Margaret Thatcher, The United Kingdom’s first (and to this day only) female Prime Minister died at the age of 87 of a stroke. If you watch the news, read the paper, or are alive in the next few days, you’ll probably hear about it.
The coverage of her death already is incredibly different on each side of the Atlantic. While those in the UK tend to remember her as a divisive and controversial figure, we over here in the US tend to think of her as the strong woman who led the UK and was best friends with Ronald Reagan. It can be tempting, because she was the first and only female Prime Minister, to think of Baroness Thatcher as a feminist or a feminist icon. But make no mistake: she most certainly is not.
During her time as PM, Thatcher only had one woman serve in her cabinet. She believed she owed nothing to women’s liberation or feminism. As PM she didn’t do anything to increase child benefits or make childcare more accessible to women, and she herself was a working mother! She was quoted as saying “The battle for women’s rights has been largely won”. Thatcher didn’t make gender equality an issue or priority of her administration at all, helping women was just not on her agenda. She certainly wasn’t a feminist or an ally to the feminist movement.
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had a large impact on women in politics. Margaret Thatcher was tough. She was not concerned about being liked. She went up against her opponents and she did it unapologetically. She completely defied gender stereotypes: one only has to look at the miner’s strike of the 1980’s to see that she wasn’t soft or sentimental. She certainly didn’t shy way from conflict, and she is the reason for some of the more schismatic Prime Minister’s Questions the House of Commons has ever seen. From the moment she entered the House Chamber, no one would dare call her weak.
This goes against every stereotype women in politics face. Senator Dianne Feinstein was recently called “sweetie” on the floor of the US Senate–and she’s been a Senator for 21 years. For all the progress we’ve made, men will still condescend women in order to win an argument. As Rachel Maddow said about Senator Feinstein:
Let the record show: that you can be a United States senator for 21 years, you can be 79 years old, you can be the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and one of the most recognizable and most widely respected veteran public servants in your nation. But if you are female while you are also all of those other things, men who you defeat in arguments will still respond to you by calling you hysterical and telling you to calm down. They will patronize you and say they ‘admire your passion, sweetie,’ but of course they only deal in facts, not your silly girly strong feelings. It is inescapable, you can set your watch by it.
For all her faults (and she had plenty), Prime Minister Thatcher did not put up with any of that nonsense. No one was calling her “sweetie” or telling her to calm down. She was truly a rarity in professional politics: a woman that the boys wouldn’t try defeat or smack down with condescension.
So while I’m not about to include her on my list of feminist heroes, I’m also not going to deny her impact on women in my field. We still have barriers to overcome and progress to make, but having an example of a stronge female leader who stood her ground when so many would have preferred her to back down is definitely not something I’ll take for granted.