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Why Thatcher isn't a bad role model despite her reputation

By Rosie Millard

Published 29/04/2015

Margaret Thatcher's pseudonym was Mrs Stone
Margaret Thatcher's pseudonym was Mrs Stone

Who is your role model? Chances are that, if you have one, it won't be Mrs Thatcher. Yet Helen Mirren's suggestion at the Women of the World summit in New York that the first female British prime minister would be a rather good one for young women should not be dismissed.

It is probably just as well she was in America when she said it as, even today, it is still not the sort of thing which you could say at a women's summit in the UK - largely because of the hoary old saw that Mrs T was never regarded as a champion for her sex.

And yet, of course, she was. Who cares that she never promoted women in her Cabinet?

Surely the story of the grocer's daughter from Grantham, who achieved the country's highest office of state, a clever woman who arrived without any particularly helpful starts in life, but who nevertheless managed to rebrand a party, define an economic strategy and who was arguably the single most important political force, bar Beveridge, in post-war Britain is an astonishingly inspiring one.

The key things about role models is that in order to use them properly; you don't have to emulate them, know them, or particularly like them. They don't even have to be alive.

But, as Mirren's comments suggest, it is girls and young women who should be scanning around for role models, as female cultural influences can still be somewhat atomised, if not actively scant.

Young men have many more social structures with ready-made models available to them, not least because there are still far more men in the public eye.

One also thinks of football teams, of sports in general, the banter of the office floor, the society of the pub, or wine bar.

None of these institutions is barred to women, but the typical female terrain simply does not offer the same scope.

When I sought a job in TV in the late 1980s, I thought about the most visible woman on TV at the time. I have never told Janet Street-Porter that she inspired me to post copious CVs, but she did.

As I fed a page of A4 paper through my typewriter in order to write my first feature (yes, quite a long time ago), I was worried that I didn't have the authority to say what I wanted to say. "Would Julie Burchill say this?" I thought, anxiously. "Damn right she would," was the follow-up thought.

I have never met Burchill. She was my virtual hack role model for years and she did the job pretty well, all things considered.

It is intriguing to pinpoint role models for today's young women. Mirren was speaking at an event hailing Hillary Clinton's decision to run for president.

Clinton could be a role model to millions of American women and she certainly campaigns vigorously for women's rights, but she might be seen as too establishment and perhaps too old to be a personal inspiration.

Might Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood or Natalie Bennett provide inspiration to young UK women? Certainly Sturgeon's recent performances on TV might provoke more women to take an active interest in politics.

I have no idea whether Helen Mirren - currently on Broadway playing the Queen - has republican tendencies, but I think it is worth noting that she does not cite Elizabeth II, but the woman who curtseyed before her on a weekly basis as the relevant role model.

Being self-made from Grantham, rather than born privileged from Windsor, seems to be the key as far as inspiration goes.

Belfast Telegraph

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