When I cited Margaret Thatcher a decade ago in a discussion in London about powerful women and feminism, the audience booed. I wasn’t surprised. British feminists hated Thatcher. Her achievement of becoming the first female British prime minister was far outweighed for them by her Tory policies and imperious manner of leadership. But I did not expect the authorized biography by Charles Moore to reveal Thatcher’s keen lifelong understanding of the difficulties of a political career for a woman. I hadn’t known about her parliamentary feminist agenda in 1966, her support of the legalization of abortion and the liberalization of laws against homosexuality, or her forceful lifelong protests of economic discrimination against women.
Nor did I expect a lengthy biography of a controversial British prime minister (and this is only Volume I, ending in 1982) to be so sparkling, riveting and fresh. A former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Moore agreed in 1997 to write the book with the provisos that Thatcher would not read any of it and it would not appear in her lifetime. He examined all the documents and papers; interviewed Thatcher, her family members, colleagues, friends and enemies; and, most important, located 150 letters to her older sister, Muriel, that revealed more about her private life than “all the other sources put together.” While Thatcher never kept a diary and lived “a life with no space for self-examination,” Moore provides the personal insight, both sympathetic and critical, she always avoided, while giving a lucid and balanced account of the crises of her political career.
In his view, Thatcher managed to be a popular and admired public figure until she attained real power as leader of the opposition in February 1975. From then on, the tension between social expectations of nurturing and conciliatory feminine values, and her role as a national leader of uncompromising conviction and Elizabethan political strength became unsustainable, and she became the most divisive British prime minister of the 20th century.
From her school days in Grantham, where her self-made father was a grocer and alderman, Thatcher energetically prepared herself for a professional life. Her school friends respected her intellectual ambitions despite perceiving her as bossy and driven. But when she got to Oxford on a scholarship in 1943, she felt out of her depth and recognized the need to work on her social skills, accent, grooming and style. She struggled with her weight (even by 1979, campaigning to be prime minister, she was trying to lose 20 pounds), shopped carefully for fashionable clothes despite wartime rationing and managed to fit Oxford’s most expensive hairdresser into her modest budget. As she later said about raising her daughter, Carol, “A girl’s appearance is very important for her self-confidence,” as well as public opinion. She confidently chose to marry the successful businessman Denis Thatcher, although “he has not got a very prepossessing personality”; had twins in 1953; qualified as a barrister; and joined the Conservative Party. By then she was well aware of the barriers against women in politics, especially women with children, but she was determined to face them nonetheless.
In 1958, Thatcher had the chance to stand for Parliament representing the safe North London seat of Finchley. The party leaders chose a candidate from three contenders. “I expect the usual prejudice against women will prevail,” she predicted, “and that I shall probably come the inevitable ‘close second.’ ” But she was selected and went on to win. In an interview in 1959, she defended her descision: “I should vegetate if I were left at the kitchen sink all day. The twins are at school and in any case I have a full-time nanny. . . . I don’t think the family suffers at all through my political ambitions.”
Thatcher understood that the elaborate party courtesy shown to female members of Parliament went along with their political marginalization: “You took a woman in, but you gave her welfare, either a welfare or education or social services job.” But she worked uncomplainingly on her assignments, and in a project on taxation in 1966 she “broke out of the parliamentary female ghetto.”
As the secretary of state for education and science under Edward Heath, in 1970, however, Thatcher took the blame for abolishing free milk for primary-school pupils and was memorably dubbed “Milksnatcher.” After she became the leader of the opposition in 1975, her image as hard-hearted and unlikable increased. She was called “that bloody woman” and the “Iron Lady” and mocked as “the most unpopular woman in Britain.” When she was campaigning against James Callaghan to become prime minister in May 1979, she faced a classic double bind about debating him on TV. “If she had lost, she would have demonstrated straightforward incompetence. If she had won, that would have been a woman humiliating a man.” She avoided the debate, but she knew she had to get every detail of the campaign right. “There’s only one chance for women,” she ruefully observed. “ ’Tis the law of life.”
Thatcher’s three terms as prime minister were marked by crises and confrontations with antagonists who refused to negotiate, compromise or back down. First there was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and then, in 1980, a siege and hostage-taking at the London Iranian Embassy by militants, which ended when the Special Air Service launched a daring raid. In 1981, she faced down a prison hunger strike by the IRA, and 10 prisoners starved themselves to death before the IRA stopped the strike.
Then in April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, and Thatcher was determined to resist. While even her staunchest international ally, Ronald Reagan, waffled in his support, Thatcher dispatched a British war fleet. What had first seemed like a comic opera of a war quickly became serious as ships were sunk on both sides. Finally British forces retook Port Stanley, and Argentina surrendered. At a dinner of celebration in London the following October, Thatcher invoked “the spirit of the Falklands” and “the spirit of Britain which throughout history has never failed us in difficult days.” As one witness described it: “She spoke like Queen Elizabeth I. She looked like Queen Elizabeth I.”
Like her or loathe her, Thatcher was a colossus. Moore’s biography does her justice.
The Authorized Biography — From Grantham to the Falklands
By Charles Moore
Knopf. 859 pp. $35