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, business executive, 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. 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 beyond iron to somewhere around titanium towards 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.)
In certain media, they often have British accents, heaven knows why. In most media, she is likely to have Power Hair. In anime, it is more often long hair, in whatever color. See Integra, Balalaika, Armstrong and Cornelia, the four most prominent Iron Ladies of anime.
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 and Grande Dame. 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.
If she is royal, see The High Queen, God Save Us from the Queen!, and/or The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask. For her typical Evil Counterpart, see The Baroness. May well have been a Go-Getter Girl when younger. The Lady of War is a comparable action-ready variant (and can overlap each other if she's active both in the field of battle and politics simultaneously) as well.
Not to be confused with Iron Maiden.
For the 2011 movie about Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, see The Iron Lady.
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.
Hellsing: When she was just a child, Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing was almost killed by her Evil Uncle for the right to control the family business. After that she has been the head of the Hellsing family and masterofAlucard. Integra is definitely more stoic and masculine than the other female lead, Seras, and even in the Convention of Twelve—a gathering of all sorts of important people from military, Parliament and the like—she is by far the most calm and collected.
General Olivier Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist is held to be scary by her soldiers, her family, and The Protagonist. She, a Social Darwinist, ruthlessly and literally cuts the current military government down to size so that she can become Fuhrer, and she, despite her extremism, is still considered a protagonist.
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.
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 decisions 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.
Frances Middleford from Black Butler is an example of this trope. She makes Sebastian break out in a cold sweat.
Cornelia from Code Geass is a ruthless military version complete with hidden soft side. A rare royal example.
Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion 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.
In Macross (Or Robotech), Misa Hayes is this initially, but over time her cold and professional appearance begins to fade away and she grows more emotional.
Barajou no Kiss: Yamamoto Anis will not take any of these dimension warping shenanigans sitting down, thank you very much! She may have just been informed that her father intends to sacrifice her to a seal of unknown demonic origin and otherwise make her life hell, but she is not going to just sit around and mope. No. She is going to kick her Knights' collective asses into gear. You will obey or you will get the rose thorns of doom.
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.
Esther was rather like this. She was like Scheherazade, but ruthless as well. She is one of only two women to have a book of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) named after her.
Deborah, the only female Judge of Israelnote For those living under a rock, that meant "leader of the Israelites" at the time.. 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.
The Duchessa Silvia in Stravaganza: City of Masks - and throughout the series, her successor, Ariana, is learning the way of the Iron Lady too.
Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Although she's the editor-in-chief of 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.
Lucia Nesbitt from First Contact Is Bad for You is rather stern and business oriented, and almost always referred to by her last name by anyone but her family. She holds no official title; instead she works through her husband Tiberius, who is a governor.
Song at Dawn: For Emerganda and Alienor a 'take charge' mindset is required for them to have any influence at all. Both of them daily battle against men who try to undercut their authority.
Emerganda is the duchess of a region of France and keeps a sharp eye on its finances and potential civil unrest.
Alienor, a duchess and a queen, laments that being pregnant makes her more emotional.
President Eloise Pritchart from the Honor Harrington series is a no-nonsense President Iron with a spine of steel who survived two revolutions and a bloody regime and came out on top, who takes crap from no one, and who makes brutal but necessary decisions as she tries to govern a star nation fighting a war. Then she decides she's had enough of being manipulated and heads off to Manticore with no warning to kickstart the Grand Alliance, which puts an end to the Manticore-Haven war in a hurry.
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?"
Delenn can also be described as such, if you cross her or (especially) her sense of what's right. Her breaking the Grey Council when they wouldn't act against the Shadows epitomized that, and it's a safe bet that Sheridan was grateful most of his days that she had his back when it counted.
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.
Dr. Elizabeth Weir in her time as leader of the Atlantis expedition certainly qualifies. She makes the tough decisions with a firm hand and very, VERY rarely shows weakness (and then, only to Sheppard, her second-in-command and best friend.)
Elaine Barrish Hammond from Political Animals. Given that she was an expy of Hillary Rodham Clinton (and was played by Sigourney Weaver), this probably shouldn't be too surprising.
Chief Vicks from Psych is tough enough that even Shawn Spencer knows better than to cross her... usually.
BattleTech: Many Clans have female Khans as their leader, and nobody bats an eye on them, as the critical qualification for being a Khan is being a real Badass, while being a man doesn't figure high on the list to say the least. The most recent example is Malvina Hazen of Clan Jade Falcon who won her position in a Trial of Possession from the previous Khan Jana Pryde.
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.)
Commander Shepard can be played this way if female, especially if she of the "paragade" or "renegon" moralities, which usually involves a relative fairness with a dash of tough love.
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.
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.
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 composing 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. Bear in mind that the "Kitchen Cabinet" included some of Israel's great badass heroes, including Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon.
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.
