Searching for What Forged the Iron Lady

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The Iron Lady, the new movie about Margaret Thatcher, did not live up to its potential. Perhaps if they had focused on what it was like for her to be both a mother and a woman in power they might have made a more interesting movie.

Although I don’t see many movies in the theater these days, I made a special effort to see The Iron Lady, the new movie about Margaret Thatcher. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with her, Margaret Thatcher was Great Britain’s first (and so far only) female Prime Minister. She led the country from 1979 to 1990. As you might imagine, she was and is a very controversial figure, so I was interested to see a movie about her life as I actually knew very little about her.

While Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher was incredible (and very deserving of all the awards she’s sure to garner), I found the movie itself quite unsatisfactory. It focused a great deal on Thatcher as an old woman dealing with dementia instead of on her younger self. The scenes we did get of her political career did not offer much in the way of how Thatcher felt about what was going on. In short, the movie was much more biographical than it was psychological. This was especially disappointing to me as I was specifically hoping to discover how she felt about being a female politician amid a sea of men. The movie did provide scenes that showed the difficulties encountered by an ambitious young woman hoping to succeed in a male profession: having to leave the dinner table with the rest of the women so the men could talk, being the only woman in a political crowd, enduring the patronizing attitude of the Party Elders when she spoke. Yet despite these scenes, we hardly ever got a hint of how Thatcher felt about what was going on. What drove her?

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One of the rare glimpses we did get into her psyche came when Denis Thatcher asked her to marry him. It was clear that she wanted to accept but was afraid that he wouldn’t want to marry her once he understood what she was truly like. Toward that end, she informed him that she did not want to die “while washing a teacup.” To his everlasting credit, Denis replied that this was what he liked about her. It’s not often that movies depict strong men being unafraid of strong women, so when we do get a scene like that, I truly enjoy it! [Hint to filmmakers: it’s quite refreshing to see women and men functioning as true partners.]

A few years after they married, Margaret gave birth to twins, Carol and Mark. The fact that she is a mother was quite surprising to me and the movie almost glossed over this aspect of her life. However, there was one scene dealing with her status as a mother, which I found both infuriating and frustrating. The movie depicted Margaret sitting in her car preparing to drive to Parliament (the implication was that it was her first day on the job). The twins were outside of the car begging her not to go. Margaret looked straight ahead and drove off with them running behind the car yelling at her to come back. It was hard to determine whether Margaret was steeling herself to leave them or if she was excited to start her political career and was unmoved by their pleas.

I was infuriated by the scene because that isn’t something they would have shown had the movie been about a male politician who was a father. It’s perfectly acceptable for men to leave their kids to go to work but when women do the same, it’s a big deal (the thought being that it’s unnatural unless, of course, you’re poor and/or a woman of color and then it’s expected). However, that being said, I think the combination of family and work is an important topic and is not gender specific. We focus more on women’s feelings about it but men can feel the same.

I found the scene frustrating because Margaret’s feelings about trying to raise children and participate in an all-encompassing job were ambiguous and I wanted the movie to explore that. I hoped they would show her talking to someone about how difficult it was to leave the kids or even mention how being a mother affected her job performance but they didn’t. The one reference in the movie to her status as a mother influencing her job came when she personally wrote letters to the families of the soldiers killed in the Falklands. She said that it was because she was a mother and understood the huge sacrifice. To be fair, I can imagine that perhaps Margaret Thatcher generally avoided mentioning her status as a mother because she didn’t want to be seen as weak or family-focused (and yes, I’m completely aware of the irony of that in today’s political climate). I have known professional women who keep their mothering status on the ‘down low’ for those very reasons.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that being a mother shaped Thatcher’s job performance. It had to. Parenting is such an important role that there is no way you can be unaffected by it. How much you are affected by it does depend on the value you put on the role but even horrible parents are influenced by having children. Parenting forces you to consider the wants and needs of another person. It makes you think about what is necessary to teach and how to elicit the behavior that will help your child succeed in this world. Parenting asks you to stretch yourself: to be more giving, more patient, more accepting and more thoughtful. If done well, becoming a parent can transform you into a better person. If done without much growth though, you become your parents.

From the little tidbits we get in the movie, that is what I think happened to Margaret Thatcher. She was not close to her mother. Her mother was portrayed as dismissive of Margaret’s accomplishments and focused instead on her work of washing up. This is probably why Margaret was so determined not to die while washing a teacup. This image not only reinforced the traditional gender roles her mother embodied, but also reminded her that her mother seemed to care more for work than her daughter. Yet Margaret seemed to end up doing the same thing. She prioritized work and didn’t appear all that interested in her daughter Carol’s accomplishments (which is ironic given how Carol’s career has emphasized her parents by chronicling their lives in both books and film). Margaret was even shown telling Carol that she had always preferred the company of men. This seemed like a huge insult to Carol who, unlike her brother, was actively participating in her mother’s care.

Being a mother had to have been a source of great conflict, influence and perhaps even joy for Margaret Thatcher but all we got were mere hints as to what she felt. Given all the allusions to this complexity, it is sad that this movie explored so little of it. Clearly there was a lot of source material there for something truly illuminating but the filmmakers chose instead to make a safe (read: somewhat boring) movie. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am surprised. Mothering in general doesn’t get much play in the media unless it is used as a way to categorize women (e.g., soccer moms, mama grizzlies, stage mom). It’s a shame really because there are so many stories to be told. For example, wouldn’t it have been interesting to know if mothering played any role in building her strength of character or in her persistence in the face of almost insurmountable odds? In short, did being a mother help forge the Iron in the Lady?

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