“She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered”, commented Obama this week upon hearing the news that Baroness Thatcher had died, aged 87. She was the first and the only, female Prime Minister to lead Britain and in an arena famously dominated by men, that is no small feat. Famously declaring in 1975 that “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a women”, female reporters and politicians were quick to defend her legacy. Claiming that she was the “ultimate feminist”, many declared that we owe her much gratitude and argued that she played a crucial role in women’s liberation. There is no denying that her election was an incredible personal achievement, and in many ways she has come to represent what women can achieve when they set their minds to it, but there is a debate to be had on her role in women’s liberation.
As many will already have read, Margaret Thatcher famously hated feminism and angered the movement by declaring that she owed nothing to the movement that helped Thatcher get the right to vote in the first place. Wendy Webster, Professor of Modern Culture and History, has argued that Thatcher herself believed she was a “one-off” and therefore she “didn’t do anything that would have facilitated other women to follow in her footsteps.” When we consider that there has not been a female PM since and that female MPS still only made up 22% at the last election, that argument has some validity. During her eleven years in office, Thatcher only promoted one women to her cabinet and the number of female MPS in parliament largely stagnated. It was only in 1997 with Labour’s introduction of All-Women Shortlists in safe seats that the number of female MPS significantly grew, doubling over night from 60 to 120. Thatcher saw herself as a woman in a man’s world and many have argued that she disguised herself as a man in many ways, famously seeking coaching to deepen her voice.
Emma Bartnett, the Women’s Editor of the Telegraph largely disagrees;
“For me, Feminism is a simple concept; its about women achieving full equality to men…breaking down the idea of genders as leading to a natural set of roles…Lady Thatcher managed to do just that…”.
This may indeed be the case but when we consider Thatcher’s stance on gender roles, it becomes far less clear cut. During her eleven years in office she was incredibly critical of the “crèche culture” and continuously argued that women belonged at home. At an event in July 1983 with the British Jewish Community, commenting on a previous question asked at a previous interview she responded that “I was asked whether I was trying to restore Victorian values…and I am.” “Victorian Values” were famously conservative and women were fairly oppressed, expected to meet the gender specific qualities and roles. Using Emma Barnett’s definition of feminism above, Thatcher was hardly trying to restore equality.
What Thatcher achieved was undoubtedly important to Women’s liberation, and she demonstrated that women do have the mental and emotional ability to run a country. Proving that women can be as successful as men, has undoubtedly inspired many. As Julie Bindel, an English feminist icon, has argued however, it is an offence in many ways to consider Thatcher a feminist because she did so little to help women’s lives.