My father was a statesman, I'm a political woman. My father was a saint. I'm not.
—Indira Gandhi (her father was Jawaharlal Nehru; no genetic relation to M. K. Gandhi)
Non-royal women in positions of power are almost always portrayed as very stoic and no-nonsense, at least publicly. Rarely will you find a woman president, prime minister, governor, legislator, judge, or military leader who is presented as indecisive, incompetent, or otherwise "weak." She's also usually not portrayed as corrupt, either, although if she's directing things from behind the scenes, that tends to change.
The reason usually given for this is that women seeking positions of power (as opposed to those who inherit them), both in reality and in fiction, are faced with two unfortunate truths: (1) that they need to give the appearance of toughness, ruthlessness, and coldness in order to get past other people's masculine-tinted expectations of leadership, and (2) that in the circles such women travel in, they actually need to be tough, ruthless, and cold. The ones who weren't were left by the wayside. Thus women leaders are generally portrayed as trying to demonstrate their iron will at all times. Indeed, they have to lest they lose all credibility.
Mind you, it's not that she's all iron. In private, she can be quite warm, even loving. And, seeing as the camera can take us anywhere, we often get to see it. However, her public does not.
The model for this in the contemporary world is Margaret Thatcher, who was a notorious bully within her (entirely-male) cabinet, and defines the "presidential Premiership" in British politics even more than Tony Blair. The nickname was applied to her in an insulting manner by the Soviet military newspaper Red Star in 1976, when she was still Leader of the Opposition, but soon became affectionate. (No mental fatigue, only metal fatigue.)
Such characters are prone to discover a well-hidden maternal instinct towards their subordinates, making this a Distaff Counterpart to A Father to His Men (although usually not military). Compare with Proper Lady, which provides the Iron Lady some foundation. Compare Silk Hiding Steel, where her iron disposition is hidden beneath smiles and Passive-Aggressive Kombat.
Compare/contrast Evil Matriarch. Also contrast her possible opposites Stepford Smiler, Misplaced Kindergarten Teacher, and Cute and Psycho, all of whom are more prone to using emotion to get what they want rather than setting it aside as the Iron Lady does.
Not to be confused with Iron Maiden.
For the 2011 movie about Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, see The Iron Lady.
Anime & Manga
- Gundam Wing's Lady Une, who's actually called "Iron Une".
- And from Zeta Gundam and Gundam ZZ, we have Haman Karn, advisor to Princess Mineva and de facto ruler of Neo-Zeon, because said princess is only seven years old.
- Integral Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing
- General Olivier Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist. Scary.
- Trinity Blood has a couple. Despite being called Iron Lady, Caterina Sforza seems more like this in the Anime version, while tough and willful, she's not stoic in the manga and the novels, she grows increasingly emotional. Mary Spencer and Queen Esther Blanchett (who becomes a war leader) are better examples.
- Lady Eboshi, leader of Irontown in Princess Mononoke.
- In Appleseed, Athena is the supreme executive leader of the city/nation of Olympus. There's a council of elders and a super-computer who make all the big long term descisions but how she runs Olympus is entirely her own choice. It helps that she is an artificially created human genetically manipulated to do exactly that, and she does it extremely well. For large parts of the manga and some of the animes, it's not clear if she's a particularly tough High Queen or actually the Big Bad. It turns out to be the former.
- Balalaika from Black Lagoon, the leader of a gang of Russian commandos-turned-hitmen and the scariest member of their outfit by far.
- Frances Middleford from Black Butler is an example of this trope. She even makes Sebastian break out in a cold sweat.
- Cornelia from Code Geass, complete with hidden soft side. A rare royal example.
- Asuka Langley Soryu desperately wants to be one of these, and indeed she starts out fitting the mold. Unfortunately, she tragically underestimates the cost of keeping her emotions inside and focusing only on success.
- Amanda Waller from The DCU, though her actions here (and in other incarnations) often drift into Well-Intentioned Extremist territory. Batman avoids pissing her off if he can help it.
- Chief Judge McGruder in Judge Dredd; since she was based on Margaret Thatcher, this is appropriate. Hershey also showed elements of this during her tenure as chief judge.
- Judi Dench as M in all of her James Bond appearances. You only ever really see her softer side in Quantum of Solace.
- Dr. Grace Augustine from Avatar is a more benign version of this but you gotta admit that she's as tough as they come.
- The Grand Councilwoman of the Intergalactic Federation in Lilo and Stitch.
- Meryl Streep won an Oscar playing the original Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, in a biopic called... The Iron Lady.
- She's already played one Iron Lady, Miranda Priestly.
- Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns.
- In Real Life too, when her stunt double refused to be dragged along by a horse because it was too dangerous, she did the stunt herself. She was nearly 50 years old at the time.
- Professor Minerva McGonagall of the Harry Potter series is demonstrably an Iron Lady (even if she does get a bit worked up over Gryffindor Quidditch), and is especially fierce when fighting Death Eaters.
- Nasuada of The Inheritance Cycle
- Lady Maege Mormont and her daughters, who are war leaders as well. (Averted by Brienne of Tarth, who is more like Virginity Makes You Stupid, but that's another matter.)
- Scheherazade in Arabian Nights seems a toned-down version of this. She was restricted by her culture to the context of harem intrigue, of course, but she plays this trope as far as it can go within the context. She was intelligent, brave, and knew her own mind.
- The Bible has a a few interesting examples:
- Esther was rather like this. She was a little like Scheherazade, but had a bit of ruthlessness as well. Of all the books of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible), she is only one of two women to have a book named after her.
- Deborah, the only female Judge of Israel. With her general Barak, she led the Israelites against the Canaanites (Barak didn't trust his own judgment). In her own words:
Deborah: Truly, the Lord will sell the Canaanites this day into the hand of a woman!
- From The Silmarillion, the Human chieftainess Haleth who led her people out of Morgoth's country into Beleriand.
- Now she was one Badass woman.
- The Duchessa Silvia in Stravaganza: City of Masks - and throughout the series, her successor, Ariana, is learning the way of the Iron Lady too.
- Karrin Murphy, in her days as the chief of SI police department, from The Dresden Files.
- Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Although she's the editor-in-chief a fashion magazine, she fits this trope perfectly.
- Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath is an example of this trope. She exemplifies all the traits but, most importantly, manages to hold the family together through sheer force of will alone.
- Olenna Redwyne, known as "The Queen of Thorns", from A Song of Ice and Fire. Her son Mace Tyrell rules house Tyrell and she has no real power aside from being the old lord's widow, but no-one doubts that the Lady Olenna is the one who is ultimately in control.
- Theodora in Belisarius Series is an Empress and thus not a non-royal authority. But she otherwise fits this trope to a "T".
- Tej's mother and grandmother are both antivillain versions of this in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance.
Live Action TV
- Erin Reagan in Blue Bloods. She is an idealist, an incorruptible defender of the law, and a devoted mother. She is a cold-blooded DA who is in some ways scarier than her more straightforward brother Danny who always thinks she is a ridiculous Principles Zealot (because she will never accept anything less than every legal i dotted and t crossed, lest her prey escape her clutches from a technicality). Danny can be physically brutal sometimes. Erin, by contrast is a Manipulative Bastard who can intimidate people into tattle-telling for her through various degrees of pressure, plea bargaining and sometimes near blackmail, all given in a soft and absolutely terrifyingly feminine voice. Danny can threaten to bruise someone a little if they don't cooperate with the law. Erin just threatens to ruin their life.
- Adele Dewitt in Dollhouse.
- Laura Roslin of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica is this to a T.
- Harriet Jones as PM in Doctor Who, sometimes too much (it helps she's something of an Expy of Thatcher).
- Allison Taylor of 24 exhibits this, to everybody's surprise (in-universe).
- The hilarious thing about Allison Taylor is that she can almost literally will anybody to do just about anything they don't want to do, and then she can make you feel glad you did it afterwards.
- Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager. (Depending on the Writer, but then Voyager had problems like that.)
- Veronica Palmer, Ted's boss in Better Off Ted.
- Mrs. Frederic (C.C.H. Pounder) on Warehouse 13.
- British Prime Minister Maureen Graty on The West Wing, a thinly-veiled reference to Margaret Thatcher, who starts a full-scale war over the terrorist shooting of a British plane.
- She didn't actually start a war, she threatened to and was talked down. However it is clear the writers were going for a similarity to Thatcher.
- Jenny Shepherd in NCIS. She had a bit of a Captain Ahab complex but she was tough, good at her job, and had a Dying Moment of Awesome.
- Inspector Thatcher on Due South, whose nickname from one of the Rays was the Dragon Lady. (not to be confused with the Dragon Lady trope.) Yes, she was named after the real Thatcher.
- Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5.
Ivanova: "On you way back, I'd like you to practice the Babylon 5 Mantra: Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova's recommendations. Ivanova is God. And if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out! Babylon Control out. [to herself] Civilians. [glances upward] Just kidding about the God thing. No offense?"
- Madeline on La Femme Nikita may be the coldest Iron Lady in TV history.
- And Amanda in the newest incarnation (Nikita) isn't far behind her.
- Miranda in Sex and the City is a ball-busting Manhattan lawyer who is constantly trying to find a man who doesn't feel castrated by her presence.
- Lynne Thigpen as Da Chief on Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?. Although, around Greg she was the Only Sane Employee.
- Patty Hughes, the ruthless -- if highly effective -- lawyer from Damages.
- Section Chief Erin Strauss in Criminal Minds.
- Samantha in the 2008 version of Survivors
- Chuck brings us Brigadier General Diane Beckman. Later seasons show she does have some warmth beneath her cold-as-steel facade, with these moments usually being the rare times in which Beckman is used for outright comedy. However throughout the series run it's been made very clear that this is a woman that can intimidate Casey! Not to say that her steely persona isn't the source of occasional gags as well.
- Queen Anora from Dragon Age: Origins is not actually royalty, but a daughter of a minor noble who rose through the ranks using his exceptional guts and brains. She inherited both of those from him and then some.
- In Dragon Age II, there's Knight-Commander Meredith. Before the lyrium idol drives her insane, anyway.
- Also Avelline, who just one year after arriving in the city as a moneyless refuge manages to get a job in the city guard and is promoted to captain of the guard because all the guardmen consider her to be by far the most capable person for the position after exposing the corruption of her predecessor.
- Aria in Mass Effect 2, who rules Wretched Hive Omega through force of personality and also force of...force. The previous ruler was a krogan; she beat him in a straight-up one-on-one biotic battle during which she crushed one of his hearts and made him a broken shell. Then she kept him around as a living trophy. Knowing all that, it hardly needs to be said that the only rule on Omega is "Don't fuck with Aria." (But she says it anyway.)
- Addison Harris in Strange Little Band acts like one of these in front of her subordinates and colleagues. She's not always so stoic in private though.
- Elizabeth Carson, headmistress of Whateley Academy. Full stop.
- SF Debris presents an Alternative Character Interpretation of Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager that still fits this trope. However, his characterization of her starts off as a power hungry dictator who likes killing, and eventually move to intentionally causing massive war in the Alpha Quadrant so that she can take over after everything goes to hell. This plan is spelled out while she talks to Captain Picard, whose replicators she had programmed to put amnesia drugs into his tea, so that she could gloat about her plan without actually allowing Picard to thwart it. By the way, this characterization is completely contained in his reviews. Unity, his massive crossover fanfic with Star Wars, makes things worse.
