Gillian Anderson in The Crown: tantamount to camp. Credit: Netflix

November 16, 2020   5 mins

I know I’m supposed to hate Margaret Thatcher. I know that someone with my politics is meant to detest her as a union-busting, milk-snatching, women’s-lib-baiting, Belgrano-sinking, Section-28-devising, society-destroying nightmare. I know that when Gillian Anderson was cast as Thatcher in series four of The Crown, I should have played up a shudder of disgust at Gillian Anderson, who is good, playing Thatcher, who is bad.

But here’s the thing: I don’t hate Thatcher. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of her legacy or anything (although anyone who thinks that industrial relations were doing fine before her or that the Falklands were some kind of unjustified expedition is clearly a fantasist), it simply doesn’t matter whether I like her or not because she is just too interesting.

Thatcher wasn’t the first woman to lead a country, but unlike her predecessors, Indira Gandhi in India or Isabel Martínez de Perón in Argentina, she didn’t arrive sanctified by a political dynasty. She was, as Prince Phillip snobbily points out to the Queen in The Crown, a grocer’s daughter. In real life, such condescension came strongly from the Left. The Blow Monkeys, one of the bands involved in the Red Wedge tour to support Labour, released an album called She was only a Grocer’s Daughter in 1987; and even though several pop songs fantasised about her death, that never seemed quite as ugly as supposed defenders of the working class announcing that Thatcher was just too common to rule.

Previous series of The Crown dig deep into the problems of exercising power while female. One of the most fraught moments comes in series one, when the young Queen wants her children to have the surname Mountbatten after their father, and her advisors overrule her on the grounds that the royal family must carry the royal name: should feminist sensibilities celebrate the triumph of the matrilineal principle, or mourn the crushing of a woman’s will? But Thatcher never had a name worth fighting over, and she certainly didn’t have anything as grand as service to God and country to rest her claims on.

Instead, she had to invent what being a woman in power on her own account looked like. She had to invent herself. As Caroline Slocock put it in People Like Us, her memoir of her time as Thatcher’s private secretary, Thatcher had to “manage the tensions between ‘being feminine’ — and therefore submissive — and being authoritative”. Women in politics walk a narrow path with firepits either side. Four decades and many female world leaders on from Thatcher, the strategies to make that crossing are better defined, but plenty of women still flounder on the problem that power is perceived as a masculine trait: succeed at being in charge and you risk failing at being a woman.

Donald Trump played off this relentlessly to help his defeat of Hillary Clinton, and Clinton wasn’t nimble enough to neutralise it. Part of her problem was that she really is a feminist: she has a consistent analysis of women’s oppression, and she used that analysis to explain the attacks on her. Unfortunately, telling people why they’re wrong to find you chilly isn’t a great way to make them warm to you. Thatcher, on the other hand, was the one who said: “I owe nothing to women’s lib.” She never appointed a woman to her cabinet. In The Crown, she tells a nonplussed Queen that women are “too emotional” in general for the business of government.

All this was (and remains) maddening, because of course Thatcher owed something to women’s lib, whether you mean the right to engage in politics as established by the suffrage movement, or the right to have a job as established by the second wave. But tactically, separating herself from feminism was fundamental to her success. Feminism was something ugly, dangerous, even seditious.

Not very long after Thatcher came to power, the female separatist Greenham Common Peace Camp was established to protest against nuclear arms. This was something truly radical: a defiance of the patriarchal family, a denunciation of militarism. You could tell they’d got under conservative skins when Auberon Waugh claimed Greenham smelled “of fish paste and bad oysters”, as though it were a sickening riot of femaleness in excess. It was also in a way a gift to Thatcher, I think, because here was exactly the thing she was not. If you found the Greenham women alarming, look to Thatcher instead – trundling around in a tank with her head peeping out the turret, headscarfed and smiling, an unlikely but perfect confection of feminine grace and firepower.

Feminine grace. One of the caricatures of Thatcher was that she was mannish — Spitting Image put her in an aggressively tailored suit that was nothing like the gem-bright skirt suits she actually wore. Although she cultivated her voice into an artificially low register to avoid sounding “shrill” (if anything, Anderson’s excellent portrayal softens the Thatcher voice, which in retrospect is an extraordinarily odd instrument), in every other way she played up her femaleness. The Crown shows her to us at her dressing table, surrounded with the implements of ladylike self-creation; it shows her dishing up supper for her cabinet, a performance of the good housewife that is tantamount to camp.

But while Thatcher expertly softened the edges of her authority with little-woman details, the truth is that she was able to take her place in politics because she had something that set her apart from almost all her sex: she had a wife. Or rather she had Denis, a husband so unusually supportive of her, and so notably happy to act the consort, that he essentially played the role that political wives have always done, enhancing her prospects rather than draining her efforts to support his own.

Thatcher’s rejection of feminism means she probably had very little idea how unique her own marriage was, although The Crown portrays it very sweetly — and the comparison with what we’ve seen in the previous series of Prince Phillip’s struggles and resentments at playing support act to his own wife makes Denis’s qualities obvious. He especially shines in episode two, when the Thatchers are invited for a hunting weekend with the Windsors at Balmoral. It is a disaster, with the Thatchers floundering against the opaque etiquette, but it’s not purely a matter of the posh excluding the commoners: we see Thatcher briskly telling Denis “we don’t want to catch any upper-class habits”. This is not a couple seeking assimilation to the aristocracy.

For my whole life, I’ve been interested in Thatcher mostly because she was a woman. When I was a child, she fascinated me simply because she had red hair and was female, like me; as I got older, I spent more time thinking about the subtleties of her public image, the calculations that had gone into making that persona. But the version of her in The Crown — and I think this is true to the historical Thatcher as well — is one who sees her sex as the least interesting thing about her. Class, though — class was always a preoccupation, and a propellant for her radical kind of conservativism. Margaret Thatcher, class warrior: maybe that’s a kind of Thatcher it’s politically allowable to like, after all.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.