by Dominic Sandbrook

In August 1982, when Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls first appeared at the Royal Court Theatre, everything seemed to be going right for Margaret Thatcher. Only a year earlier, with unemployment at a record 3 million, the inner cities in flames and her party lagging badly in the opinion polls, the Conservative leader had seemed finished. When she famously told her party conference that the lady was not for turning, it had sounded like empty bravado. But even as the first audiences were applauding Lindsay Duncan, Lesley Manville, Carole Hayman, Deborah Findlay and the other actors who brought Top Girls to the stage, the political plates were shifting. Victory in the Falklands War earlier that summer had transformed Mrs Thatcher’s image. The lame duck had become a warrior queen, and as the south east of England basked in economic recovery, the Tories retook the lead. The following summer, Thatcher won the biggest landslide since the Second World War.

Even now, as another Conservative-dominated government prepares to implement the most controversial changes to the welfare state since the heyday of Thatcherism, the legacy of the 1980s remains enormously contentious. For some, these were the years that transformed Britain from the sick man of Europe to a leaner, meaner crucible of capitalism. For others, they marked the triumph of market values over human ones, throwing millions onto the scrapheap of unemployment. For feminists in particular, they seemed years of retreat and reaction. Britain might have its first woman Prime Minister, many feminists argued, but it had ended up with Lady Macbeth. As Joyce puts it at the end of Churchill’s play: “What good’s first woman if it’s her?”

Yet behind the image of the Iron Lady, nobody better exemplified the contradictions of the new age than the Prime Minister herself. For Caryl Churchill, as for many other writers on the feminist left, Margaret Thatcher was the supreme symbol of the capitalist order that was holding women back. Asked about feminism at her very first press conference as Conservative leader, she had simply replied: “What has it ever done for me?” Feminists, Thatcher told her local paper in 1978, had “become too strident” and “done great damage to the cause of women by making us out to be something we are not”. And in her invocation of Victorian values, her enthusiasm for the Cold War and her freemarket convictions, she seemed to stand for everything feminist activists themselves most despised.

Yet there was another side to the picture. Mrs Thatcher’s own career, after all, was a standing rebuke to reactionaries who still thought a woman’s place was in the home. Despite being the mother of two young children, she had gone out to work without a second’s thought, and in many ways her career was the story of a dedicated professional woman triumphing over sexist prejudice. Like so many women in the post-war decades, she struggled to juggle the competing demands of home and workplace, family and colleagues. ”Women are tired of being patronised and condescended to,” she told an interviewer on the 50th anniversary of female suffrage. “We are bored by being considered as a curious and endangered species. We are certainly not ‘more deadly than the male’ – indeed as history emphasises, we are noticeably less deadly. If our homes and our families remain central to us and our concerns, they are no longer our horizon.”

If Britain has yet to come to terms with Margaret Thatcher’s place in our history, it is partly because we are still wrestling with the contradictions that defined the 1980s. In many ways, after all, these were good years for women: by the time Thatcher became Prime Minister, after all, young women were flooding into universities and the professions, while Labour’s Sex Discrimination Act had outlawed discrimination in employment, education, training, housing, and the provision of goods and services. Yet like Caryl Churchill, many feminists felt that the genuinely radical, subversive potential of the early 1970s had been lost. Most women still had low-paid jobs in the ‘feminine ghetto’ of the service industries and public sector, and after years of slow progress, their earnings had begun to fall behind men’s again. When Margaret Thatcher walked into Downing Street, only 1 in 100 bank managers, 2 in 100 accountants and 5 in 100 architects were women. By some standards, times had not changed much at all. Mrs Thatcher’s 11-year reign was to have incalculable consequences for the lives of millions of British women.

But although the image of the Prime Minister herself came to define the decade, many of the vast subterranean changes that were reshaping British society would have happened with or without her. One of the central factors in the rise of working women, for example, was the spectacular decline of Britain’s manufacturing base. In January 1982, thanks above all to the government’s policy of squeezing the money supply and keeping the pound’s value high, unemployment reached a staggering 3 million, a third of whom were school-leavers. Many towns, notably in the industrial heartlands of south Wales, northern England and Scotland, simply never recovered. And yet, even before Mrs Thatcher came to power, British manufacturing had been in deep decline. In 1950, Britain had commanded a share of about 25 per cent of the world trade in manufactures, yet as early as 1970 it had less than 10 percent, just half that of West Germany. For those areas that had long depended on heavy industry – the areas that became synonymous with 1980s folk heroes like Alan Bleasdale’s Yosser Hughes (“Gizza job”) – what followed was a disaster.

