One woman’s success does not mean a step forward for women. Far from ‘smashing the glass ceiling’, Thatcher made it through and pulled the ladder up after her.
She was, of course, the first and so far only female British prime minister, Jon Snow reiterated on Monday night, insinuating that this achievement should in general be celebrated, never mind the specifics of her leadership.
“Yes and that was one of the many weird things about her,” smirked Alexei Sayle. In the pantheon of this comedian’s attacks on Thatcher, it was a retort that probably won’t be treasured longer than the best lines from The Young Ones.
This was hardly the first or even the worst example of a dig at Thatcher tinged so needlessly with sexism. Of all the things to criticise Thatcher for, calling her out for being a woman seems like something of a wasted bullet. Yet despite the attempts of some columnists to claim otherwise, Thatcher can’t really be seen as “a warrior in the sex war”, let alone as “the ultimate women’s libber“. Far from “smashing the glass ceiling“, she was the aberration, the one who got through and then pulled the ladder up right after her. On the same edition of Channel 4 News, Louise Mensch named only three successful female politicians as part of her defence of Thatcher – and only one of those was a Conservative.
In truth, Thatcher is one of the clearest examples of the fact that a successful woman doesn’t always mean a step forward for women. In 11 years, Thatcher promoted only one woman to her cabinet, preferring instead to elevate men whom Spitting Image memorably and, in certain instances, accurately, described as “vegetables”. You may not be a fan of Edwina Currie but, really, was she any worse than John Gummer? “You would see MPs who came into any politics after I had and who were no better than me being promoted over my head,” said Currie this week. “She had been offered the chance to get on and effectively she then refused to offer it to other people.”
As Matthew Parris evocatively put it in Monday’s Times, “She rather liked men (preferring our company, perhaps, to that of women), [but] she thought us the weaker sex.”
This attitude – that men are fun but dumb, women are smart but strident, a view of the sexes that seems to come straight out of a Judd Apatow film – led to various quotes of hers that some like to twist into proof that Thatcher was an unwitting feminist. These include, “We have to show them that we’re better than they are”, and “Women can get into corners that men can’t reach!” But really, such statements were anything but, first because sweeping statements about genders are the opposite of gender equality and second because they revealed her real attitude towards women, which lay behind her notable lack of female-friendly policies, her utter lack of interest in childcare provision or positive action. (They also reveal how she loved to surround herself with yes men who were always men.) Rather, she was a classic example of a certain kind of conservative woman who believed that all women should pull themselves up just as she had done, conveniently overlooking that not all women are blessed with the privileges that had been available to her, such as a wealthy and supportive husband and domestic help. (Interestingly, Currie also recalled that when she approached Thatcher in 1988 to get approval for the world’s first national breast-screening programme, she tried to appeal to the PM initially “as a woman” but that swiftly proved unsuccessful. So instead: “I put it to her that we would be saving money.” That did the trick.)
Women aren’t always good for other women because the gender of a person matters a lot less than that person’s actual beliefs. I am reminded of this every time the debate comes up about whether more female bylines would reduce sexism in the media. Yet the Daily Mail has more female bylines than any other UK paper and is not exactly a totem of gender equality and female-friendliness.
Contrary to an increasingly common belief, “a woman who is successful” is not synonymous with “a feminist”. On the day Thatcher died, the Daily Mail ran a piece claiming that Coco Chanel “was a feminist before the word existed”. Leaving aside the detail that the word “feminist” came into existence in 1895, comfortably in Chanel’s lifetime, the woman who valued femininity above all other qualities in a woman and was heavily involved with the Nazis, including a wartime relationship with German officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, could not, in any circumstances, be described as a feminist.
And nor could Thatcher, much to her relief as she allegedly abhorred the word, as doubtless Chanel did, too. Both were successful women who could play the flirt card when it suited them, but ultimately had little interest in being kind to their own sex; Thatcher especially resented being defined by her gender. People should pay her the respect of doing the same after her death. 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. Seeing as women aren’t a minor Brit-flick grateful for even a bad review, that truism doesn’t quite hold true here. She was a prime minister who happened to be a woman. It’s how she would have, if pressed, put it herself.