Not because she was a woman or despite it: more views on Thatcher

// 13 April 2013

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Like a few others, I didn’t see much to celebrate about Margaret Thatcher’s death when I heard the news on Monday. I know enough about the damage the Conservatives did under Thatcher (see Laura’s post from Tuesday for some examples of Thatcher’s actions) to appreciate the strength of feeling behind the celebrations but my immediate reaction was not jubilant. After all, the death of this one person doesn’t undo the damage to lives that were wrecked or diminished by her politics when she was in power and, today, changes nothing for the people whose lives are currently being wrecked or diminished by her legacy now. As one Twitter user put it on Monday, “Although the person is dead the ideology very much still alive. Would be so much better the other way around.”

Along with this, the nightmarish state of affairs that Owen Jones said he was dreading, back in September, has been coming true: lots of fervent and over-the-top emoting about Thatcher as a figure, combined with a “relentless political broadcast for the Conservative Party”.

After a few days, all the glowing statements about Thatcher being a prominent and powerful woman deserving of our admiration (“however much we might disagree with her” etc) started to get inside my head. I found myself half-recalling tantalisingly contrary declarations of love for her in essays from self-professed feminists included in an exhibition on Thatcher I attended at the Women’s Library a few years ago. I was reminded that it’s disturbingly easy to be swept away by the cult of personality even when the personality in question is one of a number of people standing for an ideology you hate.

But the fact Thatcher was a formidable woman who broke through sexist barriers to achieve what she did and was eventually discarded and stripped of power by the party she once led does not, in my view, somehow obligate feminists to pay tribute and give credit. This is because with power comes responsibility towards those with less. This surely means a woman who fails her people should be criticised every bit as much as a man who does. She doesn’t get a free pass to rule without being held to account just because she’s a woman and we perhaps feel grateful for her success. (If you want to see a great call-out to claims that Thatcher was a feminist icon, check out this open letter from Hampshire Feminist Collective.)

Equally, women with power who fail others are not somehow “worse” or deserving of extra ire. Neither does it make them somehow “not women” (see Glenda Jackson’s description, in her otherwise brilliant recent speech, of Thatcher as “a woman- not on my terms”). Women also shouldn’t be sidelined just because one of us got it so very wrong; Morrissey has even suggested (albeit acknowledging just how wrong Thatcher was to say she owed nothing to feminism) there will never be another woman in power in British politics because of Thatcher’s damage.

Misogyny doesn’t fly either. No behaviour makes it okay for us to use a person’s membership of an oppressed group against her and if this is all it takes for us to issue bigoted insults that stigmatise whole groups of people, we were clearly bigots all along. As Melissa McEwan has said, there are many legitimate objections to Thatcher and yet the first line of offence has been straight at her womanhood. Emma Pooka of Angry Women of Liverpool also sums it up well when she says a good test is “to ask yourself if you’d ever find occasion to use the same insult on a man, without the insult centring on implying he’s like a woman”.

Following on from this, Grace Dent has rightly questioned why attributes commonly associated with powerful men have somehow made Thatcher a “witch”. However, she also says:

“I disliked Thatcher, but would I be here – still very often the only woman at the table, the only woman on the panel show, the only woman on the judging body, the token woman on the shortlist – without her as an example?”

I think this demonstrates part of the problem.

Margaret Thatcher might have paved the way for there to be room for a scattering of token women but this has not changed anything for women’s overall position in society. So let’s not imply that the cause for women’s emancipation has been somehow furthered by her.

I took part in a couple of radio discussions about Margaret Thatcher over the last week, which you can still listen to until Tuesday. The first was a debate with Dominic Laurie (standing in for Shelagh Fogarty) and the Telegraph Women’s Editor, Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live (1.23.36 – 1.31.42). The second was with Paul Salt (standing in for Simon Hoban) on BBC Radio Merseyside (1.09.54 – 1.14.50).

