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.