How a locked door gave a young Verity a momentary release, but left her trapped under a glass ceiling.
Vivaldi had four seasons. In Britain we have five: spring, summer, autumn, winter and the party conference season. All the big beasts at the Conservative party conference are claiming the Thatcher mantle as they desperately seek to hold onto power. I met her and can say categorically that their claims are fraudulent.
Back in the early 80s, I must admit my career was not looking good and the likelihood of meeting my heroine was close to zero. After my triumphal visit on a fellowship to the University of Chicago – the global centre at that time for new economic thinking – I naively thought I would return with enough economic glitz to ensure that my career would take off. Tenure at Oxford would surely be around the corner.
I began to see a pattern emerging – and it matched my dress. My gender was clearly the problem.
Not a bit of it. It was only when the dullard, Gordon Granman, got tenure a year after his arrival that I began to see a pattern emerging – and it matched my dress. My gender was clearly the problem.
I had been the only woman in the department for five years and struggled to get a word in edgeways. I was stuck teaching the first years the basics of econometrics and micro-economics, the bottom rung for teaching, while always being lumped with any extra marking. I was struggling to find time for research to produce the high-profile publications I needed if I were to get on. The future looked bleak.
Then Granman asked me out of the blue to accompany him to a G7 meeting to support him in a workshop organised by Thatcher’s chief economic advisor Sir Alan Arthur Walters. Had he taken a bit of shine to me? Did he even respect my new economics knowledge gleaned in Chicago? Neither seemed likely as he was a typical smug brute, product of the Oxford Union and the Bullingdon Club – neither suggesting much in the way of respect for women. More likely he fancied a female bag carrier to up his status at this seriously big boys’ event. He could probably sense my desperation.
The official idea was to bring some young Turks who were up with the new economics to try and help convert the likes of Germany and France. They were clearly stuck in 60s Keynesianism and needed an injection of the new Monetarist. So I searched my wardrobe for clothes that added ten years to my age and suggested I meant business.
Granman got me working on photocopying his slides onto transparencies – no PowerPoint in those days so a suitably menial job. It did though allow me to see that he had made a few howlers. He didn’t seem to understand the different measures of money supply and some of his graphs had their axes the wrong way round. I decided to say nothing.
The suave Frenchman in his sixties who was sitting next to me saw fit to pinch my bottom.
The workshop was certainly a boys’ affair. It was clear I was to keep my mouth shut even though I did have a place at the table. But even that had a serious downside; the suave Frenchman in his sixties who was sitting next to me saw fit to pinch my bottom as I stood to reach across the table to recharge my glass of water. I flinched at the assault and splashed water down my blouse. I retreated to the ladies trying to exude nonchalant disdain for the stifled guffaws of the Frenchman and others who witnessed by dousing.
As I was doing my best to mop my blouse and rescue my make up in front of the mirror, I heard a familiar voice coming from a cubicle. It was Maggie Thatcher. It really was. And she was asking if I could help her with the lock.
She explained that the mechanism had broken and she had been trapped for some time. “This lock is not for turning,” she said. Such a wit.
Once I released her from her ignominious prison she said she was horrified at the prospect of being stuck there throughout the proceedings because clearly we were the only women there. I was so moved when she said “we.” We – in a reference to me and herself… it was as if a bond had formed…
“The iron lady, stuck in the lavatory…” she squawked “Picture the bloody headlines if it got out: ‘Oh dear, what could the matter be!’” She clasped her hands around mine and smiled: “Thank you so much. What brings you to this event?”
“Yes. Verity Bastion, I’m here with Professor Granman’s team, Oxford… at Alan’s workshop.. you know – banging the drum for the monetarist cause and all… ”
I felt emboldened to start a conversation: “Yes it’s a travesty that we girls are so rare at these things don’t you thi….” And off she went.
Granman was now presenting and struggling to answer some searching questions from the assembled company who were clearly emboldened by some of the gaffs on the slides.
I returned to the room where Granman was now presenting and struggling to answer some searching questions from the assembled company who were clearly emboldened by some of the gaffs on the slides. I quickly intervened to re-establish the authority of our team as if I had received some extra invisible power from the brush with my idol. Of course, Granman never thanked me but he was at least less patronising.
I returned to find a letter on No 10 notepaper thanking me for my assistance at the G7 – its nature obviously unspecified – and wishing me well for my efforts to promote new economic thinking. I framed it and it still hangs on my wall. Thatcher showed how to think long-term and stick to it while facing a barrage of male criticism. This lot are not even in the same ballpark. It was a pity though she never appointed a woman to her cabinet.