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Anefo_932-7047,_Margaret_Thatcher,_Ruud_Lubbers,_19-09-1983

Over the last couple of days the blanket coverage of Thatcher’s passing has begun to turn to specific discussions about her feminist legacy or lack thereof. In the first days after the announcement, in press and parliament, most of her archenemies of past and present have hit the right notes of solemnity or opted for respectful silence. That is now giving way to more vindictive appraisals as people’s memories of the bitter divisions of the Thatcher era resurface after years of repression.

On Facebook alone the ‘Likes’ for ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ – the same refrain that many Britons sang a cappella upon Thatcher’s resignation as PM in 1990 in those hazily remembered pre-social networking days – far, far, outnumber messages of condolence. Needless to say, the witch characterization only works due to her sex, and it is interesting to see how much deeper the rancour goes because she was a woman. A psychologist might well ponder whether it is because perceived betrayals and parting of ways from our mothers are the most traumatic, the most unforgivable. Too matronly and middle class to be a femme fatale or a She-Devil, the most readily available archetype is witch, and the broom-flying, green-faced, cackling kind, of Wizard of Oz vintage.

My colleague Caroline Pennock is absolutely right to be struck by the way the press has gendered Thatcher since her passing.  It is also true, of course, that Thatcher, the trained chemist, and her PR handlers worked hard to develop this electorally successful formula of politicized domesticity—the apron-wearing Iron Lady preparing the evening meal for Denis; getting her way with the EU by ‘handbagging’; telling the world in a BBC interview that she bought her underwear at Marks & Spencer; and using her forthright but feminine charm and good manners to deliver tough messages.

There are two ways of looking at her sex. In the first place it marked her out as a completely aberrational figure, overcoming the obstacles of both her gender and her class – the grocer’s daughter who shattered the glass ceiling.[1] Second, her open rejection of the politics of women’s right made her a feminist scourge. This woman who could well have been the mother of the nation was instead gorgon in the eyes of her enemies.  Among her allies she was a woman who thankfully worked hard to be one of the boys, showing no sorority and positively discouraging the progression of other women. She only appointed one woman to the Cabinet, Baroness Young.

The way Thatcher performed her sex was counterintuitive, especially in the context of her time, taking over as Conservative leader in 1975, and elected PM in 1979, at the very height of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Feminist have always loved to hate her, and many could only make sense of her as not a woman at all, dismissing her achievements, damning her as male-identified– a patriarchal wolf in too well-tailored sheep’s clothing.[2]

But should we be so surprised that such an ambitious woman, and a woman who wore her sex as she did, rose to hold the highest office? Should we be bemused by the fact the she was able to rise from within the Conservative Party?  Not really.

There has been so much emphasis on how Thatcher was a one-off figure, one-of-a-kind as what the BBC News at Ten (8 April) commentator called “Britain’s first and last woman Prime Minister”. The type of funeral she is to be accorded, the same as those for Princess Diana and the Queen Mother – two other iconic British women who were, again, formidable without being feminists – reveals Thatcher’s extraordinary status.

Love her or hate her, she became extraordinary, but she did not emerge from an historical vacuum. Thatcher follows a tradition that is, as it happens, deeply ingrained in British politics. It is considered paradoxical, given her cynicism about feminism and her statement that it is “a poison”, that the way was cleared for her by the First Wave of feminists at the beginning of the 20th century. The suffragists and suffragettes fought for the vote as well as for women’s entry into politics. These rights were won together: the first extension of the franchise to women over 30 in March 1918 (equal suffrage in 1928, and passed by Baldwin’s Conservative Government) and the right to sit in Parliament also in 1918 and just weeks before the ‘Khaki Election’ that December.

Women rushed to offer themselves as candidates in that first post-war general election. Enthusiasm and novelty did not ensure success, and the only one to be elected did not take her seat, Sinn Fein’s Countess Markievicz. It was also significant that of the thirty-six women who did manage to be elected to the House of Commons between the wars, not one had been a leader of the suffrage movement. Suffragists had taken women to the Promised Land of citizenship but they never entered it themselves (and not for want of trying).

