The Iron Lady and her Australian counterpart Julia Gillard have a quite a few things in common: both had the extraordinary distinction of being first woman in the top job; one has died recently and the other is in the death throes of a failed government. Both are strident and loud speakers with unpleasantly harsh voices, although Thatcher was groomed more effectively to soften hers, which – for many – made her harsh and uncompromising policies even harder to stomach. Both are extremely strong and resolute people in the face of vitriolic condemnation and opprobrium, and both apparently have considerable personal charm, not always apparent from their public personae.
And both have stirred a level of animus verging on hatred, which is personal as well as political. Gillard has called it misogyny, and will be best remembered for her remarkable and passionate outburst against Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that went around the world and has landed her on the shortlist for Time Magazine’s One Hundred Most Influential people of 2013. And there is no doubt that much of the criticism leveled against her is couched in terms that wouldn’t be used for a male. Germaine Greer of all people is remembered, not for her measured assessment of Gillard’s ability but for her fashion advice (!) Ditch the jackuts, Julia. They just don’t suit you. Fuelled by some audience sniggers she went on to screech unforgivably: Face it Julia, you’ve got a fat arse! It was a low moment in Australian public life and Gillard to her credit has always answered her detractors in much more moderate language.
Thatcher was and still is the target of deep hatreds and resentments because of her hard line policies on the economy and the unions. She remains a divisive figure. Some credit her with bringing Britain into its new incarnation as a free market mover and shaker with the money-managing temples of Canary Wharf at its hub. Others blame her for the woeful decline in industrial Britain and the breaking of social contracts for fair work conditions and public housing. But love her or hate her, no one denies the successful execution of her desired outcomes, and her gender was never the issue.
There are still deep cultural issues to be explored about the way we feel about the females who take on the traditionally male leadership in first world countries but Margaret Thatcher, and Angela Merkel for that matter seem to transcend the gender divide and are admired or despised for their abilities and their policies, not the size of their arses!
There is no doubt that Julia Gillard has been subjected to some disgusting personal invective, not least of which was a slur on her recently deceased and much-loved father. But the opinion polls show that Australians overwhelmingly condemn such unseemly and indecent behaviour. Even though a landslide victory is predicted, Tony Abbot’s personal stocks are still well down. People don’t like him, but they will vote him in, not because he’s a male but because Gillard has fatally mismanaged her role as the first female prime minister of Australia.
To begin with, her entitlement to the job is tainted. Kevin Rudd, for all his failings, was the elected leader, was in the middle of his first term and should have been left to stand or fall on his own record. I’m sure Gillard was well enough educated, but she clearly didn’t read Richard 11: Not all the waters of the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king. (111:ii: 55-56). Rudd wasn’t thrown from the top of Pomfret Castle, he was merely deposed, but he will haunt Julia for the rest of her life just as Richard haunted the usurper Bolingbroke.
She was poorly advised then and continues to be, and for all her ability, personal charm, feistiness and adamantine strength, she will fail, because – unlike Margaret Thatcher – the lady is for turning. She chops and changes between the “Real Julia” and the manufactured Julia who feels she needs to respond to so many interest groups she ends up pleasing no one. To be fair, she is a victim of the twenty-four hour news cycle, but I cannot imagine Margaret Thatcher being cowed by the latest twitter feed. Thatcher was, as many have said, a conviction not a consensus politician, but Julia Gillard has become neither. She cannot achieve consensus in her own party, never mind across the political divide, and her convictions – strong as they are about a fairer society, have been drowned in the swamp of political mismanagement.
Margaret Thatcher was loved or despised for herself and her convictions because success trumps gender. But failure doesn’t! And like it or not, our first female prime minister carried with her a wider set of dreams and hopes into office than just the political. On September 14th more will be lost than just an election.