April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher's Greatest Legacy: Co-opting the Female Role?

Margaret Thatcher 1979

What was remarkable about Margaret Thatcher was not only how she bent associations to female roles but defied and exploited gender stereotypes. The photo that captures this best for me is this one taken in 1979.

The Margaret Thatcher Foundation has the best description of the photo annotated from a Daily Telegraph story on April 25, 1979 by Ann Morrow:

MT was photographed holding high in her right hand a blue string bag labelled “February 1974”, bulging with good things, and in her left hand a red string bag (labelled “Today”), slim and meagre in content. Each represented pound 1 worth of shopping, at 1974 and 1979 prices. Daily Express, 25 April 1979: “If Labour had five more years I would only need an envelope to carry the shopping, so don’t let them lecture you on food prices”. Glasgow Herald, 25 April 1979: “Labour has the worst record on prices and in knocking down the internal value of the pound of any Government in three centuries”.

Women go shopping. Mothers go shopping. These are associations that would still have rung powerfully in ’74. In lofting these bags, however, Thatcher not only siphons that gender authority to make a political point but does so in the name of an hardened ideology seeking to undermines the social state. …We actually pick up that rougher edge from a second angle, the body language a little more “in your face.”

And how many political cartoons must there have been elaborating the gender exploitation?

Baylor Thatcher cartoonAnd that includes making hay out of the Iron Lady as the mother of the state:


By the way, one thing that’s curious about the flood of “in memorium” photo galleries today is how few pictures there are of Thatcher with her own children.

And with gender roles in play, others used her warrior nature to conjure a more base female stereotype (taking us back to the shopping bag, too!) evoking a moral impoverishment by way of “the bag lady”:

Screen Shot 2013 04 08 at 11 12 25 AM

Philosophically, the shopping bag photo from ’79 most echoes her famous statement eight years later that: “There is no such thing as a society.” Again, counter programming the hardwired association most people have to the traditional maternal role of the one who feeds and sustains, the photo is an ironic counterpoint to the Tory agenda of “shrinking the state.”

…And from a grocer’s daughter, no less.

(photo 1: Daily Telegraph, 25 April 1979 .photo 2: Manchester Daily Express, File caption: Margaret Thatcher holds up shopping bags to show the price difference in 1979. cartoon 1: Baylor U. Margaret Thatcher Cartoons – Biles Collection. cartoon 2: unattributed via leilaladomptable. cartoon 3: © Punch Limited)

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus