Since Thatcher was forced out of office in 1990, there’s been a fairly successful attempt to cast the first female Prime Minister as a feminist icon. Back in the 1980s, this would have been derided for reasons that I’ll set out below. But decades later and in a social media driven world where nuance and context have been junked, lame brains who haven’t done their research acclaim her as one of our great feminist politicians.
Thatcher made it manifestly clear that she didn’t view herself as a feminist. Ah, say some, but she was an unwitting feminist. A feminist despite herself. When it’s pointed out that her cabinets were almost exclusively male, it’s then stated that nevertheless she viewed men as the weaker sex. All these male cabinet ministers were servile bots who submitted to her womanly will.
As the Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman described Thatcher:
“She wasn’t a feminist icon and she wasn’t an icon for women. Any attempts at revisionism do no favours to her, women or feminism. To claim that any woman’s success is a boon for feminism is like saying all publicity is good publicity.“
Or as Jenny Anderson wrote in the Huffington Post:
“Every time I hear Margaret Thatcher called a feminist, a little bit of feminism inside of me dies. Margaret Thatcher detested feminism. I know this because she told us, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.” How can you possibly be credited as being a part of and moreover a role model for something that you so publically hate? You aren’t a feminist by default; it’s a mindset, a way of thinking.”
In her entire time as Prime Minister, Thatcher appointed ONE woman to her cabinet: Baroness Young. There were other female ministers but you could count them on the fingers of one hand. Lynda Chalker and Angela Rumbold for example. If you can name any more – do tell!
Thatcher’s first and most infamous act in politics was as education minister in the early 1970s when she banned free school milk for kids. A truly spiteful policy that harmed the nutrition of working-class children. Labour’s shadow education spokesperson called it “the meanest and most unworthy thing” that had happened in politics for twenty years.
As Prime Minister, Thatcher emphasised family values. But in the context of economic crisis, high unemployment and cuts in welfare spending, this shifted the welfare burden on to families. Women in particular. And many of these women had lost their jobs in the early 1980s recession.
The free market was lauded as a cure-all for society’s ills by Thatcher. But this failed to recognise that women not only work in the office or the factory but perform domestic unpaid labour in the home:
“The free market was never going to deliver opportunities and life chances for all, but for women in particular, still assuming the main share of the caring responsibilities for the young, sick, and elderly, it was always going to be an empty promise.”
Her attacks on trades unions were also – by default – an attack on women’s rights in the workplace and wider society. Between 1976 and 1978, British Asian women at a film processing plant called Grunwick were in dispute for trade union rights. They were called the “strikers in saris” and their action was both a blow for women’s and ethnic minority rights. For Thatcher though, it evidenced the unacceptable power of trade unionism which she fully intended to curb.
It’s forgotten how Thatcher and others on the right of the Conservative party took aim at the ‘permissive society’ in the early years of her time in power. Back in the 1960s as an MP, Thatcher had voted to legalise both homosexuality and abortion. But by the 1980s, her tune was changing. On abortion, she tacked towards the pro-lifers though this smacked of opportunism. In her own words:
“The abortion law is only related to the early months and I voted for abortion under controlled conditions. I’m perfectly prepared to have the Act amended along the lines of the Select Committee recommendations because I think that it’s operating in a slightly more lax way than was intended, but I’m not prepared to abolish it completely. Abortion only applies to the very, very early days, but the idea that it should be used as a method of birth control I find totally abhorrent.“
On homosexuality – including the rights of lesbians – she supported the anti-LGBT Clause 28.
Feminists in the early 1980s were almost uniformly hostile to Thatcher. As one feminist put it in 1979: “We want women’s rights, not a right-wing woman.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t misogyny towards Thatcher. I remember one embarrassing Labour meeting around 1983 when activists argued whether “Ditch the Bitch” was an acceptable slogan for the forthcoming general election. Strange times indeed.
The last word with Margaret Thatcher herself:
“The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”