How is Theresa May feeling? Ashamed, I hope, about the Windrush scandal. But, when it comes to the key men around her, angry, put upon and under threat, I’m pretty sure. That’s how Margaret Thatcher felt in her last 18 months as Prime Minister, as I saw first-hand when I worked for her. Equal pay, sexual harassment, misogyny: things haven’t fundamentally changed. From #MeToo to #ToxicTwitter, women are speaking out. But the long-suffering Theresa’s lips are sealed.
It’s no coincidence that Kenneth Clarke referred to both her and Margaret Thatcher in a single phrase: ‘that bloody woman’. According to Mary Beard in Women & Power, the portrayal of outspoken or powerful women as androgynous, dangerous or difficult goes back to classical times. It’s a trail that leads to Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential elections and chants of ‘kill the bitch’ at Trump rallies by men wearing t-shirts depicting Donald Trump holding Hillary Clinton’s severed, Medusa-like head. He is our Prime Minister’s military partner and we should all be concerned.
The underlying message that women in positions of power are not fully female or that to be powerful women must behave like men is expressed in the Spitting Image cartoon of Margaret Thatcher. We women need to start telling a different story.
But even women can fall into this trap. In a memorial debate in the House of Commons, Glenda Jackson MP acknowledged that Margaret Thatcher was a woman, but ‘not on my terms’. Hilary Mantel has described our first female PM as ‘a psychological transvestite’. Why does hating a woman’s party politics make it ok to say she is really a man?
Was Margaret Thatcher “more than a man and, in truth, something less than a woman,” the verdict on Elizabeth I by her minister Robert Cecil?
As a young civil servant, I went to work for her as her first female Private Secretary, indeed the first female Private Secretary to any Prime Minister. I was left wing, a feminist and no natural ally. I knew she had a problem with women like me because, up until me, the word was that she would never accept a woman in my new role. She wasn’t a natural ‘sister’, I can confirm.
But I found she was nothing if not feminine. Looking at her now, with the benefit of experience, I see in her qualities I observe in many successful women, including Theresa May. Despite having been Prime Minister for 10 years, she still felt she had to work harder than any man to be accepted, and master every last detail of her brief. Only after resigning did she stop dutifully processing every last paper in her overnight boxes. She never took anything for granted. She assembled a trusted team of loyal people at No 10 who fought her battles for her and became a protective bubble. And she was often very, very angry, with her most senior male colleagues whom she thought failed to do their jobs properly or failed to accept her authority. Men like her Chancellor Nigel Lawson, who took exception to her view that ‘I must prevail’ on the ERM and thought (as he wrote later) that she was “extremely headmistressy” and not “clubbable”.
Had Margaret Thatcher been a man, it would have ended differently. As to Theresa May, time will tell. She is in a much weaker position than Margaret Thatcher, politically - she is encircled by competitive men, and I fear is no match for Donald Trump’s misogyny.
Caroline Slocock was the first woman Private Secretary at No. 10 and was Private Secretary (Home Affairs) between 1989 to 1991 to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and is author of People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me