How to Make Your Hair Powerful: Streep Takes on Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher has said she owes nothing to women’s lib. But Phyllida Lloyd’s Iron Lady begs the question: does women’s lib owe something to Margaret Thatcher? Feminists criticized Thatcher for her not so female-friendly policies most notably executed though her opposition to a welfare state, which fell hardest on single working mothers. During her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (from 1979-1990) she only elected one other woman to her cabinet and under her government, women earned less wages than they had when the Equal Pay Act was passed prior to her becoming PM. On the flip side of the coin anti-feminists criticized her for being “unfeminine.” She was an outsider within both gender worlds who used both her masculinity and femininity to get her way.  She did not simply put on the appropriate hat to suit the situation, but rather got rid of her hats all together, instead focusing on how to make her hair more powerful.

Thatcher, who believed the fight for women’s rights was largely won, did not identify as a feminist nor did she intentionally help the movement other than voting to legalize abortion.

At the Iron Lady press conference held at the Waldorf Astoria, Meryl Streep, who portrays the controversial icon, spoke about what drew her to the role: “I’m in awe of all the things that were arrayed in against her succeeding." Streep added that despite her politics Thatcher “did a service for our team by getting there.”  Elaborating, she said, “Anyone that stands up and is willing to be a leader and is as prepared and is as smart as she was, it’s admirable, because you really sacrifice a great deal.” 

In a later conversation, Streep pinpointed some of the obstacles Thatcher faced but also suggested it fueled her ambition. Thatcher was one of two daughters of a grocer, an identity she often capitalized on even though class lines were hard to cross. Streep said, “At that time it was a disappointment to have two girls.”  (She also added that we still  live in a world that favors sons.) But perhaps because Thatcher’s father, Alfred Roberts (who was also the mayor of Grantham), did not have a son, Streep and Lloyd surmised that he encouraged Margaret, this “uncommonly bright, uncommonly curious” golden girl to fight for a life that mattered, to make her voice heard, and Thatcher’s voice (both literally and figuratively with “Thatcherism”) are indeed her legacy.

Voice, and acquiring the kind of voice that would be heard, was one of the most important elements of Thatcher. Before running for Prime Minister she took elocution lessons to lower her high pitch and speak from a more baritone, commanding voice. Streep admitted that was the most challenging part to capturing Thatcher because it was profoundly also the essence of her character. Streep said, “The biggest challenge for me, just, was accomplishing these long lines of thought she would launch into without taking a breath…that has something to do with who she was as a person."

Not only did Thatcher practice on finding a more masculine voice to command a room full of men, but she used her long-winded breath as a way to assure she was never interrupted.  One can even argue that it was the unrelenting power of Thatcher’s voice that brought her own downfall.

At the beginning of the screening on Tuesday, director Phyllida Lloyd introduced the film not as a biopic but as a film about loss, “a film about the cost of a great life,” and indeed one of my favorite lines of the movie is, “How much does the milk cost?”

Streep answered a question as to how she identified with Thatcher as a mother. She explained that because she herself is a mother, she had an “inkling of the size of the day she [Thatcher] fulfilled.” Streep explained she has worked in spurts throughout her career in order to be both a mother and an actress: “I tried to imagine eleven and a half years…I imagined trying to be in the lives of her children.”

It was fascinating to hear Streep talk about the inherent duality of being a woman while also being able to tap into that duality to connect with the extremely complex dichotomy of such a polarizing woman, the only Prime Minister who can also claim being a mother (and might I add a chemist).

No matter which side of the aisle you land on with Thatcher’s policies, there is something to be said for Thatcher’s success despite her rejection of women’s lib. When standing in a tiny conference room with a female director, female lead actress, and female screenwriter (Abi Morgan), that “something” need not be said.

I leave you with one last thought, which was my personal experience in that room. I was so nervous, terrified really, to raise my hand and ask these women a question about their film. I had done my research, I’m a writer, and I regularly interview artists on my own blog, but I was terrified that my question would be “stupid.” Before they came in, the entire back of my dress was soaked in sweat. Yet when they finally entered (along with Harry Lloyd), I didn't feel star struck, just a deep admiration. The first hand up was a man’s. Confidence spilled out of him. He stood up to ask his question, which was about makeup. I had a list full of questions focused on what they thought of the women's movement after making a film about Thatcher, a question about why they had chosen not to include a scene between Thatcher and the Queen, and about the experiences they pulled from their own lives in order to tap into Thatcher's dichotomy. My questions were good, but I'm not used to raising my hand in a roomful of men and women. I got my hand up, but I didn't get picked. I left the room inspired to take a page from Thatcher’s playbook and work on finding a stronger voice.

iron lady

Credit Image: © Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMAPRESS.com)/

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