The Myth of the Peaceful Iron Lady

The film, The Iron Lady comes out tomorrow, raising issues of women and their roles in foreign policy making:

The myth of female peacefulness has penetrated no field as greatly as foreign policy. Though there has been a scattering of female wartime leaders over the centuries, this myth has retained its primacy as women are kept out of most foreign policy circles. Despite several examples of bellicose women leaders (Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Madeleine Albright) and qualitative and quantitative analysis refuting this myth, most people continue to believe that foreign policy and war making is men’s business. When women do penetrate this field, they face an insurmountable burden of proof. Proof that they can make informed decisions as well as men, proof that they can face enemies and cultivate allies as well as men, proof that their “feminine” personalities will not disrupt their ability to perform their jobs. Aggressive female foreign policy makers are usually given a nickname. Think Iron Lady for Margaret Thatcher. They are compared to the Amazons, mythical warriors who lived in all-female societies, engaging in battle with neighboring male tribes. They are compared to Valkyries, the female creatures who choose who is to be slain in battle. They are compared to the Furies, who are female deities of vengeance. Why can’t these women just be called by their titles-president, prime minister, secretary of state-just as their male predecessors and counterparts? Why must these women acquire nicknames that not only alienate them as women, but as abnormal and even artificial women because of their aggression? And why can’t their aggressive actions be seen as strategic decisions rather than be interpreted in distorted ways based not on the successes or failures of that decision but on the female sex of that decision maker.

The myth of female pacifism/male aggression is one of many that is so ingrained in our culture, so pervasive, omnipresent and omnipotent that to think of its elimination or transformation is daunting. These characteristics not only describe this particular myth, but describe what a myth actually is, a form of depoliticized speech. According to Roland Barthes in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, myths are messages that must come out of history; they cannot evolve out of nature. They cannot be too obscure, or too obvious. Myths transform concepts, which require explanation, into facts, which do not require explanation, making readers consume the concepts without questioning the facts and the nature of the situation.  This is why we do not question the validity of these myths.

Thus, the goal not only for feminist inquiry, but for informed readers must be to politicize these myths, transforming them from natural and given, into social constructs that can be falsified. And as I mentioned before, there is plenty of evidence for refutation and replacement of these myths. So, the next time you are reading about peaceful women or violent and aggressive women, know that both of these groups are women. Know that women as a group as well as each individual woman can vary from one end of the peaceful/violent spectrum to the other. Know that this is true for men as well. And finally, know that male and female foreign policy makers can succeed and fail, regardless of their sex.

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  • Portia deBelmont

    Great post! And, actually, in the early 1990s, Antonia Fraser did a wonderful study of how women who hold political and military power have suffered the same treatment over the ages. The title was Warrior Queens. Not available in Kindle, alas, but it’s still available from Amazon in dead tree format.

  • Nina

    As a British Feminist, I have mixed feelings about Margaret Thatcher. I’m proud that I’ve seen a female Prime Minister in my lifetime, but also angered by the imperialism, high-unemployment rate, privatisation of public services, hereditary peerage and wealth disparity which she not only allowed, but actively encouraged.
    She was referred to as ‘The Iron Lady’ by communists in Soviet Union, but she adopted it for herself when her Conservative Party told her to back down and U-Turn “You turn if you want to, but The Lady is not for turning”.
    As she subscribed to the politics of Milton Friedman and became best of buds with General Pinochet & Ronald Reagan, her people were rioting. Not because she was a woman, but because she had driven us into the ground.
    My family had to leave the UK as my Dad couldn’t find work. Despite the fact he’s a highly skilled engineer and had never been out of work before then.
    Although, she took a very liberal position on abortion and spoke about issues of global warming in the early eighties, her economic elitism is unforgivable for most Brits.
    I agree entirely that women’s voice in foreign policy should be heard, but I don’t believe I’m weak or soft if I do not wish to encourage warmongering. If I am I guess you can just call me ‘The Woolen Woman’.