Earlier this month the United Kingdom laid its longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century to R.I.P. However, the nation is divided over whether this stands for Rest In Peace, or Rest In Pieces.
Rejected from a job (long before her premiership) for being ‘dangerously self-opinionated’, it isn’t surprising that the severe policies Margaret Thatcher implemented during her reign as Prime Minister are as fiercely divisive now as they were twenty years ago.
What is surprising, however, is that the first – and only – female Prime Minister of a country can be such a controversial feminist role model. Whether it’s because she was not womanly enough, or unsympathetic to women’s rights, many are unhappy with the inclusion of Thatcher in any sort of feminist agenda. On some level, this feminist backlash is understandable – the woman being remembered as the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is also the same woman who will be remembered for saying “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism.”
Upon hearing the news of her death, more than a few U.K. cities held parties in celebration. To many, Thatcher’s policies are a bitter memory that people would rather forget than commemorate. Trade unions were crippled during her time in power, costing entire communities tens of thousands of jobs, and her opposition to sanctions on South Africa and refusal to recognize the African National Congress as anything other than a terrorist organization are just a few reasons to regard her political legacy negatively.
Even David Cameron’s attempt at a parliamentary debate on Thatcher’s legacy did not turn out to be quite the tribute he had in mind, with many left-wing MPs criticizing her policies more vehemently than he expected. As Labour MP David Winnick said, her policies “caused immense pain and suffering to ordinary people.”
During the debate, Labour MP Glenda Jackson’s 7-minute speech began with a tirade against the late Prime Minister’s policies. Given Jackson’s position on the left of the U.K. political spectrum, the reasons for her condemnation of ‘Thatcherism’ were clear. However, her speech ended with the conclusion: “The first Prime Minister of female gender, OK. But a woman? Not on my terms.” The relevance of Thatcher’s ‘womanliness’ to the debate was less easy to understand.
If a woman does a bad job as Prime Minister, does she simply not count as a legitimate woman or politician? If she doesn’t live up to society’s expectations, should society wait and hope that, next time, the woman elected to govern the nation is a better embodiment of what we expect from a pioneering political female – a more likeable, strident supporter of the feminist cause?
If so, Thatcher can be consigned to history as a disappointing first draft of what a female Prime Minister is expected to be.
However, the fact that poor policy decisions are still being equated with the gender of the person deciding them shows that the feminist movement still has a lot left to fight for. In Thatcher’s early years, women fighting for gender equality were quick to condemn the misogynistic ‘Ditch the Bitch’ anti-Thatcher campaign, despite a firm hatred for her policies. Yet in the week following her death, the song ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ claimed a top five position in the UK music charts, without strong objection to its misogynistic undertones.
The attacks on Thatcher’s gender are coming from both sides. Feminists have written about her legacy as one that was disappointing and contributed little to the struggle for gender equality, when it had the potential to contribute so much. The metaphor of ‘smashing the glass ceiling’ has been modified to suit Thatcher specifically: she climbed through it and pulled the ladder up with her. To many, her gender and achievements matter less than her attitude and beliefs. They would contend that a woman who described feminism as ‘poison’ simply can’t be counted as a feminist role model – not even an unwitting one.
A final tension arises between Thatcher’s position as head of the Tory Conservative party and feminism. From a theoretical perspective, it is hard to reconcile feminism with conservative political values and policies. A classic example of this tension is that Thatcher herself was unsupportive of ‘workplace crèches’ – day-care facilities in the office – that would help women work and raise children at the same time.
When she was 26 years old, Thatcher published an article entitled Wake Up, Women. It expressed her optimism that Queen Elizabeth II’s reign could ‘remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places’. She went on to say that she hoped women could start to combine careers and marriages – it just wasn’t the state’s responsibility to help them with it.
Margaret Thatcher was an ambitious and powerful woman, a self-professed hater of feminism, a Prime Minister, and a Conservative. The United Kingdom chose, albeit with some protests, to commemorate her with a full military honors funeral. Her case forces feminists to ask themselves: does feminism support the achievements of all women, or only fellow feminists?
In either case, Margaret Thatcher is still the only female Prime Minister of the UK to date. Hopefully, this fact will change in the near future.