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Margaret Thatcher: a jewel-frocked siren in a sea of grey suits

The V&A is wrong to turn down Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe; we can’t deny the importance of her sex appeal, used to disarm male colleagues in a hostile environment.

The article was originally published on 10/4/2013

You can ask if Thatcher was a feminist, but it's a bit like asking if the lioness who ate your leg off is a feminist. There's a critical difference between a woman who exercises individual power, and a person who believes that the unequal distribution of power between men and women at large needs to be redressed: Thatcher was definitively the former and not the latter.

But even if she didn't acknowledge gender politics, she still had to exist within them, and her public image was defined by sex - both her gender and her sexuality. Margaret Thatcher was sexy, and she knew it and used it to gain and maintain power.

Westminster politics are a hostile enough environment for women now. For Thatcher to survive in the parliament of the 1950s, she had to be extraordinarily determined and resilient. To rise to the highest office, she had to do more than just resist sexism: she had to use it to her advantage. What else could she do? Being a woman in power made her a freak.

You only have to look at the film and photos from her rule to see how shockingly she stood out from the mass of men who comprised both her own cabinet and her peers as world leaders, a jewel-frocked siren in a sea of grey suits.

She had to decide whether to let that freakishness be perceived as a flaw, or turn in into a strength. With her pristine lipstick and pussybow blouses, her handbag and housework metaphors, Thatcher exuded femininity.

And the less ladylike the environment, the more insistently feminine her look seemed to become, until she achieved a kind of camp at times: a primly headscarfed head poking from the turret of a tank. Having an image that reinforced gender conventions made it much easier for her to defy them in practice: the predominance of men over women seemed secure as long as ultra-ladylike Thatcher was the only exception.

The Conservative Shadow Cabinet at the State Opening of Parliament in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

One of her greatest propaganda wins was establishing a reputation for frugality through the story that she bought her own ironing board to Downing Street: the anecdote turns up repeatedly in her obituaries, even though her claims on the public purse for living expenses in recent years suggest that parsimony wasn't quite such a priority for her. But the ironing board was the perfect emblem for her rule, because it united her command of the national economy with the acceptably female realm of domestic economy.

And of all the slogans that opponents tried to pin on her, the one that stuck hardest was "Milk Snatcher". Documents released in 2001 showed that Thatcher had opposed the policy of withdrawing free school milk, but the monstrous anti-maternal image of a woman minister denying milk to children seemed to have an indestructible power. When Spitting Image satirised her, it stripped away her femininity. "The whole image was of an impenetrable hard body, the hair and clothes," says Sue Nicholson, who made costumes for the puppets. "As her term in office progressed, she was portrayed in a more masculine way, ending up as a cigar-smoking Winston Churchill look-a-like."

Mannish, mad-eyed Thatcher bullying her cabinet was a glorious caricature, but it overlooked how much she used flirting as means of control. In Jon Snow's retrospective Maggie and Me, over and over her former colleagues recall her ability to disarm them by coming slightly too close - and how ill-equipped they were to deal with it, when their only experience of commanding women up till then had been the matron at their public school.

Alan Clark recorded his feelings on her "very small feet and attractive ankles" in his diary (they were lusty feelings, of course, this being Clark); Francois Mitterand said she had the "eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe". No one ever considered the erotic potential of Ted Heath, and of course the objectification of Thatcher was wildly sexist - but given that it was probably unavoidable, she played it cannily by making a weapon of it rather than a weakness.

It's hard to imagine any female politician now adopting the style Thatcher did, but then no female politician has to negotiate the circumstances Thatcher did. Is it demeaning to mark a female politician's death with speculation about which leaders of the free world she probably fancied?

Certainly. But in Thatcher's case, I don't think we can understand her without understanding how much sex contributed to what she was.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

THE PIERRE AND MARIA-GAETANA MATISSE COLLECTION, 2002/© 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
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How Leonora Carrington fled privilege and the Nazis to live the surrealist dream

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington is at last receiving the attention she deserves.

