Margaret Thatcher – a woman who was or was not a feminist – died this morning at the age of 87. She was the first female Prime Minister in the UK. She died of a stroke after a long struggle with dementia. There are a lot of different people who will describe her in a lot of different ways. She was known for her strong stand against the miner’s union, and her close relationship with Ronald Reagan, and the words you use to describe her might depend on how you feel about those topics. However, whatever you feel about those things, it’s still worth remembering that she was the first female Prime Minister in the UK.
I think our friend Hugo Schwyzer made an interesting point when he said that:
I think that’s true. I also think it is worth remembering that when Margaret Thatcher was Secretary for Education in 1974, women in Britain could not sign for their own credit card, mortgage or loan. And she managed to be the Secretary of Education.
Does that, then, make Margaret Thatcher a feminist?
Well, it certainly makes her a very strong woman, and one who had to undergo some of the struggles feminists deal with on a regular basis and should relate to. She was frequently dismissed by members of her own party for being a “grocer’s daughter.” That wasn’t some bizarre insult, she was, literally, a grocer’s daughter.
It’s not surprising, then, that she was given to quippy turns of phrase that are appreciated by some members of the feminist movement like, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Regarding her economic policies, she also claimed, “My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” That seems to fit very closely with the feminist notion that women and men deserve equal pay for equal work.
Thatcher also defied any notion that men had at the time that a female Prime Minister would be too “soft” given her refusal to be moved by… anything. The lady was not for turning. Interestingly, in a recent Reuter’s Poll 40% of men voted her Britain’s most capable Prime Minister, while only 32% of women did.
Truly, Margaret with her great strength and willpower seems like she ought to be an icon for the feminist movement. Except.
Except she really hated feminists.
According to her longtime adviser Paul Johnson, she said “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.’
To me, that quote seems to carry with it a quality of someone exclaiming “He doesn’t like me!? Well, I don’t like him, either!” I’m not really apt to regard it as Maggie’s last word on the feminist movement.
I’m also disinclined to agree that the feminists hate her as much as all that, today, at least in America. The Iron Lady has done much to change public perception of Maggie in many regions.
However, it is true that Margaret Thatcher believed that people should be able to succeed by themselves, and she didn’t help bolster her fellow women as much as many might have hoped. She only elected one other woman to her cabinet, and, in the 80’s, she did say, “I owe nothing to women’s lib.”
However, in spite of her sentiments, I agree with Natasha Walter, who claimed:
“Women who complain that Margaret Thatcher was not a feminist because she didn’t help other women or openly acknowledge her debt to feminism have a point, but they are also missing something vital. She normalised female success. She showed that although female power and masculine power may have different languages, different metaphors, different gestures, different traditions, different ways of being glamorous or nasty, they are equally strong, equally valid … No one can ever question whether women are capable of single-minded vigour, of efficient leadership, after Margeret Thatcher. She is the great unsung heroine of British feminism.”
Laura Sandy also makes an excellent point when she says:
[Thatcher’s] political language was focused on women. Owning your own home, setting the household budget, choosing the best school for your child – these messages were framed and delivered by a woman to encourage other women to take the choices that they needed to take for their families. Women were given a new level of political importance and one that has not been lost by subsequent leaders.
Whether or not Margaret herself identified with the feminist movement, her place as a leader of a world power is one that cannot, and should not be, ignored. While one may not approve of her policies, her existence paved the road for women in power who can adopt different policies.
The fact that Margaret did not attempt to advance the feminist movement as much as she might have seems less relevant, to me, than the fact that her very existence indicated to women that they could do anything. And they can sign for their own credit cards, now, and I think we can all be in favor of that.
Picture via WENN