The XX Factor


While we are on the subject of elderly female pathbreakers , Emily-and before the 30th anniversary of her ascent to the British prime ministership passes-maybe it’s worth reflecting for a minute or two on the career of Margaret Thatcher. Long before Hillary, decades before Sarah, there was, after all, Maggie: The idea that female politicians can run important countries, make tough decisions, get elected and re-elected to office is not actually all that new.

What is extraordinary about Thatcher, in retrospect, is how unimpressed she was by her own groundbreaking role, and yet how feminine she remained while holding what had been, up until then, an exclusively masculine job. She was not a member of the all-male clubs where the Tory party allegedly made its secret decisions, but she didn’t seem to care. She was often the only woman in the room, but didn’t appear to be in the least intimidated. At the same time, nobody ever mistook her for a man. On the contrary, she had, in the words of then-French president Francois Mitterand, “the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe.” Gorbachev called her the “Iron Lady.” She was immaculately dressed and coiffed, and never wore trousers. She terrified many of the men who worked for her. Once, she famously snapped across the cabinet table at Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer: “Nigel, get a haircut.”

Though sometimes criticized for not helping other women make it in politics, this is not entirely fair: In fact, Thatcher set the stage for the rise of a whole generation of prominent female politicians. Since her prime ministership, women have run the British foreign office, the Home office, the Northern Ireland office, and many other important parts of the government. In the past decade or so, women broadcasters, political columnists and newspaper editors have become commonplace in the U.K.-more so than in the U.S. I can’t help but think Thatcher’s example had a role in that, too. Because she was a conservative, feminists have never wanted to claim her as a role model, and have never celebrated her achievements. But as time goes on, her premiership looks more revolutionary, not less.