‘Irony Lady’: How a Moscow propagandist gave Margaret Thatcher her famous nickname

April 8, 2013

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrives to take office May 4, 1979, at No. 10 Downing Street. (AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 24, 1976, a Saturday, a Soviet propaganda outlet known as Krasnaya Zvezda published an unremarkable article condemning an up-and-coming British politician named Margaret Thatcher. She had taken leadership of the U.K. conservative party, then the opposition party, less than a year earlier and had earned a reputation as an anticommunist crusader.

Krasnaya Zvezda, known as a mouthpiece for the Soviet army, was responding to a speech in which Thatcher had accused Moscow of seeking world domination. It was a pointed but not especially novel charge, and the paper responded with in-kind boilerplate. But it also, as propaganda outlets are known to do, supplemented fact with a bit of what appears to have been lazy fiction. And that is where it changed history.

Robert Evans, then the Reuters bureau chief in Moscow, found a copy of the paper while trudging through the "quiet but miserably slushy" downtown. He saw the article lambasting Thatcher and, for want of anything more interesting to cover about that day, decided to write it up. The original Russian item carried the headline "Zheleznaya Dama Ugrozhayet," which Evans translated as "Iron Lady Wields Threats."

According to the original article, written by an army captain named Yuri Gavrilov, Thatcher's "compatriots" had coined and used the name. It's still not totally clear weather this story was whole cloth fabrication based on rumors that some Britons had called Thatcher an "iron maiden" in reference to the medieval torture device, or whether there might be some truth to those rumors.

Evans, in his file that day from Moscow, wrote, "British Tory leader Margaret Thatcher was today dubbed 'the Iron Lady' by the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper Red Star." The phrase immediately caught on in the British press, where Thatcher's image of toughness and anti-Communism were still forming.

One week later, Thatcher herself championed the new name. In a speech at Selborne Hall in the London neighborhood of Southgate, she announced, to cheers, "I stand before you tonight in my Red Star evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world." She added, "Yes, I am an iron lady."

The name stuck, all the more appealing for its Soviet source and its intent as an insult. Three years later, the Iron Lady became the British prime minister.

You can watch a video of Thatcher's 1976 speech here.

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Max Fisher · April 8, 2013