From Catherine The Great To Margaret Thatcher

  • From: Think.
  • Published: July 08, 2013
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A renowned historian reflects on how female leaders from Catherine the Great to Margaret Thatcher have always had to fight against stereotypes and resentment – and draws some waspish conclusions. Written by Norman Stone.

It was not the best moment in the history of Oxford. The late Margaret Thatcher, whose passing in April was marked around the world, had graduated from the university, in chemistry, and then become a tax-lawyer, both demanding subjects. She then, in 1979, became Britain’s first female prime minister. Oxford has traditionally given honorary degrees to distinguished people, especially its own. Many less celebrated figures were thus honored, including President Jimmy Carter (when his mother was told that he was standing for US president, she asked, “president of what?” and could not believe the answer).

But in 1985, the academics refused to confer the degree on Thatcher, allegedly because she was reducing expenditure on education. It was an unworthy act. British finances were in a mess, government spending was too high, and inflation had been running at 25 percent: someone had to do something, and Thatcher did. Most economists howled with rage and predicted doom, but the policy was successful, and Britain famously recovered. London, which in the 1970s was a run-down city, came to look, in parts, very glossy indeed. Oxford, anyway none too efficient at managing its own affairs, made itself look silly.

However, you wonder if there was a hidden motive – men’s resentment of the successful woman? Thatcher’s rise was almost accidental. There had been great discontent at the policies of her predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party, Edward Heath (Prime Minister 1970-1974). He was to be overthrown by his party’s right-wing.

Its chief figure was the Hamlet-like Sir Keith Joseph, who made an unfortunately-timed speech saying that the lower orders made too many babies and ought to be discouraged (he had not looked at his speechwriter’s draft before reading it out). The press screamed and, in despair, he said he could not now challenge Heath for the leadership.

Thatcher had been cooking, and came out of the kitchen looking determined: “If you won’t stand,” she said, “I will.” She did, and won; she is now quite widely regarded as the savior of the country, and sensible opponents acknowledge this. The feminist Germaine Greer even said, when Thatcher fell in 1990, that she had done more for the cause of women than any amount of legislation could ever do. And, especially during her early years as party leader, this was a time when women MPs were often treated with a casual and unrepentant sexism. One was once greeted by a fellow (male) MP with the words, “Hello Betty.” When she answered, “My name’s not Betty,” he said, “Well you all look the same to me.”

Certainly, in the quarter-century since Thatcher fell, it has become quite common to see women in positions of confident authority: Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund the most impressive, but there are and were many, many others.

Women have led from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and Indonesia, to Argentina and Chile, Liberia, Turkey, France, Germany, Ireland and, of course, the Nordic countries. It is interesting to see how antiquated the old arguments against women’s voting – let alone standing for office – now sound: that women were just outsized children, that they made everything personal, that they thought uncreatively and in terms of shopping lists.

It may have taken a couple of centuries, but as James Buchan, an authority on the Scottish Enlightenment among other areas, puts it: the seeds of that change date back to around 1800, when “woman as friend and companion gives way, with the French Revolution, to women as unexploded ordnance”.

But to be a woman in a position of political authority has historically been very difficult. The biological facts – childbirth especially – get in the way, and even women born into regal families found them hard. Any court would of course have its intriguing women (they are the stars of the show in a Turkish soap opera, Magnificent Century, which is about the era of Suleyman I; it is popular throughout the old Ottoman lands including Greece), but power means going beyond intrigue and string-pulling.

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Two regal women stand out in particular – Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia. Elizabeth launched her country as a world power and in 1588 defeated a huge Spanish fleet sent to destroy her navy. The religious settlement that she introduced, in 1559, reinstituted a Church of England that was a compromise – it burned books; it did not burn people – and one that saved England from any equivalent of the civil wars between Protestant and Catholic that knocked out France in the later 16th century and Germany for two centuries after 1618. (Her sister-predecessor, Mary, wife of the King of Spain who sent the defeated fleet in 1588, had started such a civil war, and had died before she could complete her work.

There is a famous Holbein portrait of her in which she appears as the personification of the nightmare ruler: grim, hysterical, cruel, stubbornly impervious to argument, with no sense either of proportion or humour: the finger pointed at the watch a ready reprimand if, for some reason or other, you were a few minutes late.) In power, of course, it matters to employ able subordinates, and both women knew how to do this – in Elizabeth’s case, a formidable bureaucrat, William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, and an admiral, Sir Francis Drake, who defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 and launched the Royal Navy as a leading one.

Catherine the Great in Russia was an equivalent, turning Russia into a European power. Like Elizabeth, she too was formidably well-educated (she corresponded with Voltaire and helped translate Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations into Russian) and knew how to deal with able men such as Count Suvorov, who defeated the Ottoman Turks (and is one of the few generals in history never to have lost a battle), and Prince Potemkin, her long-term confidante, who ran the conquered territories and transformed the Crimea.

The trick in both women’s cases seems to be that they knew how to handle men: they could be cooingly feminine when they needed to be, and then behave like the nanny from hell when that was in order. Both had had to survive, as young girls, in a murderous atmosphere. And for both, Elizabeth’s words before the Armada battle might be remembered: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” But these rare regal women were exceptional; their more ordinary sisters would, until very modern times, have had to remain firmly in the background.

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In the 20th century, Indira Gandhi in India was a colossal figure, dominating her extraordinary country’s politics for some 20 years until her murder in 1984. Born into the purple of Indian national politics, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the state’s founding prime minister, she also inherited, from the British intelligentsia of the Left, a progressive tradition in which women were meant to flourish. Then as now, the Nehru dynasty represented continuity, and she flourished (also despite, or perhaps because of, a complicated childhood, during which she seldom saw her father) with a formula of trying to run the world in order to run India. She became a global figure, although her vision was in the end a cul-de-sac of Third Worldism.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, who ran Indonesia from 2001 to 2004, belongs in this category as well. Her father was the founder of the country, whose independence from the Netherlands he proclaimed in 1945. (It would be tempting to imagine that it was the would-be industrializing nationalism of the time that gives rise to her unusual name, with “megawatt” symbolizing electrical power.

In Soviet Russia, the same impulse gave women names such as Traktorka. But Megawati is in fact an old name derived from the Sanskrit for “Goddess of the Clouds”). But her time in office is not remembered as being one of much achievement; and the same is sadly true of Benazir Bhutto – Oxford-educated and at home in the West she may have been, but this member of another political dynasty was also ultimately a sad, transitory figure.

We have yet to see a Developing World Margaret Thatcher. Some might still feel greater reassurance sticking with a generally male pattern of leadership. But maybe one should be prepared to find such figures in unexpected places. After all, as several obituarists concluded about Thatcher’s career: she was the only real man in her cabinet.


Norman Stone is Professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Bilkent, Turkey. A former Professor of Modern History at Oxford and advisor to Margaret Thatcher during her premiership, his latest book is World War Two: a Short History.

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