The Iron Lady: unwilling feminist icon

Margaret Thatcher had no time for Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, but she offered a version of what female power might look like


Margaret Thatcher in a 1986 visit to Hamburg, Germany. (Jockel Fink/AP Photo)

Baroness Margaret Thatcher didn’t mince words when expressing her opinion of modern feminism: “I hate feminism. It is a poison,” she once said, according to her adviser Paul Johnson. Many avowed feminists felt the same way about Britain’s first female prime minister, reflected here and here. So there’s no small irony that the hot topic the day of Thatcher’s death is whether or not she should be remembered as a “feminist icon.” It’s like wondering if the outspoken atheist Ricky Gervais should one day be remembered as a “theology icon.”

Thatcher routinely denigrated a movement that no doubt contributed to her moving to 10 Downing Street in 1979. “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib,” the lawyer first elected as an MP in 1959 once said. As she saw it, the fight for equality was over: “The battle for women’s rights has been largely won,” she proclaimed. And from her privileged perch, as the first leader of a major Western democracy, she likely believed it true. But there’s also little doubt her rebuttal of  “feminism” wasn’t of its underlying tenet of male-female equality but rather to the baggage it had acquired–of being anti-men, of exhibiting dogmatic gender bias–within her own political circles.

Yet Thatcher’s own example is a study in shades of grey absent from her other black-and-white world views. She readily admitted women in politics were held back. “No woman in my time will be prime minister or foreign secretary — not the top jobs,” she predicted in 1969, when she sat in opposition as a Conservative MP for Finchley. But the mother of twins who were then 16 was realistic about the sacrifice involved. “Anyway, I wouldn’t want to be prime minister,” she added. “You have to give yourself 100 per cent to the job.” Not for a second did she buy into the then-emerging advertising mantra that women could “have it all.”

She may have had no time for Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and the “sisterhood,” but Thatcher did have commonality with early 20th-century suffragettes who marched with “Deeds Not Words!” banners held high.  The trailblazing politician didn’t “normalize” female power, as some predicted, but she offered one version of what it could look like.  Her “Iron Lady” moniker may have reflected a culture ill at ease with an actual flesh-and-blood woman running the show, but “Margaret Thatcher” became the inevitable answer when anyone questioned  a woman’s competence to run a government or a country. Unmoved by the miners’ strike of 1984-85, willing to thrust her country into war, Thatcher demonstrated that women are not all conciliatory, nurturing and publicly compassionate. (“To wear your heart on your sleeve isn’t a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best,”  the highly quotable politician once said. )  Her Conservative policies were pilloried as destructive to families and “women’s” issues that female politicians are expected to rubber stamp. Nor was she ever a mouth-piece for gender equity or female advancement: in 11 years she brought only one woman into her cabinet.

Still, Thatcher dipped into gender stereotyping when it served her purposes: “I’ve got a woman’s ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it,” she once said. She described women as the practical, take-charge sex: “If you want something said, ask a man … if you want something done, ask a woman,” a sentiment she also expressed in barnyard parlance: “The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg.”

Her marriage too was radical for its time, a case study in upending the alpha-husband, beta-wife dynamic. Though known universally as “Mrs. Thatcher,” Denis Thatcher, the first high-profile male political spouse, called his wife “the boss.” Denis, retired from his own a successful career, was unabashed in his support: “For 40 years I have been married to one of the greatest women the world has ever produced,” he once said. “All I could produce, small as it may be, was love and loyalty.” Margaret Thatcher returned the compliment in her autobiography: “I could never have been prime minister for more than 11 years without Denis by my side,” she wrote.

It’s been two decades since Thatcher left politics and she remains Britain’s only female prime minister. There have been many other successful female leaders, of course; one  need only look to Iceland and Germany. But many women at the top find themselves in the 1950s all over again–witness the Hillary Clinton backlash or Australian PM Julia Gillard’s tirade against “misogynists” in her Parliament.  The subject of women, success and power is more divisive than it was two decades ago, engendering an endless loop of discussion. In one corner, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg creating a firestorm with her advice that women should “Lean In.” In another, Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic and foreign policy analyst, claims women “can’t have it all.”–something women knew 40 years ago. And, of course, there’s perennial flashpoint Marissa Mayer,  CEO of Yahoo! Inc., making headlines with her comment  “I don’t think I would consider myself a feminist.”  Margaret Thatcher wasted no breath telling women what they should do or should not do–or could or could not accomplish. Instead, her very divisive example accomplished something far more stealthy: she showed us that feminist ideology is not the only route to feminist goals.


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The Iron Lady: unwilling feminist icon

  1. She is useful because she reminds us that while having women in power can be beneficial, if they adopt harmful policies towards women it’s a net loss.

  2. Thatcher routinely denigrated a movement that no doubt contributed to
    her moving to 10 Downing Street in 1979. “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib,”

    Why are you dancing around this? Thatcher realized 40 years ago what is still perfectly obvious today. Modern feminism is all about leftism and anti-conservatism. It has nothing to do with equality of women. Show a modern feminist a strong, successful, conservative woman, and she’ll take every opportunity to help destroy the conservative.

