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Was Thatcher a feminist?

Female trailblazer or anti-sisterhood? Stylist examines the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

On 22 November 1990, Margaret Thatcher stood on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street with tears in her eyes, burgundy power suit in place, clutching her famous black handbag. After 11 years and 209 days in power, an assassination attempt, a revolutionised economy and a war, Thatcher resigned as Britain’s most controversial Prime Minister, a working mother of twins who’d changed the country forever.

For Iain Dale, author of the book Margaret Thatcher: In Her Own Words, it is an anniversary worth celebrating. “Even 20 years later her legacy dominates British politics, she still comes up in conversation and in newspaper articles; she is the most influential politician of her era.”

Iron Lady or devoted wife? Feminist icon or misogynist? The country is still fiercely debating what Thatcher meant to British politics. And to women. Nothing divides opinion more than her feminist status. Should we cheer at the glass ceiling she smashed or see the hypocrisy of the agenda she followed – cutting spending in areas traditionally supported by women like healthcare and housing, while criticising working mothers for not prioritising their children.

For Claire Berlinski, author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, her arrival heralded the birth of the ultimate feminist icon. “She proved very clearly that she could rise to the pinnacle of power, and that she could exercise it more confidently than any man. She changed the game.” But Beatrix Campbell, author of Iron Ladies, vehemently disagrees. “Nothing Margaret Thatcher did, absolutely nothing, created positive change for women. In fact she made everything worse.”

Debate rages but one thing is certain: Thatcher disliked feminism. “I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she said during her first term in power.

Many feminists at the time attacked this, holding placards saying, “We want women’s rights – not a right-wing woman.” The thing was Thatcher’s policies went against feminist ideology at the time. She froze child benefit, criticised working mothers for creating a “creche generation” and of her eight female ministerial appointments, all but one (Baroness Young) failed to progress past junior level. That said, one of her most famous quotes openly praises women, she said, “In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” As her daughter Carol Thatcher says, “I think she led by example” – reinforcing the view that Thatcher was not anti-women but pro-achievement.

The making of the Iron Lady

She certainly managed to succeed without the sisterhood. Born Margaret Hilda Roberts on 13 October 1925, she spent her childhood in Grantham, Lincolnshire, living in a flat above one of the two grocer shops her father owned. Education was her escape. “She was formidably diligent and competitive,” explains biographer John Campbell, and her belief in complete self reliance began young. “She would always believe that if she worked hard she would deserve to win.”

A scholarship to the local girls’ school led her to Oxford to study chemistry and it was there she discovered politics, becoming the third woman ever to become President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Graduating into a job as a chemist, paid £50 less than her male colleagues, she stood for her first seat in Dartford in 1950, winning national publicity as the youngest woman candidate in the UK.

She lost the seat that year to Labour Co-operative candidate Norman Dodds, but stood again the following year and while campaigning met Denis Thatcher who she married in 1951. For the next few years politics took a backseat, but Margaret was anything but idle. Deciding to become a lawyer instead she qualified after just two years of part-time study, all the while setting up a home with Denis and giving birth to twins, Carol and Mark in 1953.

Nothing Margaret Thatcher did, absolutely nothing, created positive change for women. In fact, she made everything worse

In the early days at least, she was supportive of working mothers. In a letter she wrote to the Sunday Graphic in 1952 entitled ‘Wake Up Women’ she said, “Why have so few women in recent years risen to the top of the professions?” One reason may be that so many have cut short their careers when they marry. In my view this is a great pity. I hope we shall see more and more women combining marriage and a career. Prejudice against this dual role is not confined to men. Far too often I regret to say it comes from our own sex.”

It’s a sentiment many feel she abandoned when she reached a position of power, neither encouraging other women to enter the Conservative party nor helping them rise. “In her 11 years in office,” Susan Faludi wrote in the feminist tome Backlash, “Britain’s first woman Prime Minister failed to put another woman into her cabinet of 20 or so males, with the short-lived exception of Baroness Young. Her ministerial appointments amounted to only eight women, only one of whom rose higher than the ranks of junior minister.”

As for supporting working mothers in other spheres, she actively seemed to discourage other women from following her example. “She was keen on education but she didn’t believe in [childcare] places that primarily allowed women to go out to work. She believed that was an abdication of the mother’s role,” says Campbell.

Politician Edwina Currie is sympathetic to her shifting principles. “She said some strong things about the need for greater equality when she was first elected in 1959 but then dropped the subject, concentrating on her career – guessing that if one woman breaks down the barriers, it’s easier for the next lot.”

But whatever we think of her ideology, says Campbell, we shouldn’t dismiss her personal determination to succeed. “She believed in her own ability and wasn’t going to let being a woman and having young children stop her. She was an extraordinary pioneer, one of the first professional women to have children, get a nanny and go straight back to work.”

Moving into Politics

Juggling career and parenthood with an immense amount of ambition paid off, and Thatcher won the London seat of Finchley in 1959. She was promoted to the front bench as Minister of Pensions two years later. During this time Thatcher supported some diverse causes, she was one of the few Conservative MPs to vote both for a bill to decriminalise male homosexuality and one to legalise abortion. “I happen to think that one of the worst things anyone can do in this world is to bring an unwanted child into it,” she said.

But her economic creed, a belief in the power of the free market and the small state, in low taxes and the disempowerment of the unions, meant those on the political left, unsurprisingly, loathed her. In 1970 she became Education Secretary and in 1971 rapidly brought an end to free school milk for children over the age of seven which had existed for 25 years. This earned her the very unflattering name Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. But criticism seemed to fuel her confidence. “She was quite happy to have enemies,” says Campbell. “The fact that Guardian readers loathed her proved that she was on the right track.”