But of course there was another side to Thatcher’s Britain: a Britain of wine bars and shoulder pads, shouting City bankers and stylish Sloane Rangers, conspicuous consumption and the race to the top. This was a working world defined not by sweat and labour, but by the cold gaze of the computer screen; a world characterised not merely by flexibility, services, skill-sets and management-speak, but by the relentless blink of a little green cursor. Only the year before Top Girls first appeared onstage, IBM had launched their first desktop PC, while the entrepreneur Sir Clive Sinclair fired the first shots in revolution in home entertainment with his Sinclair ZX81. A year later the American essayist Joseph Epstein coined the word that became the symbol of this brave new world: yuppie. Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals: these were the shock troops of Thatcher’s revolution, the ‘masters of the universe’ carrying all before them. With their shoulder pads and Filofaxes they may look ridiculous now; but with our shoulder bags and iPads, are we so very different?

Although Yuppie caricatures often tend to be men – one thinks of Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) or Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), or indeed half the cast of the BBC’s yuppie soap Howards’ Way (1985–90) – what was really striking about this new breed was how many of them were women. In the same year that Mrs Thatcher had become Conservative leader, Shirley Conran had published her bestselling book Superwoman, claiming that a modern, liberated woman could indeed have it all – a handsome husband, a loving family, an expensive house, a lucrative job, a fulfilling career and a sensational sex life. Armed with her university degree, a superwoman could operate a computer just as well as any man. And with government legislation tearing down the walls of pay discrimination, many women felt a path was opening to the very top. “I was young, I was definitely upwardly mobile,” one American Express executive later reflected in an interview with the BBC. “I wanted that next job, that next pay rise, that next bonus; I wanted a bigger house or a better car.” Not so different, perhaps, from Joyce’s sarcastic words in the final scene of Top Girls: “You’ll be on a yacht, you’ll be head of Coca-Cola and you wait, the eighties is going to be stupendous all right.”

Popular culture of the 1980s revelled in images of women having it all. From the unbridled sexuality of Madonna’s pop videos to Joan Collins’s ruthless Alexis in Dynasty, it projected the clear message that no self-respecting woman could afford scruples in the race to get ahead. Even the way working women dressed reflected the deeper values of the age. Gone were the demure dresses of the 50s or the earnest dungarees of the 70s; in came stilettos and shoulder pads. ‘Power dressing,’ the media called it: a wonderfully revealing phrase. “We’d have to have the shoulders as a sign of authority, and there were training courses where you were told you had to have shoulders because you had to look like a bloke,” one woman later recalled. “You dressed to say: I am the manager,” said another. Margaret Thatcher herself could not have put it better.

But these were not the only role models. In 1981, some 40 women marched from Cardiff to RAF Greenham Common and established a groundbreaking feminist peace camp that lasted a staggering 19 years, longer than the American cruise missiles that had provoked their protest. At its height, the women’s peace camp attracted 70,000 people. To many feminists it seemed a heartening reminder of the values that mattered: peace, solidarity and protest. But as the writer Alwyn Turner records in his history of the 1980s, not everybody liked it. The Greenham Common women were “a ragtag and bobtail of politically motivated harpies”, said the Daily Express, while The Sun denounced their “rancour, intolerance and, sadly, sheer bitchiness”. Such rhetoric was by no means unusual; this was a uniquely polarised age.

By and large, the issues Top Girls raised back in 1982 are still with us. We live in an individualistic age. Few of us like to be defined by our class background; few of us like to be imprisoned by our collective identity, even if it defines us in ways we rarely recognise. For all that the Conservatives talked about turning back the clock and restoring ‘traditional’ family values, fewer of us get married, more of us get divorced and more of us are born to unmarried parents than ever before. Millions of women – and millions of men, too – still work in ill-paid, unfulfilling jobs, only this time more of them answer phones and read scripts from a computer screen than ever before. Even unemployment remains far higher than it ever was before Mrs Thatcher came to power, only now it is no longer so controversial. To open the newspaper from 2011 is to be reminded that for all the superficial changes, the battles that defined the early 1980s are still with us. Love her or loathe her, we live in the world Margaret Thatcher made.

TOP GIRLS tours January to March 2012

A prolific historian and columnist, Dominic Sandbrook is best known for his acclaimed series of books charting the history of post-war Britain. The most recent, State of Emergency: the Way We Were – Britain, 1970-1974, has just been published in paperback.

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