In death as in life, Margaret Thatcher is a very divisive political figure. Her death in April 2013 led to a range of responses, from impromptu celebratory street parties, and the chart success of a song from the Wizard of Oz on the one hand, to a special session of Parliament and the arrangement and funding of an elaborate, near-state-like funeral on the other. What though, can be said about her as a woman, a successful politician in the very male dominated world of politics?
Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, of being the first woman leader of a British political party and the only woman Prime Minister of Britain, remain remarkable. Her name is used to describe a political ideology – Thatcherism – and her coming to office in 1979 is a watershed date in terms of historical periodization. Margaret Thatcher left political office in 1990, her decade as Prime Minister making her the longest serving British Prime Minister to date.
Throughout her decade of premiership, with the exception of Baroness Young who was Leader of the House of Lords from 1981-83, Thatcher was a lone woman in a Cabinet of men, over whom she had ultimate powers to hire and fire – a power which commentators noted she did not hesitate to use. On the world political stage, she was the most senior woman politician and was often the sole woman politician at summits and conferences. In short, Margaret Thatcher was a woman in a world very much dominated by men. In all of these ways, then, Margaret Thatcher was a phenomenon, a remarkable woman who made history.
Margaret Thatcher was, though, also something of an enigma because of the contradictory and puzzling messages she gave to and about women whilst she was in office. Her policies have been interpreted as having overwhelmingly negative consequences for women especially, for example, via dismantling the welfare state, failing to improve child benefit and facilities for nursery education and childcare.
The issue of femininity in the image of Margaret Thatcher has also been analysed, including how the ‘marketing’ of Margaret Thatcher made use of her gender. For example, in the ‘housewife’ campaign, she was often photographed in the kitchen and depicted with a shopping basket. Margaret Thatcher also made use of gendered rhetoric when it suited her to do so. For example, she said: “The many management qualities needed to make a home give women an ability to deal with a variety of problems so quickly. And it’s that versatility and decisiveness which is so valuable in public life” (quoted in Smith, 1990). She also said “Perhaps it takes a housewife to see that Britain’s national housekeeping is appalling” (quoted in Campbell 1987: 234). More generally, Mills (1992) argues that Thatcher drew upon her femininity in order to balance out the powerful position that she held, as a woman Prime Minister. Webster (1990: 73) also comments upon the ‘dual nature of masculine and feminine imagery’ in Thatcher’s persona, of a glamorous female star and a hard, masculine warrior and leader: ‘an Iron Lady clothed in soft female flesh’.
Overall, then, Margaret Thatcher gave contradictory and puzzling messages to and about women. This was also clear in the disparities between her views on the proper role and place of women and the way that she lived her own life. Although she did not deny women an employment role, Margaret Thatcher laid great store on the traditional nuclear family and on the primary responsibility of mothers for the welfare of their children. Yet, she herself did not conform to this prescribed role: a wife and a mother of twins, she always worked outside of the home.
Despite working in male dominated politics, it seems to me that Margaret Thatcher never really recognised women as a disadvantaged social group. Look at how she responded to her own achievements as a woman politician. After gaining the leadership of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher was asked whether she regarded it as a victory for women. She replied, “It is not a victory for women. It is a victory for someone in politics” (quoted in Webster, 1990: 68). Years later, when she had become the first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was asked whether she was excited at that thought. Again, her response denied the significance of her gender: “I don’t think of myself as the first woman Prime Minister” (quoted in Webster, 1990: 69). When asked whether she would characterise herself as a feminist, Margaret Thatcher said, “No, not necessarily. I think something really rather different” (quoted in Smith, 1990). Margaret Thatcher apparently regarded feminists as ‘strident’ and said that, “if you get anywhere, it is because of your ability. It’s not because of your sex” (quoted in Webster 1990: 66-67).
Contrast this view on women’s experiences in politics with those of another woman who achieved identical political ‘firsts’ as Thatcher: Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia, the first woman to hold that office and to lead an Australian political party. In October 2012, Gillard criticised parliamentary misogyny and sexism during a debate in the House of Representatives.
As Gillard’s angry speech indicates, several decades after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, parliamentary and governmental-level politics is still a man’s world. Women make up on average only 19.5% of the world’s various parliaments (22% in the UK) and there are only 17 countries with women as head of government, state or both. Like her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher as Leader of her Party and as Prime Minister was a trail blazer for women at the highest levels of politics and government. Whether she would have liked it or not, Margaret Thatcher will be remembered for this as much as anything else.
By Dr Jane Pilcher, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester.
Campbell, B. (1987) Iron Ladies. London: Virago.
Mills, S. (1992) ‘Negotiating Discourses of Femininity’, Journal of Gender Studies 1 (3): 271-85.
Smith, A. (1990) ‘Women’s most prominent role model gives an equivocal lead’, The Financial Times, 15 September.
Webster, W. (1990) Not a Man to Match Her, London: The Women’s Press.
Pilcher, J. (1995) ‘The Gender Significance of Women in Power: British Women Talking About Margaret Thatcher’, The European Journal of Women’s Studies 2: 493-508.
Ribberink, A. (2010) ‘Gender Politics with Margaret Thatcher’, Gender Forum 30.
Roberts, R. (2013) ‘Feminists should weep’ at the death of Margaret Thatcher – and why would that be, exactly?’, The Independent 10th April.