Margaret Thatcher: a feminist icon?
Posted on: Friday 6th January 2012From The Guardian, 6 January 2012
Natasha Walter, writer and campaigner
Thirteen years ago, in The New Feminism, I wrote: "Let's start withMargaret Thatcher. No British woman this century can come close to her achievements in grasping power. Someone of the wrong sex and the wrong class broke through what looked like invincible barriers to reach into the heart of the establishment. 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."
Nothing I have ever written before or since has brought so much fury on my head. It was unacceptable then, as it seems to be now, for feminists to do anything but denounce Thatcher. Obviously Thatcher was no feminist: she had no interest in social equality, she knew nothing of female solidarity. I knew that then as I know it now; by the time I left school I was a veteran of protests that resounded to the chant of Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out. We should never forget her destructive policies or sanitise her corrosive legacy. But nor should we deny the fact that as the outsider who pushed her way inside, as the woman in a man's world, she was a towering rebuke to those who believe women are unsuited to the pursuit and enjoyment of power. Girls who grew up when she was running the country were able to imagine leadership as a female quality in a way that girls today struggle to do. And for that reason she is still a figure that feminists would be unwise to dismiss.
Tacita Dean, artist
Margaret Thatcher dominated my school and student years and had a big impact on my political coming of age, but not in the way she would have welcomed. I know she is being ennobled now by the gentle gaze of history (and Hollywood) but I remember loathing her at the time and feeling no solidarity with her achievements as a woman. I was an active student feminist and, if anything, she was our anti-feminist icon – everything we didn't aspire to. She was a reactionary who cared little for equality of any sort and who had a contemptuous indifference to the arts.
Linda Grant, author
Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party at the height of the women's movement, yet she was completely apart from our campaigns, our passions and our identity. She was the middle-aged woman with the hats, the pearls, the teeth, the strangled high-pitched voice, and the policies which had nothing to do with equal pay for work of equal value, free abortion on demand or take back the night marches. Her freedom to run for office depended on the traditional accoutrements of a wealthy husband and getting the work of having two children out of the way in one pregnancy. Thatcher's premiership was a wrong, contradictory note for feminism; we regarded her as a man dressed up in a skirt suit. Or a woman who used the traditional weapons of sex and flirting to get what and where she wanted. Perhaps she was ahead of her time and it needed Camille Paglia to understand her: she was one in a long line of powerful femme fatales like the Borgias or certain wives of Roman emperors who fused power with sex. Madonna in Downing Street.
But more prosaically, as much as feminists hated her because she had no solidarity with us, or with women for that matter – she was sui generis, for herself and of herself – there is no question that she was a role model. In the same way that after Obama it could no longer be said that America was so racist it would never elect a black president, Thatcher in Downing Street sent out a straightforward message to women that anything was possible.
The problem remains though that she was so completely unusual that no woman politician since has been remotely like her. I can't think of anyone who, like Thatcher, is twice the man and twice the woman of any other MP.If she was representative of anyone, it wasn't women but a group emerging in the early 80s who rejected class solidarity, knowing their place, and aspired instead: to home ownership, foreign holidays, private education, self-employment, and there were many women among them. She did a great deal to smash the ideas of class that prevailed in the 70s, but smash patriarchy? No.
Mary Beard, classics professor, Cambridge
Well, she wasn't a feminist, nor will she ever be a "feminist icon" in my sense of the word. But we can't deny that having our first woman prime minister was a major symbolic leap forward. And it's salutary for those of us on the left to be reminded that positive social change does sometime come from the right.
Laura Sandys, Conservative MP for South Thanet
Mrs Thatcher is a much more of an icon as a matriarch than as a feminist campaigner. Her political power was never expressed in terms of battling against the male establishment, but as a political personality who dominated the masculine, clubby power structures that she inherited.
Once at the helm, her status as the matriarch could never be questioned. That kept her very safe – safe until the children were no longer interested in doing what Mother says.
I don't think that she had time to consider intellectual feminism but she did and still does represent an interesting trait of female activism that we are living with today. Her 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. So, a feminist matriarch but not a feminist icon.
Margaret Thatcher is no icon of feminism, freedom, fairness or fashion. She is unique in British history as a pioneering woman prime minister. She has charisma. She has the courage of her convictions. She is a survivor, which most politicians are not.
But she ain't no sister. She likes what macho, sexist, patriarchal men have always liked: war, the defence of the status quo, established power, entrenched inequality, heavily rigged individualist competition and absolute freedom. Not freedom as in emancipation, but the greedy savagery of an unregulated market in which man eats man and woman is neither seen nor heard.
Thatcher was a man-worshipper who couldn't bear the stink of even one woman poisoning her cabinet. She has never said or done anything to help other women. She did nothing (actively) to change the cultural misogyny of British politics, as evidenced by our present virtually all-male, woman-bashing government and by the way women in public life are mocked, patronised, marginalised, drastically under-represented and subjected to severe double standards both within politics and by the media.
A feminist icon is woman-positive and woman-identified. She openly fights machismo and misogyny. On rape, domestic violence, childcare, benefits for single mothers, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual inequality, Thatcher did nothing.Her stiff serge tailoring, boxy croc handbags, patent court shoes, pussycat bow blouses and set hair have been fetishised by a moronic, apolitical fashion industry. But feminist iconhood has nothing to do with looks, because it is sexist to rate women by our appearance rather than our words and actions, as we are not objects.
That said, Thatcher was no worse than many of the men before her, or since, or now. It disturbs me that she is held up and bashed with especial hatred, base insults and grotesque mockery while male public figures far more loathsome are treated more respectfully. Thatcher's political legacy has been used as an excuse to justify the misogynist backlash against female leadership.
Ami Sedghi, journalist
Championed during the 90s as the "original Spice Girl" by the eponymous girl band, the Iron Lady has been depicted as a strong female icon for my generation. I'm 24. I confess that my knowledge of her politics, gleaned from disapproving parental murmurs, snatched comments and television dramas, is limited. But for me Thatcher is remembered predominantly as the first female to become prime minister.
Hannah Pool, writer
Time may be a great healer but the idea of Thatcher as a feminist icon is as laughable as it is insulting to all those other great women who have fought tirelessly for equal rights. Even if we forget all the hideous things she did – the miners, the crushing of the unions, her stance against South African sanctions – that the woman who reportedly claimed she owed nothing to the women's liberation movement is now being restyled as a feminist shows how little people understand what feminism is about.
The overriding principle of feminism is equality, and those with power helping raise the bar for those without. This is the exact opposite of Thatcher's "me, me, me" Conservatism.
Michele Hanson, columnist
She rose to the top, despite being a woman, so that was an achievement of sorts, but Thatcher set feminism back by setting such a bad example of a woman in power. She's up there with designer vaginas and the pussycat dolls – a cynical bastardisation of what the real fight for women's equality is about. What an odd woman Margaret Thatcher was. She blubbed over her beloved dead father, but barely mentioned her mother. She adored her son, but didn't seem to care much for her daughter. And where were the women in her cabinet? Only one managed to get in, briefly. Margaret seemed to prefer men, especially handsome ones like Cecil Parkinson, or others with whom she could flirt vaguely, or boss about. Because she couldn't have positive discrimination, could she? She wanted women in on merit. But don't tell me she couldn't find any women up to the job. There are several dozen in my immediate neighbourhood.
"What a deeply irritating person she was," says my friend Rosemary, "forever running home early to cook dinner for Dennis. Did you see her in her pinny at the sink?"
Yes, we all did. Thatcher made sure of that. Icon? Do me a favour. She could have been. The grocer's daughter who fought her way up to the top job. But what did she do to help other less fortunate women when she got up there? Even on the way up she'd taken their kiddies' milk away. Then she took away much of their affordable housing by egging everyone on to buy council houses. She privatised the utilities, and up went the household bills, and she crushed the unions. The miners' wives didn't have much to thank her for. And just to show that women can do anything men can do, she started a war, rode around on a tank in her headscarf, created loads more widows, thought herself terrifically grand and used the royal plural for her very own. What a wasted opportunity. From the great heights she looked down and thought not "How can I raise up other women?" but only "How can I poop on the poorer ones?" All she had really done was turn herself into a joke version of a pig-headed man. Feminist icon? No.
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