“When France sneezes,” the 19th-century Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metter­nich once said, “Europe catches cold.” France was no less contagious in the first decades of the 20th century, when Paris became the cultural capital of the Western world. Cubism, fauvism, Dada and surrealism were incubated in its galleries and cafés, where artists of various nationalities dreamed up new ways to blast away the past, among them Gertrude Stein, Marie Laurencin, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. But when the Nazis arrived, the City of Light went dark, and expats in Paris – as well as those such as the German surrealist Max Ernst, holed up in the French countryside and branded “degenerate” in his homeland – needed to escape, and fast. This was a European war, many decided, and salvation lay in the United States.

Portugal, facing the Atlantic and officially neutral in the conflict, offered the surest way to the Americas. And so Lisbon became “the great embarkation point”, as the film Casablanca described it in 1942. The British journalist Hugh Muir observed that the churn of diplomats, spies and refugees passing through left the local population “much as they were”; they inhabited not the Portuguese capital but a Lisbon of their own making that happened to share its geography.
Those with the means filled the best hotels. Those without scraped by in boarding houses, doing what they could to survive.

The hitherto sleepy seaport was transformed. By October 1941, the Irish Times was declaring Lisbon “the hub of the Western universe”. On the city’s news-stands, vendors sold the British Daily Mail alongside the New York Times, the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and the Falangist Arriba, free from censorship and without segregation on the shelves by language. The newspapers were a welcome distraction for their readers, who had plenty of time to read. It could take months for the necessary travel documents to come through, and most people seeking safe passage to the US had little choice but to wait, and wait, and wait.

One of those waiting was a Mexican called Renato Leduc, who as a teenager had fought for Pancho Villa’s forces in his country’s calamitous civil war. Since then, Leduc had studied law and become a poet, before drifting into a job at the Mexican embassy in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the surrealists André Breton and Paul ­Éluard. At a dinner party in the spring of 1938, he met – and was charmed by – a young Englishwoman called Leonora Carrington, then Max Ernst’s lover. Three years had passed since that fleeting encounter in France and now Leduc was living with Carrington in the Alfama district of Lisbon, pressing administrators to confirm the date when they could be married at the British embassy.

Yet it wasn’t love that bound Carrington to Leduc. Born into new money on 6 April 1917, Carrington spent her childhood at Crookhey Hall, a mansion in Lancashire standing in 17 acres of gardens and woodland. Her father, Harold, was an ambitious textile manufacturer who, to the young Leonora, resembled “a mafioso” in his disciplinarian manner. When her mother, Maurie, gave her a copy of Herbert Read’s book Surrealism, published to coincide with the movement’s landmark London exhibition in summer 1936, Carrington was intrigued and visited the show. There she was exhilarated by the work of one artist in particular – Max Ernst – and, through connections at the art school where she was studying, she arranged an ­introduction to him at the Highgate home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger.

Carrington, an instinctive rebel who had been forced by her parents to “come out” as a debutante at Buckingham Palace not long before, instantly fell for the German artist, despite their age gap of 26 years. “From the second they set eyes on one another,” writes Carrington’s cousin Joanna Moorhead in her new biography, “the electricity is palpable between the beautiful, sparky young woman with her dark eyes, crimson lips and cascade of raven curls, and the white-haired, slim, middle-aged man with his lined forehead and kind-looking eyes.” That almost obscenely cliché-ridden description seems to have strayed on to the pages from a bad romance novel, but what is love but a big cliché we can believe in, and can’t help but do so?

Perhaps “cliché” isn’t quite the right word for anything to do with Carrington, however, because her life was an extended refutation of convention. The love between her and Ernst was more correctly of a mythic order, or, at least, it is presented as such in Moorhead’s account (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour . . .”). And mythic is the register that she explored as a painter and writer, first among the surrealists in France and then as one of a small group of like-minded artists in Mexico, where she moved towards the end of the Second World War. In striking works such as The Giantess (c.1947), with its towering woman tenderly guarding a small egg, she invented a kind of symbolic code that channelled the occult and the Renaissance masters to suggest a subliminal life larger than what tasteful language could reasonably convey.

