If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

Margaret Thatcher? Fictional?


Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to learn about a sentence supposedly said by Margaret Thatcher who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1980s. The version I was told is:

If you want a speech made you should ask a man, but if you want something done you should ask a woman.

This is a fascinating statement, but I am incredulous. Could you investigate? Where and when did she say this? Or is this another fake quotation?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will look into this provocative remark for you. Two important reference works, the Yale Book of Quotations [YQMT] and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [OQMT], list a version of this saying that appeared in People magazine in 1975. This instance of the adage includes the prefatory phrase “In politics”. Here is an excerpt from People [PMT]:

“In politics,” Margaret Thatcher once acidly observed, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

The Yale Book of Quotations also states, “Thatcher is said to have used this in a 1965 speech.” Yes, QI can report that a newspaper called the Evening News on May 20, 1965 quotes Thatcher using the phrase when addressing a women’s group.

The Margaret Thatcher Foundation maintains a website with an extensive collection of historical documents related to Thatcher’s career. A webpage on the site refers to a “Speech to National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds Conference” given on May 20, 1965. But additional details are not available on the internet, and the website references a CD-ROM:

Available on CD-ROM only. 1400. MT spoke on the theme “Woman – No Longer a Satellite”. The Evening News report of this speech is the origin of a phrase often attributed to her: “In politics, if you want anything said ask a man, if you want anything done ask a woman.”

QI obtained the CD-ROM titled “Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements 1945-1990″ and then attempted to locate a computer with the proper version of the Windows operating system to read the CD-ROM. QI succeeded in this task, but the issue of data migration was highlighted. QI hopes that this invaluable database can be migrated to a repository where it will remain accessible to future generations.

The CD-ROM contains a description of Margaret Thatcher’s speech taken from the 1965 Annual report of the group that she was addressing.  Unfortunately, this report does not include the quotation. The CD-ROM mentions another item. A “page one quote” in the Evening News newspaper of May 20, 1965 [CDMT]:

“In politics, if you want anything said ask a man, if you want anything done ask a woman.”—Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, Cons MP for Finchley, speaking to the National Council of the Townwomen’s Guilds in London this afternoon.

Continuing with selected citations in chronological order, the adage was repeated in People magazine in 1975 as already noted. In a Florida paper in 1982 another version of Thatcher’s maxim was given that is closer to the one at the top of this blog post. It does not contain the prefatory phrase “In politics” [MNMT]:

Thatcher, 56, the mother of twins, described today’s women as emancipated, said men have a way to go. To her way of thinking, “If you want a speech to be made, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

In 1990 Thatcher gave a speech in which she stated a version of the maxim while at the same time mentioning that she had used it in the previous year. The event was a luncheon speech at the Guildhall Banqueting Suite in the City of London as recorded at the margaretthatcher.org website [GBMT]:

I came across some words of your present Chairman, which sum up the role of women very well: “Practical work gets done by women. They don’t waste time. If there’s a job to do, a project to organise, they get on with it.” This echoes something I said last year: “if you want someone to make a speech, ask a man; if you want to get something done, ask a woman”.

In conclusion, Margaret Thatcher did pronounce this maxim. There are two closely related versions and evidence indicates that she has used both. QI thanks you for your question, and he hopes that you will be able to both say something and do something worthwhile now and in the future.

(Many thanks to Fred Shapiro the quotation expert and editor of the Yale Book of Quotations for helping to inspire this exploration.)

[YQMT] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 754, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[OQMT] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Margaret Thatcher”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 June 13)

[PMT] 1975 September 15, People, “The Tough Top Tory in Britain Wants to be ‘Madame P.M.’”, Page 11, Column 1, Time, Inc., New York. (Online archive of People magazine)

[CDMT] 1999, Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements 1945-1990 on CD-ROM edited by Christopher Collins, Oxford University Press in association with Chesham Place Associates. (Verified on CD-ROM)

[MNMT] 1982 July 29, Miami News, “Wednesday Briefing: About People: Ask a Woman” by Joe J. Haszonics, Page 2A, Column 2, Miami, Florida. (Google News archive)

[GBMT] 1990 May 2, Margaret Thatcher, Speech at Women’s International Zionist Organisation Centenary Lunch, Guildhall Banqueting Suite, City of London. (Accessed at margaretthatcher.org 2010 November 5) link