Thatcher was the progeny of this next, post-suffrage, generation of political women, those who did enter the Promised Land, but on their own terms. Ultimately too it was the Conservative Party that was most successful in mobilizing women, to the point that by the 1930s the party worried about how it could recruit more men. This next generation of post-suffrage women had a much more ambivalent relationship with feminism. Many explicitly embraced women’s power in the absence of feminism. Their attitude was not much different from Thatcher’s some 50 years later, when the PM paid some faint tribute to her feminist forerunners: “the battle of women’s rights has been largely won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever.”

The type that is more common than one might think in British politics is the non-feminist (sometimes more aggressively anti-feminist) woman politician, traditional and conservative in ideas but fiercely independent and assertive in spirit, impeccably feminine in appearance but transcending gender barriers by refusing to confine herself to those ‘women’s issues.’  Thatcher’s own statement is instructive here: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”[4]

It usually comes as a surprise to those first studying modern British women’s history that the two most prominent leaders of the Suffragettes, mother Emmeline and daughter Christabel, became staunch ultra-patriots during the First World War, and Emmeline ended her days as a Conservative parliamentary candidate.

Conservative women also distinguished themselves as trailblazers, scoring a number of ‘firsts’. The American-born Lady Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative, although she actually stood out from her party in the interwar years because she actively pursued a feminist agenda.

The ‘Red’ Duchess of Atholl, Conservative MP and the first woman to serve in a Conservative Cabinet, had been an anti-suffragist before the war, but she came to epitomize the type I am describing. She prefigured Thatcher in many ways. The Duchess was fiercely conservative in all matters, and a true conviction politician. She was passionate about issues that were not deemed womanly, namely foreign policy. This was well exemplified by her anti-Chamberlain, anti-appeasement, stand in 1938, which led her to take the courageous step to force a by-election and put herself forward as an Independent. She lost. For the Duchess feminism was beside the point, and women’s rights were a means to an end, rather than the end themselves.

Thatcher was the inheritor of this tradition. She had not, as the press might lead us to believe in these days of eulogistic reflection, popped out as if from the head of Zeus to become a powerful goddess in her own right. Margaret Thatcher was not a one-off figure. She sat atop the proverbial shoulders of two generations of political women in her rise to the apex of the human pyramid of political power.

While she refused to march ‘shoulder to shoulder with her fellow women, and clearly did not fulfil Mrs Banks’ prophecy in Mary Poppins that ‘our daughters’ daughters will adore us’, nonetheless Thatcher’s well-padded shoulders provide a platform to support the next generation of aspiring women, whatever their party.  It can only be hoped that there are many more women to come who can prove the BBC’s grammatical and spiritual inaccuracy in identifying Thatcher as the ‘last’ woman Prime Minister.

Dr Julie Gottlieb is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She teaches and has published extensively on women and British politics between the wars, and she is co-editor (with Richard Toye) and contributor to the forthcoming book The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945 (Palgrave, 2013).


[1] President Obama said “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no class ceiling that can’t be shattered.”  http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/08/barack-obama-margaret-thatcher-friend

[2] Beatrix Campbell, Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory? (London: Virago, 1987), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22076397. See also Wendy Webster, Not a Man to Match Her: The Marketing of a Prime Minister (London: Women’s Press, 1990)

[4] Quoted on the cover of Metro, Tuesday April 9, 2013

Tags : death of Margaret Thatchergender and the mediaMargaret Thatcherwomen's history
Julie Gottlieb

The author Julie Gottlieb

9 Comments

    1. Wasn’t the BBC’s choice of words so odd! I don’t believe I have heard this epitaph again since, so maybe some members of the public called the Beeb on this.

  1. An important article–Thatcher is so often portrayed as a “one-off” in terms of UK politics and gender, but this really explores the ways in which earlier generations of female politicians and activists helped to make her rise to power possible.

    1. Thank you Natalie Zacek. Since writing, the atmosphere described is only getting thicker. It was also really interesting to hear what Glenda Jackson said in Parliament, and how very bitter she was about Thatcher’s gender and the way she felt the Iron Lady absolutely misrepresented it. I think it is important not to give in to much to this kind of essentialism. We can only understand Thatcher as a woman and as a phenomenon if look at where she was coming from, and how her discourse and her self-representational choices were entirely consistent with Tory rhetoric and appeals to women from the post-suffrage period and even before.

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