Despite their obvious attraction, Ernst and Carrington seemed mismatched to her father. Ernst was twice married, German and, worse, an artist – one who delighted in flouting the social hierarchies that Harold had so studiously climbed. So, like the “old gentleman” in Carrington’s short story “The Oval Lady” who burns his daughter’s favourite wooden horse (“What I’m going to do is purely for your own good,” he says), Harold attempted to have Ernst deported to Hitler’s Germany on bogus pornography charges, hoping to end the relationship.

What followed was a family bust-up that left Carrington an exile for the rest of her life. The couple fled to Cornwall and then Paris to live among the surrealists, ignoring Harold’s warnings that they would “die without money”. He would stop her allowance, he said, but she didn’t care. She was leaving home – not just for Ernst, not just for the thrills and wonders of a new artistic milieu, but for “a whole new beginning” (another of Moorhead’s romance novel phrases but, again, perfectly true).

The Paris interlude was a blessed one. The couple took up residence in Saint Germain a few metres down the road from Picasso; he would drop by to dine and dance in their kitchen, a bottle of wine in his hand. Dalí was another friend, as were Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli and Marcel Duchamp. While in the city, the surrealists held an exhibition at the Galerie Beaux Arts featuring mannequins in a darkened room that visitors had to navigate using torches – one of the earliest examples of installation art.

Throughout this time, Carrington was developing her own work. She painted, she drew and she wrote, publishing a beguiling story called “The House of Fear” in 1938 in a limited edition with illustrations by Ernst – her first published writing and also, as Moorhead writes, “a kind of public acknowledgement of her relationship with Max”. His estranged second wife, Marie-Berthe, was understandably mortified by their romance;
to escape her scorn (and also that of the surrealists’ leader Breton, who had fallen out with Ernst over his friend Paul Éluard’s rejection of ­Trotskyism), the lovers moved south to the remote Ardèche region.

Their farmhouse was inhospitable and lacking in comfort, so they worked on the building, installing a terrace – but they also made an artwork of the building, adorning its surfaces with images of unicorns, winged creatures, lovers and horses. It was an idyllic and productive retreat but it came to an abrupt end. In 1939, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien after France declared war on Germany. He was sent to an internment camp and released three months later; but in May 1940, after the Germans crossed the Maginot Line, he was arrested again. Unable to secure his freedom, Carrington fell into a deep depression and, by the time she was persuaded by friends to depart for Lisbon to escape the Nazis, she was beginning to lose all sense of reality.

Carrington later documented the decline of her mental health in Down Below, an extraordinary account of her life in a sanatorium in Madrid, to which she was committed after suffering paranoid delusions on her way to Portugal. Insanity, for her, took the form of a powerful “identification with the external world”, which somehow involved the hypnotic control of Europe by a Dutchman called Van Ghent (who was also “my father, my enemy, and the enemy of mankind”). In her introduction, Marina Warner notes that Carrington “had realised one of the most desirable ambitions of surrealism, the voyage down into madness”; yet, stripped of the playful intellectualism of the art movement, the “absolute disorientation” that Breton idealised is difficult to experience as a reader with much pleasure.

Carrington regained her freedom after reacquainting herself with Renato Leduc, who offered to marry her to facilitate her escape to New York: travel was easy for him because he was an embassy employee. In Lisbon, her mind slowly recovered and she prepared for a new life in the US. But, in that hub of the Western universe, it was hard to leave the past behind. One day, she glanced across a market and saw Max Ernst, who had been released by the French at last.

Carrington once said that she had only joined the surrealist group because she was in love with Ernst. However, being with him was never the sum total of her life. They travelled to New York together, but when Leduc returned to Mexico, she went with him, cutting ties with Ernst. Then she found a new love, a Hungarian expat called Csizi (“Chiki”) Weisz; they had two children (for whom she wrote stories, soon to be published by New York Review Books as The Milk of Dreams); she painted; she made new friends, most notably the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo. She lived, and on her own terms.

In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937-38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here – one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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