We have a strange relationship with labels; some labels we actively pursue, others we do all that we can to avoid.
Reflections on how we are defined have been prompted by a number of recent events. Firstly, the reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death. I wonder how she would have wanted to be defined – how she would have defined herself. Known as The Iron Lady in life, a name intended as an insult when given to her by a Communist newspaper, it became one she wore with pride. In an article in The Telegraph, Charles Moore wrote: “One should never forget the importance of the most obvious fact about Mrs Thatcher – that she was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. It made everything different. It meant public interest was feverish, and public recognition was certain. She stood out at once, without having to try, from all the suits around her. All over the world people wanted to see what the first woman was wearing and how she looked. They wanted to hear her voice, find out about her family life, learn where she shopped and what she cooked. Like corgis with the Queen or the cigar with Winston Churchill, the handbag became the trademark. In fact, it was much more important than those other totems, because it was also the symbol of her power – of female power.”
Margaret Thatcher was defined, both to the good and to the bad, by the fact that she was a woman. Perhaps this was and is why reactions to her are so extreme. When we think of a woman, we most commonly expect a certain softness in their nature; we expect a sense of the maternal – one who is predisposed to be more of the peace-maker than the war-mongerer. We equate womanhood with motherhood; anything other than this and we are likely to say that the woman is cold or in some way unnatural. Margaret Thatcher understood all of this. And she worked it expertly. She knew how to achieve what she wanted by playing to the label: she played on being a woman, represented by the iconic handbag, but underneath she had the heart and nature more typical of a man. She took the label and made it her own.
Labels will put you in boxes so that you can be measured, assessed and predicted. Taking the examples of Thatcher and Brown, I advised the students to think carefully about how they want to be defined and to make sure they earn the labels that they want to be known by.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”.
For a more modern view, Michael Stipe (lead singer of REM, for those too young to know better) says, “My feeling is that labels are for canned food… I am what I am – and I know what I am.”
Head, Lucy Pearson