History in a Handbag? UK Hails Maggie's Tote

As a symbol of political power, the handbag has never ranked high.

Indeed, it never rated at all until Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street in 1979.

Now one of the former prime minister's accessories is to occupy a place of honor at Cambridge University. Along with 1,500 boxes of her papers, photographs, and other memorabilia, it will be preserved for posterity in the Churchill Archive Centre.

Why a handbag?

In her dozen years in power the erstwhile Iron Lady was known to like getting her own way.

She hardly ever failed to do so, and the handbag that was never far from her arm came to symbolize her style of argument.

Early in her reign, journalists joked that faced with a left-wing trade-union leader trying to bring the nation to its knees, or a European politician keen on stealing an ounce of British sovereignty, Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher was inclined to use her handbag the way John Wayne wielded a six-shooter.

There is in fact no recorded instance of her employing a bag as a sidearm, but the Oxford English Dictionary was evidently impressed with the idea. It decided that "handbag" wasn't just a noun.

Today, in what is seen as a reference to Mrs. Thatcher's method of negotiation, it defines the word: "To handbag: transitive verb (of a woman politician); treat (a person, idea, etc.) ruthlessly or insensitively."

Custodians at the Churchill Archive Centre hesitated quite a while before agreeing that a handbag - even one belonging to Thatcher - was a fit and proper item to place on its shelves.

It will share space with some 3,000 boxes of Winston Churchill memorabilia, ranging from the wartime leader's school reports to handwritten drafts of famous speeches denouncing Hitler.

The Churchill Archives Centre, the custodians pointed out, is a place of scholarship frequented by serious academics. Would a handbag be an entirely suitable item to include? And what about the climate-control system that keeps Churchill's papers in good shape? Would it be equal to preserving a piece of leather?

Faced with steady pressure from the London-based Thatcher Foundation, set up by the former prime minister to promote her ideas worldwide, the archivists finally wilted.

Judith Etherton, who is charge of the Thatcher papers at the center, told the London Daily Telegraph last month: "If one handbag were to arrive, rather than dozens, I would be able to keep it."

She was perhaps encouraged by the knowledge that Thatcher has launched a bid for a multimillion-dollar extension to the Churchill archive so that her papers (and handbag) can eventually be housed separately from Sir Winston's.

THATCHER, her aides say, owns a large number of handbags. Which will she choose? Will it be one of the large ones she carried when on British soil?

Some have argued that she should rummage through her wardrobe and select the bag she carried into Downing Street on the night in 1983 when Britain recaptured the Falkland Islands from Argentina and, in a booming voice, she instructed her defense minister: "Rejoice! Rejoice!"

Or will she pick a more streamlined model of the kind she took with her overseas when confronting recalcitrant foreign leaders?

Even today, the Thatcher handbag is far from being retired. And it can still carry more than a hint of menace, as was evident at the Conservative Party's annual conference last month.

Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath, another former Conservative leader, have not been on speaking terms since she displaced him from that post in 1974. They were, however, persuaded to sit close to each other on the stage, in the interests of party unity.

The Iron Lady took a chair in front, a crocodile purse parked on the floor beside her.

A journalist approached Sir Edward and asked him whether he was worried about sitting behind Thatcher. Cocking an eye at the bag, Sir Edward muttered: "I'd rather sit behind her than in front."

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