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The Iron Lady's Sex Appeal

Posted: 01/12/2012 4:02 pm

In the preemie days of the Internet, I edited a (now defunct) Washington publication called The Women's Quarterly, published by The Independent Women's Forum. One of our regular features (if being published in a "quarterly" can be called regular by today's standards) was a column called "The Token Man," written by a different male contributor each issue.

For our Autumn, 1997 edition, I asked Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks to debate the question: "Who Are More Attractive: Left-Wing Women or Right-Wing Women?" Brooks, then writing for The Weekly Standard among other conservative publications, argued the case for left-wing women; Hitchens, at that time a columnist for The Nation, revealed his penchant for right-wing women.

At the summit of his lust was then-British PM Margaret Thatcher (whom he met, and in which he reveals here the amazing story of that encounter). The essay never appeared online because of the technological limitations of the time. Until now, this brilliant, perfect jewel of an essay on politics and sexuality has languished in a filing cabinet in my basement--like some forgotten, tossed off sketch by a master--along with other past issues of the Quarterly.

I was reminded of its existence by the release this week of "Iron Lady" -- a movie that might have pleased Christopher for bringing belated appreciation of Thatcher's dominatrix charms to a mass audience (certainly one larger than that of the Quarterly). Thus I am delighted to present, for the exclusive pleasure of the readers of Huffpost (to which Christopher was an occasional contributor), this lost article by the lately-lost great writer -- and friend. I think he would be happy to see it published again. At the time I paid Christopher $250 for it. I'm thinking I could get somewhat more for it today on eBay...

~ Danielle Crittenden, Managing Editor of Blogs, Huffingtonpost.ca.

I HAVE NEVER been one of those on the left whose chief delight lies in displays of the "unpredictable." I like my knee to jerk, as I am fond of remarking, because it reassures me that my reflexes are in good order. (A failure to jerk, in other words, might represent a failure of nerve.) Every now and then, a bit of socialist fratricide breaks out and I like to be in the thick of it. But not for me the over-stuffed, chat-show chair where a week's reputation can be wrung from the "paradoxical" avowal that Charles Murray is onto something or that a "Star Wars" defense could deter Hamas or that "root causes" are a cop-out.

I did once, however, reap an enormous mailbag of the "Come off it; you must be kidding; let's get out of here" sort. This was when, in New Statesman, I discoursed a bit on what to me was obvious, viz., the sexual magnetism of Margaret Hilda Roberts, the second Mrs. Denis Thatcher, and now a full-blown baroness.

The year was 1977 or so, and she was still a very provisional Leader of the Opposition. At the New Statesman, which was then the flagship journal of the British left, it was easy to share in the prevalent view, which was that the Tories had made a historic mistake. By picking that "shrill, narrow, suburban housewife," they had surrendered the all-important middle ground of politics and set themselves up for a thorough trouncing as "extremists" and "ideologues." I had other reasons for thinking this opinion to be a mistaken one, but this article is not about my foresight. It's about my political libido.

You couldn't beat the British Conservative party as a man's club in those days (or indeed, alas, in these). And most of the senior leadership had not voted, on the first of the second round, for the lady who deposed Edward Heath. So she was stuck, for a goodish bit of time, with a load of red-faced paunches who thought she was the spawn of hell. And loyalty being a premium virtue in that party, she had to affect to think of them as wise and experienced colleagues.

Yet, at the party conference and in Shadow Cabinet meetings and in Parliament, she regularly reduced these chaps to mush. It was at the annual conference that, as I stood in the body of the hall, it hit me. That feline smile, the composed but definite body-language, the voice at once stern and cajoling... to say nothing of the Valkyrie helmet of blond locks. My god! She has them in her thrall! And she knows it! The minx knows it! It was for writing this that I got into the hot water of what nobody then called political correctness.

Mark the sequel: Not long afterwards, I was at a reception in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. She came. (I'll try and keep this brief.) A mutual Tory friend offered to introduce us. I agreed with some alacrity. The subject of the moment was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I held one view on this. She held another. The introduction was effected. Did I imagine it, or did she recognize the name of the scribe who had hymned her feminine allure? At once we were embroiled in an argument on the subject of racism and decolonization. I was (I only mention it) correct on my facts as well as my principles. She was lousy on both. But what a bonny fighter! She wouldn't give an inch. I found myself conceding her a trivial point, and bowing as I did so. She smiled.

"Bow lower," she said.

Suddenly robbed of volition, I complied.

"No -- much lower."

By now near to drowning in complicity and subjection, I obeyed. She withdrew from behind her back a rolled-up copy of the Parliamentary orders of the day, and she gave me a sound smack before I could --how does one put this? -- straighten up. I regained the perpendicular in some blushful confusion and difficulty, to see her swing away and look over her shoulder, the words "naughty boy" floating over me in my near trance-like state, as the journo witnesses closed in to say, "What was that all about?" I told them they would never understand, and -- what do you know -- they never did.

Once in office, she calmly destroyed and (if you will pardon the expression) dismembered all her male rivals, from Sir Geoffrey Howe to Nigel Lawson to Sir Ian Gilmour to Jim Prior, as well as a succession of Labour challengers. According to the biography by her loyal press officer, Sir Bernard Ingham, the first signal that someone was finished was the fluted question: "Shall we withdraw our love?" She also, incidentally, took my advice, and reversed herself completely on Rhodesia. None of her triumphs astonished me.

