, her feminist legacy is ambivalent. Yet, despite this, the power of her position arguably did more to smash stereotypes and inspire women than any well-meaning campaign could ever do.
Part of this is down to her carefully crafted image. In a male-dominated world, brand Thatcher triumphed by being ultra female in so many different guises. For that we should surely credit her long-forgotten mother from Grantham.
Sophie Grove is senior editor for Monocle.