Subverted by her very feeble opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition between 2009-2013, ending up losing the leadership of her party, Kadima (‘forward’), followed by leaving it shortly before the 2013 elections in favour of founding a new one, HaTnu‘a (‘the movement’). Both parties absolutely crashed in the 2013 elections: while in the prior elections Kadima got 28 seats in the Knesset out of 120, in this election they won only 2, and [=Ha Tnu‘a], which had recruited 7 members from among the Members of the Knesset upon foundation, got only 6.
In something of a running theme, new Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich as a former hard-hitting journalist, is cut from similar cloth. However, her focus on social issues rather than hard security matters softens her image.
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.
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 he was 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), invokes 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.
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 big brass ones (whatever those ones might be).
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 eight, so far), but she has serious political cred.
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. In a country which has had 16 years of the same political bloc running it the unashamed corruption and money-grubbing were very strong, and this attitude didn't work in her first term (2006-10). Since Chile forbids presidents from serving consecutive terms, she then went to head 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), but returned to Chile to run for president again, and won. We'll see what happens in her second term (2014-18).
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.
Averted by Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who liked to stress her 'consultative approach'. This has earned her a lot of criticism.
Philippine senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago eats death threats for breakfast, so uncompromising is she.
There is no Lawyer or Judge who can contest her on the conduct of court, because She wrote the book that the courts follow in the first place.
Dorit Beinisch, President of the Israeli Supreme Court 2006-2012 (Israeli judges have to retire at 70), 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 shoenote 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. fairly calmly.
Red October era Bolshevik commissar Rosalia Zemlyachka. A member of the Bolshevik Party since 1905, one of the leaders of the Moscow Soviet in 1917, oversaw a bloody purge of former Whites, bourgeoisie and generally unlucky guys in Crimea in 1920, was a minor orchestrator of the more known Great Purge of 1937-39, died peacefully of old age after World War 2.
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, wanted by the ICC,note for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes 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 vocal in its rejection of the charges against Bashir.
Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first woman to hold a position in the American Cabinet, was noted for two things: being very cold and aloof in her dealings with her associates—even other Cabinet members—and her steely determination to improve the lot of the working American. Without her advocacy, several landmark items of American labor legislation—most notably the Social Security Act (which established Social Security) and the National Labor Relations Act (which severely limited employers' ability to break unions)—would either not have existed or would be substantially different.
Averted by Isabel Perón, the first female president of Argentina. She was the third wife and vice-president of the aged Juan Perón, and had no political formation at all. Peronism was divided between left-wing and right-wing peronists, Perón sought someone who was "neutral", and thought his wife could be a good idea. Things grew beyond mere heated political discussions: the left-wing peronists, called Montoneros, began a series of terrorist attacks to depose the government and establish a communist dictatorship. Perón appointed a counter-terrorism force, the Triple A, to destroy the Montoneros. And then he died of old age, leaving Isabel as president. She was so useless against the crisis that the people welcomed the subsequent military coup that deposed her.
The more notable Eva Peron, on the other hand, was a hands-on, tough-as-nails Iron Lady if ever there was one. As Juan Perón's second wife, "Evita" (who inspired the musical and later film of the same name) took a front and center role in politics, and the success of the movement her husband led was due in large part to her. She led the female wing of the Peronist Party, founded several nationally-endorsed charities for everyone from the impoverished "descamisados" to kids with terminal illnesses, and, above all, gave inspiring, bombastic speeches to massive throngs of cheering people. Though her life was cut short by cancer, she remains an important national icon and hero in Argentina.
Mrs. Peron was, however, known to hide her fierce attitude when necessary or appropriate, and could be very gentle. As mentioned, she built many orphanages, and she used to visit them without warning to make sure all the children were living as happily as possible. She would remember each kid, and if she noticed that one kid wasn't feeling well or was having issues, she would go to their room and give them a cuddle, or let them talk to her about their issues. Many think this came from her inability to get pregnant, and a miscarriage she suffered in her early relationship with Peron.
On the other hand, definitely played straight by current (as of 2014) President of Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has at times been accused of "dictatorial" tendencies (largely unfounded, although she is quite charismatic, and her government has been caught more or less red-handed fudging the inflation figures). If anything, she is a very close analogue to the aforementioned Hillary Clinton; the parallels are striking, as like HRC, her husband—the late Néstor Kirchner—was himself President, and part of his campaign in 2003 was that it would be a two-for-one deal (the main difference was that Cristina by that point was already a Senator and arguably a more prominent politician than him).
Current Premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois. She was defeated in her party's leadership race, retired, her party suffered its worst defeat in its history, she came out of retirement to win her party leadership by acclamation, pushed through a complete party meltdown in which several prominent members of her party quit citing her leadership as the primary cause... and then became the first female Premier of Quebec. Her nickname in Quebec is "la Dame de béton" - literally, "The Concrete Lady".
The hatred of Pauline Marois that runs rampant amongst members of her party, as well as the anglophone community in Quebec, comes not from her being "the concrete lady" but more from her tendency to push useless laws, such as the one making the word pasta illegal as it isn't a French word.