Margaret Thatcher, the first and only female Prime Minster to date in the United Kingdom, was controversial, head strong and often uncompromising. She held office for 11 years, the majority of which was during the eighties, and she certainly broke the mould when it comes to female leadership. What’s more is that she took every sexist dig in her stride. But can we align her with feminism and more importantly, learn anything from her?
Writer for The Guardian Hadley Freeman recently wrote
“Margaret Thatcher was no feminist. One woman’s success does not mean a step forward for women. Far from ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, Thatcher made it through and pulled the ladder up after her.”
She raises a good point. The Conservative leader did not exactly forge a path for women to follow in her wake and as Freeman points out, in her entire reign as Prime Minister she only ever appointed one other woman to her cabinet.
It seems that while the Iron Lady may have made a few comments that we can take as feminist, like “Women can get into corners that men can’t reach!”, her actions were anything by feminist. Freeman points out,
“Really, such statements were anything but [feminist], first because sweeping statements about genders are the opposite of gender equality and second because they revealed her real attitude towards women, which lay behind her notable lack of female-friendly politics, her utter lack of interest in childcare provision or positive action. Rather, she was a classic example of a certain kind of conservative woman who believed that all women should pull themselves up just as she had done, conveniently overlooking that not all women are blessed with the privileges that had been available to her, such as a wealthy and supportive husband and domestic help.”
It’s a strong argument and one that should be taken note of. However on the other side of the coin, it wasn’t as if Thatcher was posing as a feminist while secretly reveling in her own success in the company of men. She is quoted as saying,
“The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers.”
What we need to understand first and foremost is that Thatcher was a Conservative leader and it is her policies and her leadership that should be examined. Her aim was never to liberate women, even if she recognised that as a woman she was just as significant, powerful and influential as a man. Her aim was to succeed as a leader and she did just that. What’s more is that she wanted to succeed in a man’s world, she had no desire to create a world where being a man or being a woman was irrelevant.
Thatcher did not set an example for other women, she set an example for leaders in a very specific context – politics in the United Kindgom in the eighties. It is time to stop trying to define her in terms of feminism, she was not a feminist. And we don’t have to hold her accountable for that, she was who she was.
But what we can learn from her is how to take criticism and sexism in our stride with a cast-iron hold on our beliefs. We can learn how to climb the ladder ourselves with the same uncompromising drive. And we can hope that when we get to the top, it won’t simply be a man’s world and that gender, at last, will be irrelevant.