It is not surprising that a handbag should figure so prominently in the film chronicling Margaret Thatcher’s legacy–a sprawling tale brought to the big screen by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. This personal carry-all has long been both functional and symbolic. Depending on its style and brand, it can be a statement of status or a pronouncement of folksiness. Hand it off to a hen-pecked husband or a put-upon assistant and it can demean or belittle. A purse can impress and intimidate, bewilder, berate, or amuse.
During Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, her handbags came to signify femininity and toughness. Their style was unassuming: slender, structured, solid, and ladylike. They looked perfectly at home with Thatcher’s dignified suits and oh-so-British hats.
But those bags instilled fear in colleagues and combatants alike. What was lurking inside them? What might she pull out: incriminating papers, devastating notes, embarrassing memorabilia? For men, the handbag is a vast, vaguely terrifying mystery. What personal unmentionables lie within?