margaret thatcher: feminist friend or foe?
If you squint your eyes and turn your head to the side, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is everything a feminist aspires to be. She was strong and unwavering; determined to succeed in spite of a league of “old boys” fighting against her at every turn. She was the first (and only) female British PM, and was perhaps the most influential European political figure since Winston Churchill. As Lionel Shriver pointed out, she didn’t do things to be liked; she broke free from the stereotype of the woman concerned above all by how people felt about her. But for all these things, many view her as an enemy of the feminist movement and in the wake of her death, her role in women’s liberation is being hotly debated.
Thatcher had no kind words for feminism as she understood it. She allegedly (and infamously) said to her adviser, Paul Johnson, in 1982: ‘The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.’ She distanced herself from gender, perhaps owing to her determination to focus on the individual, rather than “society”, and attributed none of her success to the women’s liberation movement.
The antipathy is mutual. The internet is awash with articles that angrily refute claims Thatcher was a feminist, or indeed should be considered a role model for young women. One reason for this is that Thatcher made no visible effort to promote the role of women in politics. She only elevated one woman to Cabinet in her time as PM, a Baroness Young. No other woman was raised above the level of junior minister. Thatcher may have smashed her way through the glass ceiling, but she did not lend a hand to any women looking to follow her.
The failure of the (Conservative) Thatcher government to help women and families further condemns her. She criticised working mothers for creating a ‘generation of crèche babies’ while making no advances to the provision of affordable childcare. She rarely spoke on women’s issues, and loathed Britain’s welfare culture – policy issues that would be central to any self-respecting feminist politician’s campaign. She told Women’s Own in 1987:
‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation…’
Her emphasis on the individual over society is a bone of contention for contemporary critics, and her privileged circumstances are brought into this discussion. Though born the daughter of a grocer, she studied at Oxford, and married rich. She was fortunate enough to have a husband who supported her political ambitions, including three failed election attempts. When she had children (twins Mark and Carol) they were cared for by a full-time nanny. While she believed that there was room at the top for strong-willed women, she overlooked the fact that it takes more than determination to receive an education and keep a roof over your head.
Not all criticism levelled against Thatcher as a woman and a potential feminist is valid. Some critics condemn the fact that women were ‘trapped in boring, badly paid service sector jobs’ during the 1980s, when ‘in truth many women say they would rather be full-time mothers,’ which is nonsensical on two levels. First, poor families have had to live on two wages for centuries; it’s hardly a result of Thatcher hating women. Secondly, I imagine half the people (of either gender) who work in public service today find it dull, regardless of their status as progenitors. Most people need to work to survive; it is not a situation unique to Thatcher’s Britain.
The fact that she refused to embrace her feminine side is another dubious element of criticism. She was unsentimental and obstinate. She did not pander or waver. Whether or not this is a wise political tactic (and her economic legacy clashes with her popularity on this point), it is not a valid point when assessing if someone should be considered a feminist icon. Breaking free from the shackles of gendered stereotypes is a critical element of the feminist agenda, so condemning Thatcher for having a nanny instead of staying home with the children, or for displaying ‘the traditional male tactics of being ruthless, hard and uncompromising, riding roughshod over those who opposed her’ over being soft and obliging is ridiculous.
Thatcher was unapologetic in who she was and what her party stood for. She was not interested in being liked, and while this resulted in eventual economic growth for Britain, it also meant incredible unpopularity and social discord. She was so focussed on the individual that she had no time for gender politics, and she did little to help women during her time as Prime Minister. Doubtless, the failings of her political career will be discussed for years to come, and her legend will continue to divide commentators. Margaret Thatcher was not a feminist, but she was not feminism’s enemy either.
As an individual and a politician, she did not help the feminist cause.
As an idea, for what she could have been, she will endure as an inspiration.