The purpose of this somewhat sticky prologue is to introduce the more delicate question, Does the conservative woman possess a special attraction beyond her own wing, or faction? To stay with Thatcher for a moment -- and I don't want you to think I'm obsessed with her, or anything like that -- an instant answer was first confected by her opponents. She had charisma and potency, agreed, but it wasn't feminine. She was really a man. In the words of a gazillion tiresome joke, she was the only one with balls. How people talked themselves into this I don't know, but talk themselves into it they did. You can look it up.

Paradoxically -- I knew I'd get here sooner or later -- this mirrored or borrowed from traditional reactionary propaganda against radical women. Louise Michel, Rosa Luxemburg, at least two of the Pankhursts, and many others were written off either as mannish and thwarted or secretly Sapphist. And sexually "free" or emancipated types like Alexandra Kollontai and Emma Goldman were denounced as sluts. (Thatcher has at least been spared the last two of these imputations.) Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species," probably among his top three poems in the point of quotability, insinuated the same idea in the maddening form of a heavily sarcastic compliment, but struck close to the mark by suggesting that the latent superiority of women lay in their childbearing role.

If they can't get you one way, as females down the ages have had cause to reflect, they'll get you in another. The alternative model of the "progressive" woman was that of the simpering, prissy type: too squeamish for war or capitalism and inclined to be schoolmarm-like. (Some crossover, in the latter suggestion, with Sapphism. But only some.) To take a wearisome current example, see how the First Lady [Hillary Clinton] is variously described by her foes as a boss bitch and a bleeding-heart. I'm coming back to her. Add to this constant suspicion -- actually affirmed by some feminists -- that men are intellectual and rational while women are emotional and nurturing, and you have the outline of a problem. What is a tough-minded, free-market, heterosexual woman to do, except be tough-minded, free-market, and heterosexual? Is there a style? Ought there even to be a style? If I were a conservative, I'm sure I would say not.

But here I must have done with the throat-clearing and foot-shuffling. The trifles that I composed in honor of Mrs. T were nothing, in terms of their outrage-the-comrades effect, to the roar of anger that greeted the avowals that Alexander Cockburn and I made about [former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.] Jeane Kirkpatrick in the Nation. Never mind for now that I thought then, and think now, of Jeane as a death-squad groupie and a coiner of euphemisms for dictatorship. Never mind, either, that on the matter of the Falklands, she was Thatcher's most sedulous foe. To watch her on television or in person was to see someone who enjoyed dialectic for its own sake, who strove to define the argument rather than squelch about in a pacifying "middle ground," who had convictions rather than opinions but who also, and here I take the plunge, could be deliciously aware of her sex. She made Phyllis Schlafly look like a faggot. And she also showed the superiority of the pseudo-intellectual over the anti-intellectual. By this I mean, to phrase it simply, that you just can't imagine Jeane Kirkpatrick commencing a sentence with the words, "As a woman, I feel..."

The cross-dressing appeal of conservative women for radical men is buried in there somewhere. Thanks to certain ephemeral "movement" ethics, a number of our guys had every chance to get a touch bored with people -- of any sex and of none -- who started with their identity and continued with their feelings. Don't tell me who you are -- I can see that. And don't tell me how you feel -- tell me how you think. We Marxists go by the content, not of your character, but of your cerebellum. And we don't mind scar tissue if it's been honorably incurred.

That's why so many of us wish we'd met Jessica Mitford when she was young. Not, I hasten to add, that we weren't her pliant tools when she was in her seventies. She would tell broad jokes in male company, she quaffed, she smoked, she had faced down cops and bullies, she was screamingly witty, and she had done all her reading and homework. Dressy she wasn't. But drop-dead elegant. And cross her -- no thank you. Her claws would be across your face and back in her lap before you could notice it. The healing would come with the next limerick. Withal, a perfect mother, an ideal sister, an adored wife, and (not her fault) an exemplary widow. There was no feminine part that she had not filled to perfection. If she and Ayn Rand had ever met, Nathaniel Branden would have needed Miss Rand's dental records even sooner than he actually did.

I mention the late and beloved "Decca" because I realize that I've given a hostage to fortune. The thrill of cruelty isn't absolutely indispensable to one's make-up or vulnerability, whatever you may have read about the education of the English male. When I first met Laura Ingraham, she was brought by Dinesh D'Souza as his luncheon guest -- in the White House mess, as it happens, on the only occasion I dined or expect to dine there -- and she rather offset his Thomist subtlety and discretion by thundering on about her adventures in El Salvador or inquiring boldly about one's marital status. OK, I remember thinking, I get the point. You can be female and feminine and assertive, and, so to speak, right-wing. (Good grief, how many times does that of all points need hammering home?)

Hillary Clinton began life as a "Goldwater Girl," distributing those cute little AuH2O stickers around her bourgeois neighborhood in Illinois and generally being the perfect white-toothed, hair-banded little brat of the 1964 GOP rally. I can't help feeling that she'd have been better off staying right there, and would probably have made a happier marriage and met a nicer class of people.

Thanks partly to her, though, the whole idea of the political woman has become indissolubly linked to the preachy, the righteous, the health-conscious, and the wholesomely interfering. If conservative women want to elicit low, helpless growls from our side or any other, and this is only a suggestion for heaven's sake, then they must cease to wave their babies about, cease to speak about gender gaps, cease to be "inclusive," and instead flaunt what makes them different -- their attachment to ideas. I still have the reading lists that Decca sent me. Which Tory minx, of her prey, will be able to say the same?

Re-printed with permission from The Independent Women's Forum.