“The Iron Lady” and Margaret Thatcher’s LegacyJanuary 20, 2012
You’d think that one of the first women to lead a democracy would be considered a feminist heroine. If our abbreviated goals are to advance women’s representation in government and to open up every opportunity for us to be men’s equals, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy as Britain’s first woman prime minister should be celebrated as an unadulterated milestone for women.
And yet, for many feminists, wrestling with Thatcher’s story is much more complicated than that. Thatcher’s political career is back in the limelight because of the just-released biopic The Iron Lady, especially because of Meryl Streep’s already award-winning performance, which is exactly as amazing as you’ve heard.
The film is cathartic for anyone who is a sucker for seeing women break through sexist barriers. The Iron Lady tells a romanticized version of Thatcher’s meteoric rise from a grocer’s daughter to an unlikely parliamentarian to an even more unlikely prime minister who led the United Kingdom for 11 years. We see remarkable support from the men in her life — her father encourages her education, and her husband endears himself to us by his support of her early political ambitions and by how he answers Thatcher’s teary proclamation that she will never be a pretty, silent wife who is content to live a domestic existence. He replies, “That’s why I want to marry you.”
Moments like this — and like the ones where her political advisers convince her that she has what it takes to be more politically successful than she realizes — are chicken soup for the feminist soul. We so seldom see affirming depictions of fiery, determined, sharp women characters being loved and appreciated for being something besides easy on the eyes or submissive.
But unfortunately, in The Iron Lady, these feel-good moments conflict with the sometimes heavy-handed scenes where Thatcher callously chooses her career over her traditional women’s duties and the fact that she as a character doesn’t seem to trust or value any other women. Her mother isn’t supportive of her education like her father is, she has a distant relationship with her daughter, and the memory of being bullied by catty rich girls haunts her throughout the film. She even says at one point that she’s always preferred the company of men.
And then, of course, there’s the politics. The signature issues that The Iron Lady focuses on seem like a laundry list of things that feminists tend to advocate against: union busting, slashing social safety nets, and ignoring the systematic discrimination that affects many workers. The fact that we’re in a very similar financial and political climate now makes these scenes even more unnerving.
Ultimately, the film matter-of-factly lays out Thatcher’s platform — and her opposition’s — without making much commentary about who was right. And in the end, that felt like an appropriate choice. It allowed audiences to do her justice as a woman trailblazer without necessarily being alienated by her politics. Because regardless of what they espouse, the women and other marginalized people who become the first this or that are making it a little easier for others to follow in their wakes.