Two Iron Ladies: Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In the introductory chapter of our book Heroes, we discuss American actress Meryl Streep and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on consecutive pages.  We make the point that both women well illustrate the point that heroism is in the eye of the beholder.  Streep is not a hero to Americans as a whole, but she is to most people in the film business.  Hardly anyone would regard her as a villain.  On the other hand, most of the British public, and many Americans, have opinions about Thatcher, with different people regarding her as either a hero or a villain.

The two are now newly paired in a way few film–goers will ever forget.  In the movie The Iron Lady, Streep portrays Thatcher in what we consider one of the best acting performances in many years.   Streep has now been nominated for a record seventeen Oscars as either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress.  Before this year, she had won twice, for Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980.  And now she has won again this year in her role as Margaret Thatcher.   Streep’s performance is doubly impressive compared to the usual biopic.  She plays Thatcher both in her current semi-demented state, and in her prime as the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century.

Thatcher herself was a highly divisive figure as Prime Minister.  The daughter of a grocer in Lincolnshire, England, she rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party by articulating and embodying middle class values and virtues that seem now almost anachronistic.  She stood more firmly on her fundamental principles than almost any other politician in a democratic state.  University of Richmond leadership scholar Gary McDowell wrote “principle, she never failed to believe, is everything, and leadership is, at least in part, a matter of great, principled truths being simply told.”  Among the principles that were central to Thatcher, McDowell added were, “individual liberty, small government and low taxes” as well as “a sense of personal responsibility.”

Thatcher was not loved by all.  Her most dramatic leadership came twenty years ago during the brief war over the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.  The islands are just off the coast of Argentina, and that country had long held that they, called Malvinas by the Argentines, rightfully belonged to Argentina and only British imperialism made them English.  In 1982 Argentina invaded and captured the lightly defended islands.  Under Thatcher’s leadership, Great Britain launched a major – and very expensive – military counterattack thousands of miles away from the home country.  British forces made short work of it, quickly regaining the Falklands.  In doing so, they sank an Argentine destroyer killing hundreds of sailors.

Many people, in and out of England, questioned the value of the Falklands and severely criticized Thatcher for spending so much money and wasting so many lives in order to recapture the sparsely populated islands.  For Thatcher, the principles of national sovereignty and self-defense unequivocally dictated the islands’ retaking.  She became both a hero and a villain, depending on whose eyes were beholding.

Meryl Streep acts wonderfully throughout The Iron Lady, and shows Thatcher’s steely determination best of all, perhaps, in the Falklands scenes.  The film is fascinating, and presents two possible heroes for our consideration.  It is well-worth watching.

Below Meryl Streep talks about her portrayal of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady.

4 Responses to “Two Iron Ladies: Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep”


  • I’m not a big fan of Margaret Thatcher (although I certainly don’t disagree with the defense of the Falklands). To me she’s just another Reagan– a dark leader in a dark age. This certainly does make the point that heroism is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Meryl Streep is definitely a hero to many actors and aspiring actors. She never disappoints in any role that she plays. Maybe the story line of the film wasn’t good as a whole, but Streep’s performance always stands out. If you appreciate films and acting there is no doubt Meryl Streep would be one of your heroes.

  • I have just watched The Iron Lady. I had thought i would have fallen asleep when the movie started, but surprisingly, the movie impressed me a lot, especially, the actress Meryl Streep. She played the role very well in the movie, i really liked the way she performed. I will give her support for an Oscar Award in 2012.

  • I really want to see the movie The Iron Lady after reading this blog. I have a lot of respect for women that have leadership roles like Thatcher. I has to be hard to deal with all of the stereotypes of women

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