Margaret Thatcher: The Epitome of ‘Leaning In’

Haig_and_Thatcher_DF-SC-83-06152I’ve had the movie Iron Lady sitting on my TiVo for months, just waiting for viewing. Given the recent passing of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – and the rare occasion that both of my kids were asleep at the same time on a rainy Friday afternoon – I decided to finally watch the Iron Lady as I worked from home. The film stars the fabulous Meryl Streep playing the late Thatcher, and tells the story of how she paved the way for women in British politics, forcing her female voice into the male-dominated political arena, demanding that the men listen up. Thatcher was dubbed “The Iron Lady” because of her leadership style and often uncompromising attitude when it came to politics. Men would be praised for such characteristics, but women? Well, people may have other words for us when we exude those traits.

As early as the first 30 minutes of the film, I was immediately drawing parallels to Thatcher  and what Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to do in her book Lean In. By now, Sandberg and her book are no strangers to women in this country. Even if you haven’t read the book – but I just ordered on Amazon — you know the gist — Sandberg encouraging women not to take their foot off the gas pedal of their career before they have kids, until it’s absolutely necessary; calling on women to help each other and be better negotiators; having more confidence in themselves as they crawl to the upper echelons of their work place; and, find a man to marry who will support you at home so you can keep working to your potential.

Perhaps no women better personifies all that Sandberg espouses than Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving prime minister of the 20th century and only female to hold that position to date. The daughter of a grocer, Thatcher had political ambitions at an early age. She met her future husband, Denis, in 1949 after she was selected as a parliamentary candidate; he was well aware of her political ambitions when he met her, but perhaps not aware of how far she would take them.

“One’s life must matter, Denis,” Streep (playing Thatcher) says in a scene after Denis proposes marriage, as she pleads with him to understand that he should not expect a housewife. “Beyond all the cooking and the cleaning and the children, one’s life must mean more than that. I cannot die washing out a tea-cup. … I mean it, Denis. Say you understand.”

Denis: “That’s why I want to marry you, my dear.”

Thatcher was a chemist, but after marrying finished her training as a barrister – – a British trial lawyer. The same year she finished that training, she gave birth to twins and, two years later, she was back on the campaign trail. Talk about “leaning in!” For the record, though, the babies actually slept in the full-time nanny’s room from the time they came home from the hospital. As Thatcher fulfilled various positions in government, she faced hordes of men who judged her on appearance and tone of her voice.

“If she wants us to take her seriously, she might want to calm down,” one male politician told her as she made her case before Parliament in one scene. In response, she told them to pay attention to WHAT she was saying, rather than HOW she was saying it.

When she was running for prime minister, consultants on her team did the usual consultant spiel – changed her hair, got rid of her hats … and, changed her voice:

“The main thing is your voice. It’s too high and it has no authority,” her male consultant told her. “People don’t want to be harangued by a woman, or hectored. Persuaded, yes.”

As to why she ultimately decides to run for prime minister, well, she never expected to win. In fact, she infamously said no woman would ever be Prime Minister during her lifetime. Rather, she was running, she (Streep) said, because, “someone must force the point. Someone must say the unsayable. None of the men have the guts. … I will run just to nip at their heels.” In the movie portrayal response to her announcement to run for PM, her husband – who had steadfastly supported her for years – called her “insufferable.”

As Thatcher scores one of her earliest political victories and is elected to Parliament, she leaves her kids at home with steel resolve as she heads off to London, her kids crying, begging for her to stay. You see her Streep-as-Thatcher hiding one of the children’s toys that was sitting on the seat in the glove compartment — a way to push them out of her mind, in a way, so that she may pursue her ambitious career.

Thatcher had a remarkable level of confidence in herself and unquestionably made an indelible mark on history with her tenure as Prime Minister, one that inspired other women to pursue their political dreams, and one that reminded everyone that a woman’s voice demands to be heard, and that voice can affect great change.  She may not have been very likeable, but then again, aren’t the most successful women often not considered “likeable?” But she was absolutely formidable.

Not everyone could have done what Thatcher did, and I don’t just mean scoring as many political victories. Not every mother could leave their young children behind to take to the campaign trail (thus the reason we have so few moms of young children in Congress – kudos to women like Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-FL, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y), or to work 60-plus hour work weeks to prove to the higher-ups that women should be taken seriously (because we all know that no matter how productive you are, if you have a competitive job in a competitive city and you’re out that door before 5 or 6 p.m. to get home to your family, people look at you funny, no matter what Sandberg says), let along being away from the kids working in a different city or state Monday through Friday.

Thatcher made clear that her life was going to mean something outside of the house – and she made good on that vow, for sure. Many may consider her the ultimate feminist, though she had no goal to start any sort of women’s movement; she wanted to make a difference, and that she did. She likely never would agree to organize any “lean in” circle had she been alive to have the opportunity. But she married the supportive spouse, had the means to hire the full-time nanny, never took her foot off the gas pedal – leading up to or in the aftermath of having children – and made herself a force to be reckoned with in the “business” in which she worked.

Yet I wonder: Did she ever doubt whether she was doing the right thing by her family? I am not by any means judging her. There’s far too much of that going around among us women. But I don’t think she would be human – a human mother, in particular – if she never had at least a shred of doubt. After all, it’s doubt that likely plagues all moms, no matter what we decide about careers at any given point in time — those of us who have a choice, that is. Single moms or those who can’t afford to stay home don’t necessarily have the luxury to doubt whether they’re doing the right thing by their kids, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be plagued with doubt’s partner in crime when it comes to motherhood – guilt.

Maybe we’ll get some insight into Thatcher’s feelings when it comes to her version of work-life balance soon, as her biography, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning, is due to hit shelves immediately after her funeral. “At the moment when she becomes a historical figure, this book also makes her into a three-dimensional one for the first time,” according to Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books UK. I for one plan to “read” it, if it’s ever available on, that is. This mom is too busy  leaning in working from home and taking care of her young children to read paper books these days. But an audio book? That’s one thing an hour-plus-long commute to work five days a week would be good for. I wouldn’t be surprised if Thatcher would have been a fan if they had existed in her Iron Lady days.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense

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