Last month, Madonna uploaded an image of Margaret Thatcher, captioned with the words ‘Rebel Heart’. A seemingly innocuous thing to do and a slightly inane point you may think. However, it garnered a hostile response. Two years earlier, Geri Halliwell (of Ginger Spice fame), had to disassociate herself with a tweet in which she called Margaret Thatcher ‘our first lady of girl power’. She subsequently deleted the tweet after a similar backlash. These two examples show the tension of Margaret Thatcher’s gender politics, and that of right wing women in general. How can right-wing women, bastions of Conservatism, be associated with ‘girl power’ the empowerment of women and be seen as female icons. Does their right wing politics subvert their ability to inspire and empower other women?
Recently I attended the ‘Rethinking Right Wing Women’ conference in Oxford; this conference was based around an attempt to historicise right wing women, to pull them out of the backbenches of history and understand their motivations for voting Conservative. From Lady Astor, the first female to take a seat in the House of Commons, to today’s 68 female Conservative MPs, not forgetting the most imposing female Conservative of all; Margaret Thatcher, these women have all contributed to the creation of a ‘right wing female identity’. These were women who deemed themselves Conservative with a capital C, along with thousands, if not millions, of lesser-known women who maintained the Tory party, holding raffles and events, supporting their husbands, as Party Agents and other positions too numerous to mention. These women were, and remain, an active force within politics.
However, another female identity sits in tension with that of the right wing woman. Coming out of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, feminism has found it difficult to contend with politically active right wing women. Understanding why women would vote Conservative was a central theme to feminist work throughout the 1970s and 80s. Margaret Thatcher’s success spurred an outpouring of work by feminists, trying to negotiate their own feelings regarding Britain’s first female Prime Minister. They had to deal with the fact that the women’s liberation movement had created a culture in which a woman could become PM, but the irony was that the woman at the top was a Conservative, a neo-liberal and whose politics held no resemblance to feminist aims.
“It is truly ironic that the improvements in women’s position in society and more progressive attitudes towards women have played their part in Mrs Thatcher’s success. It may indeed prove tragic for women.”
MsPrint magazine, 1979
For women’s liberationists in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s conservativeness was a problem. Following neo-liberal policies meant a reduction of the state; women were forced to take up the roles that had been cut, as nurses and carers. Part-time jobs were amongst the first to be cut, in both the private and public sector, and it was women that largely occupied this sector. Emphasis on the nuclear family and ‘tradition’ promoted the idea of women in the home and as a result, as part of the private sphere. Though Thatcher’s persona was very public, she continued to use the iconography of the housewife to legitimise her political ideas and presence whilst emphasising that the ‘correct’ place for women was in the home. She vehemently disagreed with feminists, going as far as to say ‘The feminists hate me don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison’.
For women’s liberationists, being feminist was to be radical, to demand an alternative politics and society and ultimately, to be left-wing. Their understandings of femaleness was tied with feminism, to be a woman one must be a feminist, to be a feminist one must be left-wing. In Red Rag, Elizabeth Wilson wrote about the contradictions inherent within Thatcher’s gender politics;
“Many women will support her because she is a woman. They will do this for feminist reasons…to express their solidarity with a woman politician and because they believe a woman at the top will mean a better deal for women.”… “Mrs Thatcher’s record shows that her being a woman hasn’t made her any better. Like all career women, Mrs Thatcher is a token woman – in other words, an honorary man.”
Red Rag, Issue 9
Female support for Thatcher could be understood to an extent through the language of gender solidarity and a shared feeling of success. However this was undermined by ‘Mrs Thatcher’s record’: her politics. It was therefore not ‘feminist’ to vote for Thatcher. The right-wing female could not be incorporated into the women’s movement, rather she was dismissed as ‘an honorary man’ and removed from the female gender.
In attempting to understand Mrs Thatcher, the feminist movement therefore had to assess their own ideas of gender and power. There was not a single narrative within feminist media of Thatcher, rather she was depicted through a variety of images and motifs. She was shown to be simultaneously a victim of sexism, an emblem of female power and a ‘gender betrayer’. Furthermore, Left Wing women’s media had to come to terms with the Left’s sexism towards Thatcher, to respond to and resist its use.
Right wing women were enigmatic for the women’s movement as they appeared to reject the gendered critique of the world that feminists had developed. Margaret Thatcher, with the iconography of the first female prime minister, allowed the women’s movement to explore the Right-Wing Woman and to incorporate her into their discourses and dialogue. The ‘sisterhood’ of women was not all-encompassing as it rejected Right Wing Women. At the same time, right-wing women also rejected Women’s Liberation. Political affiliation therefore subverted a ‘female solidarity’. As seen in the recent lambasting of Geri Halliwell and Madonna for expressing a solidarity towards Thatcher, the right-wing woman continues to be a symbol of contention.
Exploring the motivations for women who vote Conservative, who identify as ‘Right Wing Women’ is a feminist issue. Women’s political interests and alignment are indicative of their underlying fears and motivations and must be taken seriously, not dismissed. Margaret Thatcher remains a complex figure of female power, one who at once suggests that power is achieved through feminism but also in spite of it. In Britain and Europe today there are many women who have risen through the political ranks along that route, and, sadly, few that have credited feminism or the women’s movement with their success. Right wing women are not a ‘phenomenon’, but a historically significant group of women whose political motivations, aspirations and achievements are to be taken seriously, by both the political establishment and by the feminist movement.