In an excerpt from a new anti-Tory art magazine, writer Elise Bell investigates the sinister side of what society decides to be a ‘Powerful Woman’
Emotional Art Magazine is a new publication which centres a specific feeling at the core of each issue and works outwards in order to ‘feel through the art’. Issue #1 is about hate, specifically hating the UK’s conservative political party, the Tories. Below, dig your teeth into an excerpt from the issue below and then pick one up for just £5 online or at its launch event this Thursday
What makes a powerful woman? A read of The Cut would make you think it lies in reclaiming the two-piece suit. Others might point to more rigid definitions; hierarchies of power, earning potential and liberatory politics. Maybe it takes a cursory glance at Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming to see power for what it is.
Definitions aside, the image of the Powerful Woman has been codified within the fabric of society for a millennia. Riding atop a wave of machismo, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a manifesto of altruistically feminine power. Bare-breasted, she stands defiant amongst a sea of carnage, steely determination captured by her left arm raising stoically above her head the flag of her beloved France. Painted by a man, Liberty is the amalgam of centuries of visual propaganda putting forth an image of female strength coined and created by the male gaze.
“Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister under the Conservative Party can be seen as nothing short of a feminist breakthrough... Yet Thatcher’s policies have turned the potential for sentimental mythologising into something far darker”
How then do we understand the image of Thatcher? As a symbol to the Left, Margaret Thatcher and her image have been somewhat problematic. Simultaneously straddling the role of first female Prime Minister with her conservative politics, her election occurred only 51 years after Parliament passed the Representation of the People act in 1928, allowing all women the ability to vote in the same capacity as men. Within this narrative, Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister under the Conservative Party can be seen as nothing short of a feminist breakthrough; an act of healing for a society still navigating it’s way through gender liberation. Yet Thatcher’s policies have turned the potential for sentimental mythologising into something far darker. Over eleven years, Thatcher’s cabinet admitted only one other woman and her acts whilst in power have rendered entire regions of the UK obsolete and turned the livelihood and trade of thousands of working-class men and women into bygone memories. A marked aversion to childcare policies beneficial to women as well as fiscal manifestos that aligned with wealthy property owners over the plight of working people constitute Thatcher as politically anti-feminist, a factor which led to artist and then student campaigner Tacita Dean labelling Thatcher an “anti-feminist icon and everything we didn’t aspire to.” Her rhetoric was one of a woman in power in a man’s world. In practice, being a woman in power did nothing to tangibly change the glib cage of patriarchy outside the hallowed halls of Westminster.
“(Thatcher’s) rhetoric was one of a woman in power in a man’s world. In practice, being a woman in power did nothing to tangibly change the glib cage of patriarchy outside the hallowed halls of Westminster”
Yet in our deeply neoliberal age, criticism against the politics of various figureheads have been swapped for a marketable and highly-branded celebration of powerful women in politics. Alongside Etsy mugs of Hillary Clinton, Thatcher’s face on Redouble T-shirts remain for some a brand of feminism that they can engage with. Reclaimed under the banner of a “Yass Queen” sloganeering, women in positions of power have become the mainstream code for a particular type of empowerment that suggests female emancipation to be the a-political support of powerful women the world over. Whilst Sheryl Sandberg told us that women really can have it all, intersectional feminism would argue that some women already have it all. It’s this school of a-political thought that resulted in Theresa May’s wearing of a Frida Kahlo bracelet at the Conservative Party Conference in May, 2017; a fuck-up so drenched in satirical ignorance it was hard to understand what matrix had glitched to land us in this timeline.
To say however that the glamorisation of Thatcher’s ‘self’ was constructed within a vacuum would be to ignore the underlying juxtapositions at play during the 11 years of her reign. Like many powerful women, Thatcher’s Iron Lady iconography was an investment and characterisation made by the very men she had political power over. Her turn from Grantham Grocer’s daughter to the figurehead of Britain’s leading political party was not completed overnight. As she rose through the rankings of government, her ‘image’ was an issue; a nagging doubt in the minds of her colleagues and advisors. Her voice: too shrill. Her clothes: fussy and outdated. To win the votes of men she’d have to skew her image as a bemoaning housewife-come-politician and evolve into something sleeker and more seductive. Elocution lessons were organised at the National Theatre where she learned from Laurence Olivier how to deepen her voice into softer, huskier tones. The ad-men of Saatchi & Saatchi were employed to finesse her rough edges, making sure her public image was representative of an aspirational idiom of what a professional woman could (and should) look like in the modern age. Heritage brand Aquascutum became her go-to, their rich blues invading her wardrobe in a not so subtle homage to the party she was advocating for and her advisors made sure to limit her proximity to handbags as much as possible. To carry a handbag would veer into a femininity fast approaching un-electability. And yet despite all this, Thatcher’s image within conservative circles remains one of a woman in control of herself and her legacy; her stout resolution that she will continue to wear her trademark pearls despite her advisor’s warnings becoming an anecdote that supposedly shouts empowerment. Instead, it screams anything but. Just as patriarchal and classist power structures helped to shape Conservative politics, it has also constructed Thatcher’s image of power within the psyche of the Nation.
“Thatcher’s Iron Lady iconography was an investment and characterisation made by the very men she had political power over”
Even in writing this article, there are two very different political realities of Thatcher’s image. The first is the cruel outcome of Tory politics; people whose lives were ruined, and a resolute and fierce anger at the corrosive politics maintained by Thatcher. The second, an understanding that the proliferation of Thatcher’s image and the deserved hatred has at times offered a glimpse into the misogyny levelled at powerful women within politics. Thatcher, despite the lengths gone to by the men surrounding her, was consistently slighted for daring to be everything other men were allowed to be; ambitious, aggressive and Machiavellian. She was not attractive enough to be spared the taunting of Spitting Image puppets which exaggerated her power-suit femininity into contorted crone-like proportions. Her legs became an object of public fascination and speculation and critics mocked her through inherently gendered visual gags such as that of ‘handbagging’ her opponents.
Hillary Clinton shows that the dynamics that defined Thatcher's life haven’t gone away. Clinton is a commanding and contentious political figure; her health and age being called into question despite the fact she was running against a man both older than her and with multiple instances of flailing health. That Trump was revealed to be a serial abuser of women was second to Clinton’s supposed inability to govern. All of this, however, pales in comparison to the sustained misogynistic and racist abuse directed at women such as Diane Abbott. Speaking at a police conference in April, Abbott detailed the extensive threats of rape and violence levelled against her on a daily basis. Research undertaken by Amnesty international found that during a period of six months, Abbott received more online abuse than all female MPs from the Conservative and Scottish National parties combined. That even when Abbott was excluded from the total, black and Asian female MPs received 35 per cent more abusive tweets than their white colleagues is testament to the racism and misogyny WoC disproportionally receive.
Regardless of the political tradition, misogyny persists on all sides. Thatcher’s legacy can’t be sanitised, nor should anger be minimised - but through the construction of her image, patriarchy plays a clear role which continues to disenfranchise young women. Though Thatcher’s image haunts us all, we must question and challenge how and why it exists as it does if we want to build a truly new politics.
This article was originally published in issue #01 of The Emotional Art Magazine, Tory Hate. The inaugural launch event on 24 January is hosted by Edel Assanti gallery. Printed copies of the full issue are available online from just £5