The Iron Lady or a woman conforming to patriarchal expectations in 1980s Britain? A Feminist icon or the feminine face of patriarchal politics? Since the end of her almost twelve-year term as Prime Minister in 1990, the legacy of Margaret Thatcher is one that has been widely debated in Britain. This article will examine one aspect of her tenure, namely her relationship with the feminist movement, a relationship which was marked by ambivalence which, on occasions, even extended to hostility. Thus, it will be demonstrated that, although her success as a woman in politics should be respected, Thatcher should not be considered ‘an example to our daughters’.
It is important to recognise Thatcher’s rise to the office of Prime Minister as an important event for women in Britain. As highlighted by Joni Lovenduski and Vicky Randall, Thatcher’s ‘occupation of the supreme political office, and … the confidence and authority with which she carried out its duties … made it seem more possible for women to be powerful, to succeed in a man’s world’. Therefore, on the surface, Thatcher’s achievements do appear to be a good example of what a successful woman looks like.
Yet, upon a closer examination of her tenure, this legacy becomes somewhat distorted. Thatcher sought to distance herself from any suggestion of being a part of the feminist movement. John Campbell’s 2003 biography stated that Thatcher had ‘determinedly played down the feminist aspects of her victory’. To highlight this, Campbell points to her arrival at Downing Street in 1979 when, upon being asked what the Pankhursts and her own father would have thought of her election victory, she rejected the opportunity to position herself as the culmination of a hard-fought feminist campaign, instead speaking only of her father’s influence. Even Douglas Hurd, who served under Thatcher as both Foreign and Home Secretary on separate occasions, told several Daily Telegraph reporters that she ‘wasn’t a feminist’. That Thatcher’s male cabinet members commented on her reluctance to embrace a cause pushing for the advancement of her gender does not lend itself well to a figure seen as a feminist icon. On other occasions, Thatcher was even directly hostile towards feminism. She labelled it a ‘poison’, as well as claiming that she ‘owe[d] nothing to women’s lib’. Should we offer Thatcher ‘as an example to our daughters’ when she herself declined to play this role, and was even directly hostile to the forces which enabled her to reach the position that she did?
Furthermore, Thatcher utterly failed to advance the cause of women whilst in office, instead going as far as to directly hinder it. Many of the cost-cutting policies that were enacted directly targeted areas of public policy that favoured women disproportionately, such as housing and healthcare. For example, Child Benefits were reduced, a policy that impacted elderly women and single mothers who were forced to prioritise work over their children. Feminism is an intersectional cause, thereby making the implementation of such policies an obstruction of female progress. Furthermore, Thatcher’s campaign against trade unions were also an attack on women’s rights in both the workplace and wider society as evidenced by the so-called Grunwick “strikers in saris”. These policies directly impacted the ability of women to pursue the same route as Thatcher. This demonstrates what Hadley Freeman, in an article for The Guardian, labelled as Thatcher ‘[making] it through the glass ceiling and [pulling] up the ladder up after her’.
Similarly, within the political realm, Thatcher failed to help the advancement of other female politicians in Parliament. Of the eight women that were promoted to ministerial jobs, only one progressed further than a junior minister. As Conservative MP Laura Sandys highlights, Thatcher’s ‘political power was never expressed in terms of battling against the male establishment’. In a male-dominated world, it is hard to see why someone who failed to assist other women to success should be celebrated as an idol for young girls, particularly when Thatcher’s preferred candidates were what The Guardian labelled as ‘men whom Spitting Image memorably and, in certain instances, accurately, described as “vegetables”’.
Ultimately, successful women are not always ‘feminist idol’s’ for others to look up to. In May 1979, the Spare Rib editorial team dismissed the question of whether a victory for Thatcher would be seen ‘as a victory for women’s liberation’ or ‘proof of what-the-modern woman-can-achieve’. Instead, they argued that ‘For us as feminists, the issue is not the success or failure of one individual woman, but whether the actual policies of Thatcher, and of the party which she leads, can promote the interests of women in general.’ As this article has shown, this failed to occur. It is important to state here that Margaret Thatcher was an incredibly significant political figure and the fact that she became the first female PM should not go unacknowledged. Yet, this is where the praise should end. Margaret Thatcher should not, therefore, be seen as a feminist idol for ‘our daughters to look up to’.