Femme Fatality: A Feminist's Reflection on the Iron Lady's Legacy

Margaret Thatcher was no friend to the feminist movement, famously stating “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

Now that she’s no longer here to defend herself against fallacious claims, journalists have seized the opportunity to redefine the traditional anti-feminist as a feminist hero. Tributes include: “the world’s finest feminist,”(The Australian) “a warrior in the sex war” (The Telegraph) and “the ultimate women’s libber” (The Daily Mail).

Thatcher in fact denied the need for women’s liberation, “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers.” Despite this, feminists are now being told by the media they should admire Thatcher, a woman who is likely to be remembered as one of the most divisive leaders in history, purely because she was a woman. This rosy, reductive reflection on her leadership is insulting to women.

It’s important to distinguish between a feminist leader, and a female leader. A feminist believes women are of equal value to men and deserving of equal rights. Therefore, we expect a feminist leader to promote these ideals. ‘Power-feminism’, whose advocates include Naomi Wolf, believe that women must assert themselves politically in order to achieve their goals.

Thatcher defied great barriers to rise to power. She came from a working class background and unsuccessfully ran for parliament three times before gaining a seat. She showed it was possible to shatter the glass ceiling.

As Britain’s first female prime minister, there’s one tick for improving female representation in parliament, she was a woman, in parliament. As journalist Irin Carmon said “It’s better to have women in public life, even when we vehemently disagree with them, than to have no women in public life at all. Every single one counts toward the normalization of women in charge, however abhorrent their policies.”

But, by the end of Thatcher’s time in parliament, the number of female MPs only increased from 25 to 42,this increase doesn’t suggest deviation from the natural increase in representation at the time. Currently, Britain has 145 female MPs, merely 22.3% of parliament, placing Britain around 50th in the world for female political representation. However, this is unsurprising, considering Thatcher herself refused to support women in parliament.

Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman commented ‘She was the one who got through and pulled the ladder up right after her…. In 11 years, Thatcher promoted one woman to her cabinet, preferring instead to elevate men whom Spitting Image… described as “vegetables.” Viewed in this light, Thatcher failed to meet the standards of a ‘power-feminist’ leader.

Furthermore, having women in power does not necessarily equate to better outcomes for women. Under Thatcher’s government, the proportion of people living below the poverty line rose from 13% to 43%. Child poverty more than doubled. Despite showing early support for gay rights, Thatcher also failed to lead on this front. She supported Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibited schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It is important not to forget the arms deals and violent oppression symptomatic of Thatcher’s leadership. Her decision to sink the Belgrano, killing 323 Argentine soldiers, despite it being outside the Total Exclusion Zone was considered by many to be a war crime. Her contempt for equality was epitomised by her decision to oppose sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Indeed, Thatcher’s oppressive policies represented the antithesis of feminist ideals.

In amongst the hagiography of Thatcher, let’s not also give her more feminist credit than is merited. Thatcher did help normalise female political leadership. But it’s important to recognise that Thatcher sought power for herself, with no broader societal goals in mind for women. Indeed, Thatcher denied the existence of societies altogether “There is no such thing as society….there are individual men and women and…there are families and no government can do anything…it is our duty to look after ourselves.”

Thatcher’s feminism was incidental, she merely happened to be a woman in power.