Two women died this past week who helped define the last half of the 20th century. At first glance, they couldn’t have been more different. Margaret Thatcher was an intellectual, a political heavyweight, a world leader who helped change the global landscape. Annette Funicello was a pioneering television star who did some beach movies and a few Top 40 songs, too.
What they shared was an ability to make people take notice, without compromising their femininity and respectability.
Let’s talk about Annette first. I grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club, an after-school television show that seems undeniably hokey now, but then was something new for kids — a show about them, starring kids their age, with stories, songs and good messages. (I especially remember a song they sang about “Beauty is as beauty does,” which I often think, especially when Lindsay Lohan makes the headlines, might be a good one to bring back.)
After she died, I googled images of Annette’s beach movies. It was amazing. Do you remember when girls didn’t have breast enhancements, tattoos on their secondary sexual characteristics, and movie scenes weren’t “R” rated? How was it that a wholesome young woman like Annette Funicello was a heartthrob, and she hadn’t made secret sex tapes or had to go to rehab? I’ve seen young people coming to church weddings in this century dressed more provocatively than the bikini-clad girls in the beach movies back then. Annette wasn’t a great actress or singer, but she projected a way of living that gave hope to a generation of acne-plagued teenage girls that if they were good people, they would some day find love and purpose.
Margaret Thatcher, a political conservative, was a much more complicated figure. As a conservative, she attracted the (considerable) venom of the liberal media and does so still, even in death. To be a leader, however, is to attract vitriol. (You can’t please everyone, after all. That’s why the world has dictators, and democracy is so painful at times.)
Thatcher paved the way for women such as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, and yes, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. Thatcher was the first woman to lead a major Western democracy—for three successive terms, an unbeaten record by either men or women — in Britain in the twentieth century.
That Margaret Thatcher could become such an important figure in the last century was as much a step into equality for women as getting the right to vote. Unlike other feminist icons of that century, Thatcher didn’t have to advocate for indiscriminate sex or man-hating — two concepts embraced by some in my generation to the detriment of the advancement of women and society, I fear.
Although it seems on the surface that Funicello and Thatcher are not much more than dinosaurs from the past, there is evidence, at least in my life, that young women of this century have benefitted from those women’s roles in shaping the last century.
Not all young women dress like prostitutes at work. There are more women in traditionally male professions. There are more women who rise to the top of those professions. The more savvy young women feel free to take advantage of their new intellectual and societal freedoms while still embracing the idea of a stable family life, where they find enhanced economic stability.
In our disdain for the past, let’s not forget to pause a moment to thank the trailblazers of that past for the freedoms we take for granted today.