Margaret Thatcher's famous handbag had surprising power

Jan 9, 2012 at 9:15 p.m. ET

What was Margaret Thatcher's secret weapon? A fabulous purse, of course! In honor of the upcoming release of the new Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep, we take a look at the bag that left world leaders quaking in their seats.

The Iron Lady movie poster

Behind every great Iron Lady is a great purse. As any fashionista worth her salt knows, every bag tells a story -- and the bag you choose to carry speaks volumes about who you are. Margaret Thatcher knew this, and used it to her own political advantage.

The Asprey bag Thatcher favored is featured in the poster for the film The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep, but the rigid leather piece was far more than just an accessory for the former British prime minister. It was a weapon.

Replacing the traditional black briefcase carried by her male contemporaries, Thatcher carried her handbag with her to major meetings and can be seen with it in photos with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Daily Mail explained, "John Whittingdale, her political secretary from 1989 to 1992, said: 'It was a prop. She would produce it very visibly at big meetings to show she meant business.'"

First look: Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady >>

"The word 'handbagging' was a reference to Mrs. Thatcher's abrasive style when dealing with those who incurred her displeasure, and is often attributed to the late Tory MP Sir Julian Critchley," explained the paper.

"It first appeared in print in 1982 when a Conservative backbencher commented: 'She can't look at a British institution without hitting it with her handbag.' …The term 'handbagging' was so widely used in reference to Mrs. Thatcher that it entered the Oxford English Dictionary."

Margaret Thatcher's iconic handbag

What happened to those famous handbags? Her favorite black Asprey purse, which she owned for over 30 years, hit the auction block last June. It fetched a whopping $39,953 from a private seller -- the ballpark price of a brand new, highly prized Hermes Birkin bag. The Iron Lady herself arranged the auction and donated the proceeds to several of her favorite charities.

"I hope that the highest bidder knows that if he's into handbagging, he's got a weapon with quite a track record," the former prime minister's daughter Carol Thatcher said.

Watch Meryl Streep channel her inner Iron Lady -- with a great bag to boot -- when The Iron Lady hits U.S. theaters nationwide on Jan. 13, 2012.

Image courtesy The Weinstein Company / Dimension Films