Women's History

The Other Iron Ladies

The film The Iron Lady has again focused attention on Margaret Thatcher and her leadership of an otherwise male-dominated Conservative Party. Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University – and currently working on a book on fictional representations of politics – assesses how other cultural representations of Tory women produced in the immediate aftermath of Thatcher’s downfall show how less prominent female figures reflected on the position of women in the party. You can read Steven Fielding’s blog here.

To the chagrin of many on the left The Iron Lady presented audiences with a sympathetic picture of Margaret Thatcher. Rather than dwelling on contentious topics like the Falklands war or the miners’ strike the film instead focused on the person of Thatcher, as an ageing figure, one who was trying to come to terms with her husband’s death. It also highlighted Thatcher’s position as a woman in Conservative party politics, stressing her isolation and even explained some of her harshness to colleagues through that vulnerable position.

In using Thatcher’s gender as a way of mobilising audience sympathies for their protagonist, The Iron Lady echoed similar strategies employed by other recent Thatcher dramatizations, notably The Road to Finchley (2008) and Margaret (2009). It seems that the politics of gender is now rescuing Margaret Thatcher from the hostility of socialist historians.

BBC DVD Cover © BBC 2008

In stark contrast, in her 1980s prime many of Thatcher’s critics exploited what they took to be her lack of ‘feminine’ attributes. David Hare’s The Secret Rapture (1988) and Paris By Night (1989) depicted female Conservative politicians cast in the Thatcher mould. Hare suggested that such characters were deficient as women, because of their politics, which meant they were selfish, judgmental, neglectful of their children and closed to their emotions. While, for his pains, Hare was accused by some feminists of misogyny, it was a common enough view: Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet was dressed as a man, smoked a huge Churchillian (and/or phallic) cigar and even urinated standing up. This was moreover not just the view of her critics: Ronald Reagan called Thatcher ‘the best man in England’.

Thatcher was just one of 19 women returned to the Commons in 1979; by 1992 that number had crept to 60, which still meant that 90 per cent of MPs were men: Westminster politics was a man’s world. Thatcher was however not the only Conservative woman to occupy a part in this political universe and in the wake of her enforced departure from Downing Street, four of them wrote novels which reflected on the place of women in the party as well as the possibilities representative politics held for women more generally.

Aimed at a ‘middle brow’ readership, and in some cases possibly a little lower, such novels have been ignored by those trying to understand the politics of gender. Indeed it remains the case that Alison Light’s Forever England (1991) is still one of the few historical works to be interested in conservative – as opposed to avowedly radical – literature written by women.

Edwina Currie was the leading exponent of this brief trend in popular literature, one the commercial success of her A Woman’s Place (1994) initiated. Currie was first elected an MP in 1983 and in 1986 became a junior health minister until forced to resign in 1988 after she made injudicious remarks about salmonella in eggs. A married woman, she also conducted a secret affair with the similarly placed John Major as he rose up the ministerial ladder, beginning her literary efforts only when it was clear her political career would not be revived during the Major premiership.

© Sphere Publishing 2002

According to Currie’s friend and fellow Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth, writing in his diary a few months before the publication of her first novel, in the Commons tea room ‘she’s the easy butt of every joke. In the Chamber, she speaks well, with conviction and authority, but no one seems to rate her. Perhaps it’s because she behaves like a man – she interrupts, she’s loud, she’s opinionated’. Whether due to her ‘mannish’ ways or not, Currie was certainly a despised figure amongst a variety of her male colleagues.

Dismissively dubbed a ‘bonkbuster’, A Woman’s Place was serialized in the Daily Mail and sold as many as 250,000 copies. On the back of the success of this novel, about Elaine Stalker, a newly elected Currie-like Conservative MP, Currie wrote a sequel, A Parliamentary Affair (1996), published the same year as Sara Keays’ The Black Book. Keays’ protagonist also echoed her own career insofar as she becomes an MP’s secretary. Like Currie, Keays had thwarted political ambitions, once harbouring hopes of becoming a Conservative MP. These were smashed in 1983 when she made public her twelve-year relationship with her boss, the married Cabinet minister Cecil Parkinson, further revealing that she was bearing his child. In the fall-out, Parkinson resigned although many in the party – including Thatcher – blamed Keays for his fall. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph even suggested that ‘a quiet abortion is greatly to be preferred to a scandal’.

© Headline Book Publishing 1997

Completing this quartet of novels, Alice Renton’s Maiden Speech and Vanessa Hannam’s Division Belle were both published in 1997. In contrast to Currie and Keays they were professional writers married to Conservative MPs: their protagonists were also MPs’ wives. Intended for readers with a rudimentary knowledge of Westminster – Keays had to explain what was the Black Book that gave her novel its title – they were not taken seriously as political or literary documents. Despite this, Currie claimed of her second effort: ‘Underneath the sex and the humour, the novel is intended to have a serious theme. It is designed to expose the decline of Parliament and the appalling treatment of women there.’ It was, she claimed, ‘my way of exposing what I consider are the faults and abuses of the system’.

Indeed all these novels had much to say about what they each depicted as the alien nature of a male-dominated politics, suggesting the lowly place women and the things they were presumed to think important, like family and relationships, held at Westminster. As one of Keays’ characters states, there were so few women MPs because politics promotes ‘aggressive and adversarial behaviour, rather than sharing and compromise’.

Conservative politicians and their party were consequently depicted as the ultimate embodiments of male selfishness, to which all – wives and children – had to be subordinated. Renton has a Central Office figure ask the constituency chair of her heroine, whether she was a ‘good wife’ by which he meant, ‘One who’ll do all the expected duties. I hope you haven’t landed us with some free-thinking career woman’. To be the wife of an MP, Renton makes it clear, is to return to a ‘pre-historic’ world in which the spouse must give up her own identity. Similarly, Hannam’s heroine is described as ‘the sort of wife the Party did not need: a woman who spoke her mind’. When she does attend a constituency function, for her pains she is criticized by some of the lady members for being bare legged.

This situation might have suited some women, but they were not the sort readers were invited to admire. Cabinet Minister Ted Bampton appears in A Woman’s Place, and is a sexist bully. He has however an accommodating wife whom he addresses thus:

‘”You’re a good woman, you know that? You don’t argue with me and mess me about, not when it comes to my job, and I don’t interfere with you. You know your place – running things here in the home, bringing up the girls, and not bothering yourself with silliness outside. Why can’t the rest be like that? Makes life much easier.”
‘Jean laughed, a slow reassuring chuckle. “Because women don’t know their place any more, and many wouldn’t be content to live the way we do. More fool them, I suppose. But it suits me.”

‘At the door he turned. ”I suppose we’re a bit old fashioned, the pair of us.”
‘”So what? We’re more typical of couples in this country than the feminists would believe. And the happier for it”’.
‘”Thank God for that.”’

It was as if Margaret Thatcher had not happened. As Hannam has the Chancellor of the Exchequer in an exclusively male Conservative Cabinet tell his supine wife: Thatcher may once have been Prime Minister, ‘but we’ve come to our senses since’.

The politicians to whom the novels’ heroines are expected to subordinate themselves are also of a very particular sort. Division Belle’s James Askew is described as: having a ‘controlled, ambitious heart’; in possession of no feelings; and a machine not a man. If these qualities are invaluable in his political career they are nearly the undoing of his marriage. Similarly Roger Dickson – Stalker’s lover who ultimately becomes Prime Minister – is ‘cold-blooded’ and said to reserve most of his emotions for politics. As a character in Keays’ novel states of Westminster: ‘the place is full of odd-balls and misfits. … I’ve a theory that it’s often men with some kind of hangup who go into politics to make themselves feel important.

© Coronet 1995

On watching the real Betty Boothroyd being elected Speaker at the start of A Parliamentary Affair, Stalker wonders if – given Boothroyd was unmarried and childless – it was impossible to be an MP and, ‘like millions of other women’, have a husband and children too? In Stalker’s case the answer is – after two novels – ultimately in the negative. Having initially been happy to given up housework and morning sickness to pursue her political career, A Woman’s Place ends with Stalker marrying the acme of conventional Conservative masculinity, a reserve officer in the Guards, and return to a life where ‘success [is] not based on hypocrisy but on hard work and talent’.

In the Renton and Hannam novels domestic life is torn asunder by politics and tranquility only returns – and the novels end – when their husbands give up on Westminster. Indeed, James Askew only saves his relationship by appreciating that marriage is a partnership, that his wife has her own life, and family is superior to political ambition.

These Conservative women, all writing after Thatcher’s downfall, thus present politics as antithetical to domestic happiness and female fulfillment: the public sphere is at once male-dominated and inferior to the pleasures and possibilities of the private sphere, either expressed through family life or building a career – or both.

In presenting politics in this manner, they echo the perspective of many of Agatha Christie’s interwar novels – such as The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). As Alison Light points out, Christie’s stories sympathetically addressed the concerns of young female readers, articulating a new kind of conservatism, one self-consciously ‘modern’ and certainly not nostalgic for the past. Thus, a number of Christie’s early heroines were career women to whom politics, as embodied by pompous, overweight middle-aged men – often right-wing Conservative MPs – who wanted to lock them into marriage or generally boss them about, was an imposition or impediment.

While Christie was ostensibly ‘apolitical’ (as were many other interwar middle class Conservatives) Currie et al reflect the extent to which her view of politics – as a man’s world from which modern, right-minded women should flee – continued to exert its influence even amongst Conservative women. Given this entrenched view, it is little wonder so many contemporaries thought Thatcher’s success meant she must have been in some ways ‘mannish’. They also highlight why – with 81 per cent of MPs even in 2010 being men – modern-day dramatic representations such as The Iron Lady now use Thatcher’s gender as a way of making her sympathetic to audiences.

Click here for Beatrix Campbell on ‘Margaret Thatcher – The Movie’

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