Although Margaret Thatcher was the first and only British female prime minister to date, her contribution to the advancement of women in society is negligible
For some, it is enough that she rose to the top of a government dominated by men. That her very presence meant people could no longer say, ‘a woman can’t do this, or can’t do that.’ As the Education Secretary in 1973, Thatcher herself was doubtful about whether there would ever be a female prime minister in her lifetime. She exceeded her own expectations and undoubtedly broke a taboo. Yet last Thursday’s BBC Question Time was devoted to a discussion on Thatcher’s controversial policies. A surprising number of women in the audience were adamant that she was a role model, and that she continues to be, irrespective of her polices and on the basis that she was a woman. Yet, is mere symbolism enough?
What Thatcher as a woman did for other women, seems to unify political pundits more than other aspects of her life or her policies. The consensus for the most part is thus: she did nothing.
Thatcher may have been unique simply by being a woman, by replacing the briefcase with the totem of the handbag, by being the only blue skirt among the dark grey suits. However, a symbolic role model does not compare to a leader who makes a tangible difference to the lives of women.
Historical facts relating to her tenure as prime minister convey much about her misgivings. She ignored fundamental issues of childcare and equal pay. She did not necessarily push women into public life, nor did she help women into politics. Guardian writer Jenni Murray writes: ‘Thatcher’s answer, when pressed on her tendency to pull the ladder of equal opportunity up behind her, was invariably that none of the women was good or experienced enough to rise through the ranks.’
Thatcher believed that women could only rise to the top if they were good enough. ‘There should be no discrimination,’ she told Murray in her interview in the mid-1980s. Certainly, no women were ‘good enough’ to join her cabinet, barring one – Baroness Young. The rest of her cabinet consisted of men, many of whom were arguably unmemorable and have disappeared out of public consciousness. Are we really to believe that there were no women of merit? It seems that there were many women of ambition, but they were victims of their circumstances. Regarding Thatcher’s own personal circumstances, Murray points out that she had a rich husband to support her and extensive domestic help at home. With no support for childcare, no provision of nurseries and few incentives for women to be a part of public life, most were not as lucky.
For the politically ambitious, Thatcher was not giving away any secrets. Polly Toynbee remarks: ‘she had Queen Bee Syndrome. She pulled the ladder up after her.’ Femininity was something that Thatcher wore outwardly, but she admired masculinity. As David Blunkett aptly pointed out in Question Time, how do we sway the circle where people want really tough masculine leaders, but at the same time, want people who are gentle, thoughtful and feminine?
Labour MP Glenda Jackson recalls a time when women were characterised by both these paradigms. Those who grew up in the generation raised by women at a time when men had gone to war saw females who ran businesses, ran factories and ultimately ran a country, keeping the wellbeing of the community a priority. Thatcher is reported to have once said, ‘there’s no such thing as society. There is individual men and women and there are families.’ Would the women of the World War II era recognise their definition of femininity in the iconic model of Margaret Thatcher?
If we pay tribute to her as the first female prime minister in light of what has been discussed, there is little that we can really praise her for. Yes, she showed us that a woman could get to the top of government, but she did not ease the way for other women to follow. She claimed that she owed nothing to feminism, a strange claim to make for a woman who wouldn’t even be voting if it wasn’t for the feminists of the early 1900s. Considering the history of female emancipation in Britain, it is a shame that our first female prime minister could not pave the way for fairer political representation. The ratio of men to women in the political scene in Britain still remains disproportionate.
I believe we cannot isolate Thatcher’s gender from her policies, as some have tried to do, in order to argue that she was a role model by simply being a woman. This is not true. She would have been a better role model if she had provided basic opportunities to women.
Moreover, we cannot ignore the detrimental effects that many of her policies have had. There are certainly more than a fair share of politicians whose ‘tributes’ to Thatcher are simply diatribes, recalling an era of total social devastation. She divided the nation during her three consecutive terms as prime minister; she divides the nation again at her death.
People are now split over her ceremonial funeral, on whether the public should be allowed to criticise her controversial policies, or whether we should maintain a respectful silence. From the Left, there is certainly an apprehension that a silence would lead to a rose-tinted recap of the Thatcher years. But should criticism be curtailed when Thatcher herself stood for freedom and for allowing people to have their say?
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