First published in Canvas: 11th December 2012
As Margaret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain (holding the position for over a decade) it would be reasonable to assume she be considered a feminist icon. Opinion however, is divided. For many feminists, the Thatcher years are viewed as a period of stagnation and wasted opportunity. Rather than being a hero of the movement towards equality, she is viewed as a woman who was very successful at advancing her own career, yet did very little to assist others once she had attained power. More galling to her detractors, she often criticised women for abandoning their responsibilities as parents in favour of a career.
Sharing many of the characteristics that would naturally endear herself to the women’s movement, Thatcher appeared an attractive prospect – she juggled a career with motherhood during the early 1950s. Though she failed in her initial attempts to enter parliament in 1950 and 1951, and was viewed as novelty by her electors, she was eventually elected in 1959, only after she had married Denis Thatcher, a millionaire who had funded her efforts to become a barrister.
Once Prime Minister, it was hoped that Thatcher would pass legislation that would make it easier for women to succeed in the same way she had. Regrettably, she did no such thing, and vociferously denied any connection between her success and feminism. When asked in 1990, whether she characterised herself as a feminist. Her reply: ‘No, no…I think something really rather different.’
If the goal of the women’s movement was to simply advance female representation in government and equalise opportunity, then certainly, Thatcher can be celebrated as a great leap forward. She conclusively demonstrated that women could succeed, and that the highest positions in the land were not beyond their grasp. However, her experiences as a woman were not typical. For all her reputation as a hard worker – she apparently slept for only four hours a night while Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher had a nanny, and a housekeeper.
Even today, these remain luxuries for most families. The fact that she never fully addressed this fact is perhaps unsurprising, for her female electorate were far less likely to be in receipt of a disposable income. At the same time she advised women to keep working after the birth of a child, as she had done, she also stated that it was improper for women to have their children left in nurseries all day. Her persona was very much crafted around the normalisation of the idea that women had to overcome almost insurmountable odds to succeed.
This was particularly apparent in her own cabinet, where she arguably embraced patriarchal characteristics of strength and ruthlessness. Despite being supportive of the movement to increase female participation in politics, she noted on several occasions that she owed nothing to the women’s liberation movement, and would not be held prisoner by demands for further equality. Though the number of women ministers increased, they were concentrated in areas such as the Departments of Education and Health, and during her years as Prime Minister, only one other woman served in the Cabinet – Baroness Young – who was Leader of the House of Lords from 1981-83.
Another contention with Thatcher’s feminist credentials is her policy. Thatcher was single-minded in her intentions for Britain, and dismissed those who disagreed with her ideology. The consequences of privatisation were often at odds with the interpretation of Thatcher as a feminist. Privatisation of public services disproportionately targeted women, starting with the outsourcing of cleaning and catering services in hospitals, councils, and government departments. These roles were franchised out to contractors who were then able to hire the same women more cheaply, and under worse conditions.
These actions were, in the most part, not done through hatred of women, but through an over-adherence to her own strident belief in the free market. Her particular grievance while resisting EU directives over more generous maternity leave in the late 1980s lay in her adherence to Conservative Party policy that sought to avoid imposing regulations on employers that might make workers too expensive to hire. Such a stance exacerbated the divide within her party between those who favoured ‘traditional’ family values and those who supported the right of a woman to have a career.
Such a divide is present in her legacy. Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain, yet it is debatable whether she truly transformed the lives of women. Certainly, the fact that she was right wing is often hard to stomach for the women’s movement, which is historically entwined with left wing politics. As author Tim Lott explained in 2003, for the mainstream Conservative voter, Thatcher represented what they wanted. To be in charge, to have power, and to have control other their own lives. Yet for a majority of women, Thatcher’s policies did little to level the playing field to allow more women to achieve these goals.
Article by Chris Olewicz