Meryl Streep in 'The Iron Lady'/Photo © 2011 The Weinstein Co.
Editor’s Note: Sally Bedell Smith is the author of bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; Bill and Hillary Clinton; and most recently Queen Elizabeth II. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith. Here, she offers insight into a little-known relationship.
When Queen Elizabeth II took the throne sixty years ago on February 6, 1952, a rising Conservative politician wrote in a newspaper column that if the accession of the new queen “can help remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand.”
Twenty-seven years later, the author of that column, Margaret Thatcher, became Britain’s first female prime minister, and for more than a decade, she worked closely with the woman on whom she had pinned her feminist hopes. But “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep in a performance that won her another Oscar, skips over the relationship between the two strongest women in modern British history.
Born only six months apart, the Queen and Thatcher were both impeccably dressed and well coiffed, equally attached to their ubiquitous handbags, hard working and meticulously professional. In temperament and background they were, as Britons might say, “chalk and cheese.”
Yet the relationship between the two women was more complex than the conventional wisdom that they disliked each other. Both learned to thrive in a hidebound masculine world more accustomed to ladies of leisure, but they navigated it in different ways. Edward Ford, a long-serving adviser to the Queen, once spoke of her slightly “come-hither look” that was friendly, encouraging, and “made us feel like men.” Thatcher, who had just one woman in her cabinet, asserted herself with intimidating firmness. Her combative streak contrasted sharply with the Queen’s non-confrontational nature.
While Thatcher was humor-challenged, the Queen was known for her dry wit. In their weekly audiences at Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth couldn’t share the lively banter she had enjoyed with some of her previous prime ministers, and Thatcher also had a habit of lecturing that didn’t go down well either.
Still, Thatcher was “fully up to speed” for her audiences with the Queen, which “always included major topical events,” said Charles Powell, the prime minister’s senior foreign policy adviser. “It was not a trivial agenda.” Afterward, Thatcher would join the Queen’s private secretaries for a whisky. “She was quite relaxed, which was rare for her,” said one of them. “I think the audience was something like a tranquilizer.”
While their relationship was never cozy, it was marked by mutual respect. Remarkably free of class consciousness, the Queen didn’t look down on Thatcher for her middle-class upbringing the way many Tory politicians did. Elizabeth admired Thatcher for her achievements and her brains, despite their different temperaments. The greengrocer’s daughter had been raised in a patriotic family that revered the monarchy. “No one could curtsy lower than Margaret Thatcher,” said Charles Powell. “If I did it, you would need a crane to pull me up.”
In the mid-1980s, The Sunday Times published an explosive story about the Queen’s purported dismay over some of Thatcher’s hard-line foreign and economic policies. The source of the report was the Queen’s loose-lipped press secretary who was venting his own views. She immediately called Thatcher to say it was completely untrue, the two women commiserated with each other, and within months, the press secretary had moved on.
After the coup within the Tory party that forced Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990, the Queen showed her esteem by quickly awarding her both of the monarch’s most prestigious personal honors, the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit – an action far more meaningful than anything she might have said.
Fifteen years later, when Margaret Thatcher had her eightieth birthday party, she had become frail and was suffering from dementia. As her monarch approached, the former prime minister extended her hand, which Elizabeth held steady as Thatcher curtsied. Ignoring royal protocol, the Queen didn’t let go. She spent the next ten minutes tenderly guiding the Iron Lady through the crowd of 650 guests.