Margaret Thatcher – Iron Lady but not feminist icon

April 10, 2013

Margaret Thatcher is famously on record as saying she didn’t think there’d be a woman prime minister in Britain in her lifetime. She, of course, eclipsed her own expectations and became the country’s first, and so far only, elected female leader.

But a feminist icon she was not – as many commentators have pointed out.

“Her notion of women’s rights – to compete, fight, and succeed on equal terms with men – did not fit the orthodoxies of contemporary feminism,” Paul Vallely said in the Independent.

During her 11-1/2 years in power, Thatcher appointed only one woman to her cabinet – Janet Young, who became leader of the upper chamber, the House of Lords – and Douglas Hurd,  foreign minister and interior minister under Thatcher, was quoted as saying that feminist ideology “left her cold”.

“The battle for women’s rights has been largely won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. And I hope they are,” Thatcher said in a lecture on women’s rights in 1982. “I hated those strident tones that you still hear from some women’s libbers.”

Some have defended Thatcher, saying it was not in her interest to promote women in government, but to advance the best people for the job regardless of their sex.

Others, including Amanda Foreman in the Daily Beast, have argued that Thatcher’s refusal to give the feminist movement any credit for her success – and her lack of solidarity with feminists – was understandable.

“She had climbed the treacherous road to political power on her own, without the help of any movement, interest group or fan base,” Foreman said.

Thatcher’s skin was no doubt toughened by the sexism she regularly encountered in her career.

She wrote in her memoirs that as education minister under Prime Minister Edward Heath, she was “the statutory woman” – the one obligatory female member of the government, whose main task was to explain what ‘women’ were likely to think and want on troublesome issues.

In the House of Commons, the popular Labour Party slogan “Ditch the bitch”, often rang out when she took to the floor, while parliamentary colleagues belittled her with comments like Austin Mitchell’s: “It’s been a touching spectacle: the brave little woman getting on with the woman’s work of trying to dominate the world.”

In life, Thatcher was scrutinised by those who couldn’t quite make her out, and in death the same questions are being rehashed.

Why has there been no British female leader since her? Is it because she outmanned the men and set an impossible example for other women? Was she the housewife who had her hair done every morning and cooked for her husband, or the Iron Lady who went to war? Was she feminine or was her handbag a symbol of that “classic” male trait – aggression?

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Photo caption:  FILE PHOTO – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher points skyward as
she receives standing ovation at Conservative Party Conference on October 13, 1989. REUTERS/Stringer/UK

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