Women's Library makes an exhibition of Thatcher

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Indy Politics

When Carol Leathwood walked into the Iron Ladies exhibition yesterday, the voice of Margaret Thatcher echoing around the room stopped her dead. "It sent shivers down my spine," she said.

When Carol Leathwood walked into the Iron Ladies exhibition yesterday, the voice of Margaret Thatcher echoing around the room stopped her dead. "It sent shivers down my spine," she said.

The recording, which forms part of an exhibition at the Women's Library in central London examining women in the 1980s - and in particular Britain's first female prime minister - transported her back to the night when Mrs Thatcher was elected. "I was absolutely horrified," Ms Leathwood, 50, recalled. "Some people said she might be a good thing for the Left - she'd make it pull together. I didn't think so." Fellow visitor Valerie Hey, 56, added: "Thatcher's still the ghost in the machine."

Along with Mrs Thatcher's voice, visitors are confronted with one of the leader's ubiquitous handbags, and the camel hair and sable coat Mrs Thatcher wore for a Moscow walkabout, "where she made a deep impression on the Russian public as a symbol of democratic Western leadership", according to the accompanying text. In direct political contrast are the mauve overalls specially made by the artist Thalia Campbell for the 1981 march that established the women's peace camp at Greenham Common.

This is the first exhibition to explore the legacy of Mrs Thatcher, and, with the co-operation of her office, it is a remarkably complete account of her life to date. Throughout the display, the progress of the young Margaret is juxtaposed with records of the women with whom she came in conflict, among them feminists, miners' wives and peace campaigners.

Visitor Louise Archer, 33, said that for her this was history - albeit "scary" history. Looking at the famous handbag and a 1979 campaign picture of the Iron Lady shopping in Tesco, she mused: "This is femininity used in a vicious way." For Audrey Walker, 73, from Greenwich, south-east London, the exhibition stirred happier memories of the Eighties. "We all thought she was great. She didn't stand any nonsense from anyone. She sorted out all those weak men. Towards the end she got a bit power-crazy though."

The variety of reflections would please Dr Harriet Jones, the curator of exhibition, who said she had twin aims. "I wanted to consider how Margaret Thatcher rose to the top, to ask whether she was an aberration or if her achievement was reflected by other women of the time, as well as to think about what the Eighties mean today. It was a time that produced very strong views, but now the Cold War is over maybe it is time to get closure on what they meant."

To conjure up representations of the Eighties are additional images; a gym outfit with leg-warmers beside a Jane Fonda video, and a red and white polka dot baby-doll dress beside The Sloane Rangers' Handbook.

The video had particular resonance for Rebecca Loncraine, a research fellow at the library, who commented: "Those Jane Fonda videos are still on my mum's shelf. It is weird trying to distance yourself from something that seems so long ago, yet is so familiar and still has so much impact."

That continuing influence also struck Ms Archer, who pointed the fall of Estelle Morris from the post of Education Secretary. "She was not a 'ball-cracker', and, after Thatcher, if you're going to be up there, that's what you have to be - an honorary man."

Visitors are asked to record: "What do the Eighties mean to you?" One answer read: "A realisation that we women of the 60s failed." Another read: "When the British nation became great again. Thank you, Maggie."

"Closure" still seems a long way off.

The exhibition is at the Women's Library, Old Castle St, London E1, until April 2.


Diane Reay

"She appealed more to men than women, and still does."

Cath Lambert

"She marketed herself as a real woman, like Blair sells himself as a family man."

Louise Archer

"Her toughness and her power appeal to really upper-class types."

Valerie Hey

"Her husband's money was behind her supposed power."