- "Oh, I love Janeway! She's my favorite villain!"
- Princess Azula appears to be an adolescent Iron Lady crossed with Arrogant Kung Fu Guy, and later adds elements of Ax Crazy.
- The Legend of Korra gives us Lin Beifong, who is a more literal case with actual metal armor. She is the chief of the Metalbending Police Force in Republic City for the power part.
- Amanda Waller, chief of the Project Cadmus in Justice League, is so iron, she stands up to Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman at the same time upon her first introduction, chews out the Goddamn Batman, and personally confronts Lex Luthor in his lair upon discovering his treachery.
- Waller shows up again in Young Justice, running a penitentiary for super-powered criminals. Even after the crooks take over the prison thanks to a mole on her staff and start threatening her life, she doesn't give them an inch. Sadly, said mole ends up replacing her after she takes the fall for the near-breakout.
- Margaret Thatcher, of course.
- Dame Eugenia Charles, the first female prime minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica in the West Indies. She was even known as the "Iron Lady of The Caribbean" due to her uncompromising stance on her views.
- Indira Gandhi of India, who was even de facto dictator of India for almost two years (the Indian Emergency, 1975–77).
- Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel during the Yom Kippur War and before that Israel's Foreign Minister for ten years. She was often called "The Iron Lady of Israel," and combined it with Jewish Mother in a rather odd fashion: for instance, she would bake a cake for the ministers comprising her "kitchen cabinet" (circle of closest advisors, meeting for Shabbat dinner), but also be totally willing to grill them, chew them out, or embarrass them over state business even as they munched on the cake.
- Tzipi Livni was famous for her no-nonsense attitude as Israeli Foreign Minister under Ehud Olmert, and continues to have that iron will as Leader of the Opposition. Given the revolving door that is the Israeli premiership, there's a good chance she'll be PM in a few years yet.
- And in something of a running theme, new Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich seems, as a former hard-hitting journalist, to be cut from similar cloth. However, her focus on social issues rather than hard security matters softens her image up a bit.
- Angela Merkel, current Chancellor of Germany, has gained some reputation for this as she is a pretty tough negotiator in international politics. Within Germany, she is much more known for leaving the spotlight to her ministers and rarely makes any announcements or statements of significance. This makes her almost untouchable since she never says something stupid or controversial or appears responsible for unpopular government programs or changes to existing law. While this is often criticised as being indecisive and not doing her job, she always has very high approval ratings with the public, because nobody ever sees her doing something bad.
- Yulia Timoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine was famous for being stubborn and getting things done. In a country where smoke bombs, eggs, and fisticuffs are a not-unexpected way to settle things on the floor of Parliament, you have to be stubborn to be effective.
- Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, current President of Liberia, and the first elected female leader in Africa. She has to be tough as nails; there's the threat of a coup.
- Benazir Bhutto, the late Prime Minister of Pakistan. Although democratically-elected, she inherited a nearly-dictatorial manner of politics from her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (an extremely shrewd political operator who earned Badass points after a coup forced him through years of Kangaroo Courts before being executed in 1979). However, this wasn't enough to prevent her assassination in December 2007.
- Hillary Rodham Clinton has exhibited these tendencies. Remember when that translator screwed up a question to make it sound like the poor Congolese student was asking for Bill's opinion on some subject or other? Hillary was displeased.
- Meg Whitman, former President and CEO of eBay and Carly Fiorina, former CEO at Hewlett-Packard, both of whom ran for statewide office in California (Whitman for Governor, Fiorina for US Senate; both lost), tend to try to invoke this at every possible opportunity. The degree to which they are this trope varies, although consensus seems that Whitman fits the bill more closely. Accounts of Fiorina's downfall at H-P range from "she was too tough" to "she was not tough enough" to "her actual toughness aside, she spent too much time acting one thing or another and not enough actually running the company."
