Last weekend, my husband and I watched The Iron Lady. We’d seen previews for it and were intrigued. We wanted to see Meryl Streep taking names and kicking butts, which ironically I’d never thought Margaret Thatcher had done. While she was in office, I was too young to know more about her role in history than her name and position. It never occurred to me the struggles she’d encounter not only as prime minister, but also as a woman fulfilling that role. Now, as a grown woman watching this cinematic portrayal of her rise to power and its aftermath, I was angry and heartbroken.
It starts off optimistically enough. I thrilled in her preemptive speech to her future husband before she accepted his proposal. She would not bow to society’s ideas of what a woman, wife, and mother should be. And he agreed! She would be free to do as she desired with his freely and happily given support.
Then we see Ms. Thatcher as a hard-faced deserter as her children cry at the window as she heads to Parliament, shoving toy cars in the glove compartment on the way. We see her daughter jealous of her own spotlight being stolen. We see her husband questioning her devotion to her family in favor of ambition.
Why must a woman be vilified if she desires success outside the realm of motherhood? Even more so if she harbors such desires in the midst of motherhood. Yes, there are only twenty-four hours in a day. Yes, there is always the threat of feeling as if she’s failed on both fronts. Yes, children demand an inordinate amount of growing, coaxing, and coddling. She needs to prepare a person ready to face the challenges of the next generation. But what about the challenges of her own? Why does motherhood take her out of the equation in facing and solving those?
Why is there a prevailing thought that a woman must subvert her own self in order to grow the ones that came out of her?
Even with all her success, Margaret Thatcher couldn’t completely change the direction of that stiff wind – at least in this film.
In the speech to her future husband, the young Margaret Thatcher said she did not want to be trapped in the kitchen, hands in the dishwater. The film ends with her doing just that. I couldn’t help but think that plunging her hands into that water washed away all merit attached to her ambitious acts. It called them all into question. Had she made the wrong decisions? Set the wrong priorities as a woman, wife, mother? All joy that she’d excelled in at least the public half of her life was stolen by my doubt that she felt she should have chosen the private half instead.
It shouldn’t be a choice. Or at least not a mutually exclusive one.
Iron is malleable – especially when it’s heated inordinately – which is a good thing because it looks like society will continue to rake women over the coals for the unforeseeable future.