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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.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.