    Ask Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Condoleeza Rice, etc. what benefits they’ve ever received from the feminist movement, as they’ve been mercilessly attacked by the institutional left. Find me one time where NOW has ever defended Palin from the disgusting misogynistic attacks against her without making it into a way to attack conservatives.

    • Don’t put Condoleeza Rice in the same class as Palin and Bachman. Rice indeed achieved her accomplishments on her own work and merit. Palin and Bachman however are pretty much just Tea Party Barbies. I think most feminists, while disagreeing with Rice’s chosen policy options (ie I agree with you that a lot of “feminism”, is more about left-leaning economic policy rather than sexual equality), but even most feminists respect that Rice is fiercely intelligent and hard-working.

      • Your characterization of Palin and Bachman is false. Palin was a state governor before you ever heard of her. Bachmann has been a successful congresswoman, businesswoman and family woman. Both are far more successful than typical politicians. Your partisanship is obvious.

        The least you could do is learn to spell her name.

      • Class has nothing to do with it. Do you believe that being a “Tea Party Barbie” entitles guys like Bill Maher to call Sarah Palin a c*nt? Does it entitle guys like David Letterman to call her a “slutty flight attendant”, or to suggest the statutory rape of her daughter?

        Do you believe that being a “Tea Party Barbie” entitles guys like Jimmy Fallon to have his house band play the song “Lying Ass B*tch” when Bachman is brought out as a guest?

        And do you support calling Condoleezza Rice Bush’s “House Nigga”, as Ted Rall called her?

        Or are only liberal women entitled to be protected from such misogyny in your world? Because when sh*t like this happens to conservatives, organizations like NOW are nowhere to be found.

    • It was early American leftist radical women that were the impetus to gain American women the vote. What do women on the right today work toward? Michelle Bachman is a liar, Sarah Palin is a scam artist, and Condoleeza Rice is great, but she helped us get into a war we still haven’t paid for. Equality is not about leftism and anti-conservatism, but you seem anti-liberal and unaware of the value of liberal activism in our country’s history. I thank G-d for it every day.

  3. Thatcher is right, she owes nothing to feminism. In fact, feminism was just one more opponent she needed to defeat. Ms Kingston may feel the need to rewrite history, but I’ll take Thatcher’s opinion on what she did or did not need for her success.

  4. Thatcher did a chemistry degree at Oxford and then went to work doing chemistry things for a few years before going into politics, she was a clever woman. Many modern feminists are social science fishwives who make it sound being female is a handicap, like being autistic or something.

    Thatcher rose from lower middle class background, she was a grocer’s daughter, went to Oxford to study chemistry before it was normal for woman to attend university and then went on to become Prime Minister. She broke class and misogynist barriers, admirable woman all around, I made sure my young niece knew who Thatcher was yesterday when she arrived home from school.

  5. Thatcher didn’t owe anything to the feminist movement because they did nothing for her and in fact, rejected her completely as the movement rejects any strong conservative woman. The ‘icons’ that the feminist movement hold up as role models for women are people who should be ashamed of themselves. Hilary Clinton only achieved any power because the ‘political machine’ rewarded her for staying with her lying cheating husband instead of kicking his sorry ass to the curb when he humiliated her. Julia Gillard gets her way by whining and playing the ‘poor poor me, men are lined up against me card’ exactly the type of person who Thatcher referred to when she said that if you have tell people you are powerful you aren’t.

    Until the feminist movement embraces ALL women regardless of their political viewpoints and insist that women perform to the same expectations of men, it will have NO impact.

  6. In 1979, Thatcher ran to be the British prime minister. A feminist group campaigned against her with an ad campaign that said “Vote for the right woman not a right-wing woman”. Get the point! Only leftwing feminists need apply! Another interesting fact is that Thatcher polled better among men in their 20’s and 30’s than women(which is interesting because traditionally women were big supporters of the Conservatives than men). As for Gillard, she is not a successful female leader. Since she ousted fellow Australian Labor Party prime minister Kevin Rudd in a party coup, the Labor label has crashed. In five months, Australia will be holding a federal election. Her labor party is behind 12-14 pts in two party preferred voting. Since she came to power, Labor has lost the state governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. In the New South Wales, Queeensland, and Western Australia(2013) state elections, Labor was annilated at the polls. An election is to be held in 2014 in the state of Tasmania where the governing Labor Party is polling almost 20 points behind. She implemented a carbon tax after telling voters she wouldn’t. Her mining tax only produced 6% of the revenue that she said it would. She and Rudd ran up over $170 billion in debt(quite a feat when you consider that the previous conservative government of John Howard had paid off the national debt). She has tried to garner cheap points by playing the class warfare angle. Also, whenever anyone criticizes her, she plays the “I’m just a poor lady being picked on by all those big evil men”.The lesson of Thatcher and Gillard is that women leaders are like men leaders. Some are great and some(like Gillard or Kim Campbell) stink.

  7. Why we need feminisim or machisim. We need clever and work people

  8. Margareth thatcer is a great women______________________asbes</a.

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