It was this conviction that meant, when the Conservatives lost the election in 1974, she surprised many by winning the seat of party leader. In opposition her reputation for fierce rhetoric grew and in 1976 she made a famous speech attacking the Soviet Union which included the line, “They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.” In response the Soviets dubbed her the Iron Lady, a slur she relished and readily adopted.

“The Iron Lady tag was very convenient for her,” explains Dale. At a time when many were questioning a woman’s ability to lead, especially a politician with little foreign policy experience, “it was a good way for her to impress herself on other world leaders.”

A controversial figure

Thanks to a series of strikes throughout the winter of 1978 and increasing disillusion with the Labour government, Thatcher swept into power on 4 May 1979. Her political agenda divided the nation, privatising nationally owned enterprises, allowing council tenants to buy their homes and putting legal restrictions on trade unions. But for Berlinski, this benefited women far more than any genderspecific agenda could have. “In creatingeconomic opportunity for so many people who had never had any before, I am sure she did more for women than any of her political rivals who were specifically targeting programmes supposed to help women. What helps women most is economic opportunity.”

Berlinski stresses that you have to take into account the state of the economy at the time, “This was an economy crippled by labour unrest, growth was below any other comparable European power and the standard of living was worse than Italy’s. This was an economy that was in relative decline. After she left office, the UK was one of the most powerful countries in Europe.”

American attorney, political commentator and Thatcher fan Carol Platt Liebau agrees. “Unfortunately feminism has become associated with a specific set of left-wing policy views centering around government-imposed solutions to perceived gender-based inequities, rather than simply with true female liberation – the opportunity, regardless of gender, to make one’s own choices and use one’s abilities to the fullest. By espousing policies that made the UK a freer, stronger, more productive society, she liberated men and women alike.”

She won her position the old-fashioned way – by working twice as hard as her male competition

Beatrix Campbell disagrees vigorously with this analysis. “The entire privatisation project was very bad for women. The first targets in the public services were aimed at those largely performed by women, such as cleaning and catering. They were franchised out to contractors who then could hire the same women, more cheaply for worse conditions. Even as clients, parts of the newly formed welfare state were no longer available to women.” By 1980 there was growing public unrest at the now two million unemployed, and critics within her own party. She responded with perhaps her most famous speech, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

Both supporters and critics went wild. Political cartoons lampooned her daily; she was dubbed everything from the Finchley Fishwife to Attila the Hen and in 1984 Spitting Image famously parodied her in puppet form, depicting her in men’s suits, attacking her cabinet with her handbag. But this wasn’t biographer Penny Junor’s impression. “I met her at Downing Street and she was enchanting. She wasn’t iron, she was genuinely vulnerable.”

Many men described her as sexy, as Berlinski discovered when researching her book. “She was attractive and extremely skilful in wielding that to get her way. When she really needed [something] she would invite the man for a brandy in her office, sit on her chair with her legs tucked underneath her in a very coy and flirty way.”

And while Margaret was very much an absentee mother she was a devoted wife. “She relied very heavily on her husband,” says Junor, “she was very traditional in her views of family life. Denis was her absolute rock, every evening she would curl up in a chair and discuss the problems of the day with him. He was still the man of the house. She was incredibly powerful outside the home, but within the house she was the wife.”

Her home life may have been peaceful, but the Eighties saw growing social unrest. Unemployment soared to three million and a hunger strike by IRA prisoners left 10 dead. But winning the Falklands war, especially the sight of her in a tank in headscarf and goggles, boosted her public image enormously.

Her reputation for strong leadership was secured in 1984 when she narrowly escaped death in the IRA bombing at the Conservative party conference in Brighton, an attack that killed five and left 34 injured. “She displayed real leadership,” remembers Dale. “With eyes flashing she insisted that the conference continue. She was saying they won’t beat us, the show will go on.”

Under pressure

But privatisation proved incredibly unpopular and her handling of the miners’ strike remains one of the most controversial chapters of Thatcher’s leadership. Whatever your opinion, says Berlinski, after this nobody could say that a woman can’t handle the pressure of politics. “She smashed the idea that a woman couldn’t be tough in foreign policy, or keep control of her government, that a woman would cry or spontaneously menstruate at the first sign of political pressure.”

Her third term was probably her most controversial. In 1989 the proposed poll tax, based on household size rather than property value, was so wildly unpopular it led to violent riots in Trafalgar Square. Although a poll in 1988 showed that 61% of Britons still trusted her to lead the country, by the end of 1990 she decided to withdraw from power after critics within the Tory party spoke up.

So what are we to make of her legacy? Liebau believes her refusal to play the victim sets her apart.

“Margaret Thatcher always refused to practise the politics of victimisation. Rather, she gained her place in history the old-fashioned way – she earned it, by working twice as hard as her male competition and being twice as good. She earned the respect of every one of her counterparts in the Western world and beyond – and she deserves the respect and appreciation of women everywhere.”

But feminist Natasha Walter believes we shouldn’t romanticise her. “She allowed British women to celebrate their ability not just to be nurturing, but also to be unpleasant, to be cruel, to be death-dealing, to be egotistic,” she wrote in The New Feminism in 1999. “It was cathartic for us to acknowledge those possibilities in the female character, writ so large.”

As for Iain Dale his favourite story illustrates why, over 20 years after she fell from power, Thatcher still matters. “In 1988 my four-year-old niece turned to me and asked ‘Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be prime minister?’” That alone demonstrates how much she did for women.

Do you think Thatcher was good for women? Share your views on our cover story here, or tweet us @Stylistmagazine.

Picture credits: Rex Features

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