The New Thatcher Era

Article excerpt

Byline: Amanda Foreman; Photograph By Brigitte Lacombe

A British Prime Minister, splendidly isolated, faces down a phalanx of scowling European leaders, all harrumphing censure in accents that are German, French, Italian. We've witnessed the scene before. Decades ago Margaret Thatcher warred with her European counterparts just as David Cameron did this month in refusing to yield control of national budgets to Brussels. The difference is that the Iron Lady did not speak softly when she wielded a big stick. She lambasted ambitious bureaucrats; the artificial Utopian megastate you want to build, she told them, will be a "tower of Babel" dominated by Germany and riven by economic crises. Though she was ousted in 1990 over her refusal to join the monetary union, her skepticism seems to be vindicated with every euro crisis. December 2011 is very much Maggie's moment, and with serendipitous timing, she's there on the big screen in a biopic, The Iron Lady, portrayed with preternatural realism by Meryl Streep.

MRS. THATCHER IS 30ish," stated a BBC memo written in 1957, "very pretty and dresses most attractively." The aspiring politician "assembles her thoughts well," but "her main charm," concluded the report, is "that she does not look like a 'career woman.'"

It took 22 years for Margaret Thatcher to overcome the pervasive sexism of the Mad Men generation to become prime minister in 1979. "I remember everybody was sort of secretly tweaked that she got in," notes Meryl Streep, now starring as Thatcher. "That a woman got in. We thought any second that meant here we'd have a woman president."

As she ascended, her paradoxical mystique fueled the fantasies of both critics and fans. Even as feminism evolved along with her career, the metaphors and put-downs--"eyes like heat-seeking missiles," "Iron Knickers," "flirt," "bitch," "the Handbag" (shortened by her detractors to, simply, "the Bag")--clung to her as they did not to other powerful women. Her decent and supportive husband would be depicted as a cowering milquetoast, such was the threat she posed to the status quo. And yet she would win three general elections as a conservative revolutionary at home and a world leader, transforming (along with Ronald Reagan) the ideological terrain of the Anglo-American world while bringing the Cold War to an emphatic end.

In the two decades since her fall from power, her mind has faded, as has her once-mythic image, either calcified as a caricature of a union-busting battleaxe or overshadowed by the achievements of other women on the world stage: Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice. But that is changing now with the convulsions of the euro she predicted and a return of ideological conflicts in which she was the most passionate advocate of free markets. Equivocation enraged her. When as leader of the party she thought some Tories were showing deviationist liberal tendencies--"wets," she called them--she marched into the headquarters of the Conservative Party clutching a book by Friedrich Hayek and proclaimed: "This is what we believe."

The film's focus on Thatcher's mental decline has been denounced by her admirers--who, like those of her fellow traveler Reagan, tend to be furiously overprotective of their hero's image and legacy. But their criticism misses a broader point. Streep's nuanced portrayal of the vulnerable human being behind the mask of the "Iron Lady" powerfully reminds us of Thatcher's achievements not just as a politician and leader but as a woman, a wife, and a mother. She is so controversial in Britain, though, that she has never been claimed by the feminist movement. In 2009 it took a public outcry to force a reprint after the deputy leader of the Labour government, Harriet Harman, published an official list of the 16 women politicians who changed Britain and left Thatcher off. Her rejection "even from feminists," says Streep, seems to "have something to do with our profound . …