Biteback Publishing £16.99

Review: The Real Iron Lady - Working with Margaret Thatcher, By Gillian Shephard

Why the grocer's daughter turned into the Iron Lady

Theresa May's recent savage treatment at the hands of her (mostly male) colleagues for daring to hold Conservative leadership ambitions is a timely reminder of just what women face in politics – even in the 21st century. Margaret Thatcher's achievement in rising to the top some 40 years ago becomes, in retrospect, ever more extraordinary. Sexism was more overt then, but is it much less pernicious now?

May, and any other women out there with designs on Downing Street, would do well to read Gillian Shephard's collection of testimonies from 36 friends and former colleagues of the realities of Thatcher's working life. Although clumsily assembled and repetitive at times, it paints a compelling picture of how the sniggering and disrespect of male colleagues in her early days of power contributed in great part to the creation of the warrior-queen version of Thatcher demonised ever since.

The "housewifely" habit of making tea or coffee for colleagues in her early days as PM, which prompted a schoolboyish snorting behind her back, was of necessity abandoned in favour of handbaggings, real or imagined. And there are times in Shephard's book that any historic fury at Thatcher gives way (even if only temporarily) to anger on her behalf. The apparently genial Jim Prior was just one of her ministers who said openly that he found it "very difficult to stomach" being led by a woman. She encountered snobbery too, not least from the lofty French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing who took pleasure in referring to her as "la fille de l'épicier".

In these circumstances, being a caring or fragile woman was hardly going to work, at least in public – although there are plenty of incidents in the book that reveal Thatcher's private solicitude. (Particularly striking is when, after a late night session on a speech, she runs her adviser's bath for her and puts a hot water bottle in her bed).

The lesson from Shephard's account, though, is that just to survive, Thatcher had to sleep less, work harder, brief more, and argue better than anyone else. In short, she had to out-tough the men, and in the end there were casualties, not least, on occasion, her own humanity. The warm flirtatiousness of her early days, the woman who relied on hard work, courtesy and her "lucky" pearls, froze into a strident imperiousness. It may have started as an act, but there seems to have been a stage in the mid-1980s when the act became the reality. Three large whiskies became props in sustaining the legendary persona.

Thatcher was notorious for not promoting other women – indeed the picture on the book's cover depicting her otherwise all-male 1983 Cabinet is a case in point. Shephard herself made it to Education Secretary under John Major, but was still a junior minister under Thatcher. But there were times when Thatcher stuck up for women in general, advising the Treasury time after time that Child Benefit "is the only benefit which goes direct to the mother. It is hers for her children, and it must not be touched." Self-proclaimed "Thatcher's Children" in power now, please take note.

Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition (Aurum Press, £8.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral