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

Margaret Thatcher was sexy, and she used her sex appeal as a weapon to disarm male colleagues at a time when politics was an even more hostile environment for women than it is now.

Margaret Thatcher in October 1976 presenting the new Tory Policy booklet "The Right Approach". Behind her, from left to right: Keith Joseph, Angus Maude, Peter Carrington, Geoffrey Howe and Peter Thorneycroft. Photograph: Getty Images

 

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.