- Somewhat amusingly, a year after they both lost their political races, Whitman was hired to take Fiorina's old job at H-P. In the meantime, Fiorina has mostly been taking bit roles on corporate and nonprofit boards.
- Clare Boothe Luce: Congresswoman, Intrepid Reporter, Author, Lady of Adventure, and fabled Deadpan Snarker (and inveterate rival of Dorothy Parker). And quite a looker too from what I've read.
- While on the subject of American Congresswomen, may I suggest Jeannette Rankin—the only person to vote against the United States going to war in both World War I and World War II? World War II in particular—she was the only Member of Congress to vote against the US declaration of war against Japan. Whatever one might think of those votes, standing on your principles like that takes balls (pardon the pun).
- Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Second in line to the Presidency for six years, not at all well-liked by the opposition, but admired by many Democrats. She definitely gives off a "strong mother figure" persona (in her home life, she's the emphatically-Catholic mother of five and grandmother of seven, so far), but she has serious political cred.
- Even Rahm Emanuel won't cross Nancy in public.
Emanuel: "Nancy gave me two very important tasks as soon as she became Speaker: Sit down and shut up. I got pretty mad. I said there is only one woman in my life who can order me around like that... Hillary Clinton."
- Subverted by Chile's first female president, Michelle Bachelet, who tried (with a moderate amount of success) to play the Team Mom card. Of course, in a country which has had 16 years of the same political bloc running it, the unashamed corruption and money-grubbing were too strong, and this attitude of hers ended up playing against her (she currently heads up the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women because UNEGEEW sounds like Ban Ki-moon just threw up).
- Played straight by the deceased high-ranked lawyer Monica Madariaga, the Minister of Justice in Pinochet's dictatorship. According to Madariaga's testimony, she had to become an Iron Lady to cope with the misogyny among Pinochet's aides.
- Also averted by Australia's first female (and current) Prime Minister, who likes to stress her 'consultative approach'. However, this has earned her a lot of criticism.
- Philippine senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago eats death threats for breakfast, so uncompromising is she.
- The current President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Dorit Beinisch, has been noted for being extremely tough on the government for human rights violations (following the tradition of her mentor, Aharon Barak). She also took being hit in the face with a flying shoe fairly calmly.
- Helen Clark, New Zealand Prime Minister from 1999-2008. Since then she has been appointed to 3rd-in-command at the United Nations. While she did pull back on some issues as PM, she did remain very staunch on others. Generally respected internationally, domestic support has usually been more polarised.
- Red October era Bolshevik commissar Rosalia Zemlyachka.
- Current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. In her youth, was arrested and tortured for being part of a Communist guerrilla. As politician, was Minister of Mines and Energy, then Chief of Staff, then elected President, where she fired at least seven ministers in just one year!
- Current President of Malawi (since 2012) Joyce Banda seems to be one of these. Appointed VP in 2009, under Bingu wa Mutharika, she got into serious policy disputes with the President—mostly involving much-needed reforms and his alienation of donor countries—and founded a breakaway political party to support her. When he died in 2012, she called on the military to support her right to succeed to the presidency, which was being contested by Mutharika's loyalists in the Cabinet. Since then, she has proved to be a tough political player and has made several important and often controversial decisions, both at home and abroad. At home, she has announced plans to decriminalize homosexuality, which is a big move in socially-conservative Malawi. In foreign policy, one of her earliest decisions was to refuse to host an African Union summit after the AU declared that Malawi would have to give Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir assurances that he would not be arrested if he landed in the country; Mutharika had done so on a previous occasion, and the AU has been quite clear that they regard the charge as an affront.
- For those living under a rock, that meant "leader of the Israelites" at the time.
- by a disgruntled Israeli copycat of the journalist who attempted doing the same thing to Dubya. Unlike the guy who tried to hit Dubya, this guy hit her square on the bridge of her glasses, knocking her off her chair.
- wanted by the ICC for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes