Margaret Thatcher is arguably the most controversial and iconic Prime Minister in the history of British politics. Even apolitical people have an opinion, and she divided judgment like no other. Supporters are reverent in their awe, opponents vitriolic in their criticism. Both are passionate, the former claiming she saved Britain, the latter that she destroyed it. Her death has brought the inevitable polarised reaction, some practically canonising her, others condemning her even in death. The celebrations were also expected, but in poor taste. However, the taboo of speaking ill of the dead seems rather nonsensical for a political figure, so long as the personal is left private. Criticisms of her policies are vital to stem the flood of sensational and sentimental lies about the reality of her political career.
‘Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister’ is how Mrs. Thatcher is predominantly identified. The mere fact that she is so often referred to by her marital status, ‘Mrs’, demonstrates this, as surely this would never become an accepted nickname for Churchill or Blair. Of course, the fact that she was a woman is significant because she did break boundaries and defy seemingly impossible odds in order to become the leader of her country. Practically every news station offered their memorial to her, and what is initially apparent is their focus on her gender. She is to some ‘the nation’s heroine’, to all the ‘Iron Lady’, and to David Mellor, a junior minister in Thatcher’s later years as Prime Minister, ‘a cross between Boudicca and my mum’.
Female does not equal feminist, and although many people would like to claim Thatcher is a feminist icon, this is a careless and stereotypical comment contradicting many things she stood for and said. It is a consequence of weak female representation and the patriarchal structures of our society that any woman in a position of power is a labelled a ‘feminist icon’. Thatcher herself stated clearly that she hated woman’s liberation: ‘The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.’ The freedom with which this phrase is bestowed upon any human who happens to identify as a woman is condescending, for they are not first and foremost being seen as a human being. It would be ridiculous to assign such a title to a male politician without first studying their actions extremely carefully. Some people would like to argue that she deserves the title regardless of the fact that she would have found it contemptible. As a feminist, I find it impossible to view her as an icon when I know she actively despised the movement I care so passionately about.
In the wake of her death, the Thatcherite legacy will be widely discussed from both sides of the political spectrum. Surely this is what we should look to when asking what she has done for women. The phrase ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ will be bandied about like the cliché it is. It is undeniable that she achieved something no British woman before or since has achieved. Supporters love to wave this fact about to demonstrate how wonderful she was, but I see a glaring hole in this testament. Since 1990 there have been four Prime Ministers, all men. If Margaret Thatcher did so much to inspire women to reach the highest office in the land, where are they?
Female representation in Parliament is depressingly poor. The United Kingdom is currently ranked 57th in the world for the percentage of women in the lower or single house of Parliament, equal with Pakistan and below Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, countries many British people routinely criticise for oppressing women. Of a possible 650 seats in the House of Commons, 146 are filled with women. The percentage of women MPs, 22.5%, is shockingly lower than the percentage of women in the UK, 51%. In the 23 years since Thatcher left office the progress made by women in Government is underwhelming. It is also significant that the number of female MPs doubled from 60 to 120 overnight in 1997, when the Labour government came to power. Margaret Thatcher’s own Conservative party has notably weaker female representation. Currently of the 304 Conservative MPs, 15% are women.
It is of course unfair to expect one woman to defeat patriarchy singlehandedly, and if she has inspired women, I’m grateful. But the reality is that she has not done as much for women in parliament as supporters claim. Only a female politician who has battled through parliament since 1990 can really address Thatcher’s legacy to women in politics. The former Labour MP now Baroness, Oona King, commented that “I respect Thatcher’s achievement but I can’t mourn a woman who smashed the glass ceiling only to reinforce it with concrete.”
If there is one quality in Margaret Thatcher that the right and left agree on, it is that she defended her beliefs with absolute conviction. For me, this shows categorically that she did not care about the empowerment of women or gender equality. During her time in office she promoted only one woman, Baroness Young, to her cabinet and froze child benefit which overwhelmingly hit the working mothers she criticised. If she had cared enough she would have fought for women’s rights with as much vigour and commitment as she showed to destroying British industries, the repercussions of which are still felt today. Margaret Thatcher is a British icon, but she was not a British ‘feminist’.
Image Credit: Marion S. Trikosko, US Library of Congress