What some other F-Word writers have been saying about Margaret Thatcher:

“I don’t think death sanctifies anyone’s politics, acts or personality, but I also think nobody’s politics, acts or personality justifies wishing them death.” –Jolene Tan

“Section 28 came in under Thatcher. When I started working in education, it was illegal for local authorities to “promote homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. It was such an ambiguously worded, bigoted law that schools thought it applied to them and that they had to avoid (or could take it as explicit permission to avoid) education, representation or inclusion of LGBT people or issues. I’m still witnessing the repercussions.” – Chella Quint

“From all the Wizard of Oz references, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that some kind of childhood bogeywoman has been definitively felled. If that’s the case, beyond the glee, is there some new living we can do without the fear?

She was real, and the effects of her ideology are — but the reactions I’m seeing also position her as a supranatural figure (specifically the Wicked Witch of the West), suggesting that she took on a folk culture role of generalised fear, as the Great Censor. And while we can organise against the effects of her ideology, maybe we also need to look at our own response to what we fear and how we give it *internalised* power over us.” – Sophie Mayer

[Picture by Bixentro, shared under a creative commons licence. This shows black and white graffiti on wood. The image has the appearance of a cut-around collage-style and includes a person with their head in their hands on the left, Margaret Thatcher on the right and soldier in a pith helmet with a billy goat at the bottom. This perhaps references the goat mascot and Goat Major of the Royal Regiment of Wales, possibly in reference to events in Wales towards the end of the miners’ strike.]

Comments From You

Elisa // Posted 14 April 2013 at 12:10 am

Even if Thatcher had just been a bog standard prime minister (and not a friend of dictators, snatcher of milk and union buster extraordinaire) the fact that she rose to power the way she claimed to have done would still be bad for women. People can now say “look, this woman did it and she didn’t need quotas and flexi-time and all this other stuff you feminists claim women need in order to get over structural barriers to success. Must mean the structural barriers don’t exist. If you were just a bit better, you wouldn’t be affected by them anyway. Don’t tell me sexism is a thing when we’ve elected a woman prime minister three times in this country!”

janesamillion // Posted 14 April 2013 at 5:27 pm

I admit to a real gut-centred dislike of her, for all the reasons Laura gave. That’s hardly to my credit and in a general sense celebrating anyone’s death is somewhat distasteful. But – and it’s a big one – she is/was not just a person but a symbol and she very much chose to be a symbol. So when we refuse to share in the mourning or celebrate her death, a lot of that is about refusing to celebrate the things she symbolised and about being pleased that they are diminished, even in a small way. And no – she was not a feminist and she did not take forward the cause of women. If women have more opportunities now, or the sexism is less, then it was not she whobrought that about. We’re facing a sexist backlash and praising her won’t get us anywhere.

And besides – she was responsible for so much misery.

And finally – so glad Iain Banks saw her off.

Clodia // Posted 14 April 2013 at 5:50 pm

What offends me as a woman is the very personal nature of the insults and condemnations heaped upon Margaret Thatcher which I feel are happening because she was female. Many male political leaders have been hated for their policies but these very personal insults have not been heaped upon them and on their death the right of their families to grieve has been respected. It sounds to me like an outpouring of suddenly allowable misogyny actually.

I didn’t agree with all of Thatcher’s policies, particularly those which undermined the position of women and LGBT people, but I still feel that I might not have got the top job in my area of work in the male dominated north without her example.

Helen // Posted 14 April 2013 at 9:19 pm

We have heard a lot of negative things about Mrs Thatcher since the announcement of her death, many of which seem to deliberately forget the historical context in which she was elected. We hear how callous she was in the treatment of strikers and the breakup of mining communities, but very little about the misery inflicted by strikes in the 1970s, and the incredibly selfish and arrogant demands made by trade union leaders of the day. During the 1970s the miners in particular seemed to be perpetually asking for ever higher wages and better working conditions even as the industry they worked for lost money hand over fist, and since of course it was a nationalised industry, they expected everyone else to pay for it. Trade unions also showed much callousness themselves: striking miners did not seem to care that the elderly could die without power to heat their homes, striking dustmen did not care if people got sick due to uncollected rubbish piling up in the street, and striking postmen did not care how much they damaged other businesses (no email or alternative courier services in those days). Even hospital workers went on strike! How callous is that?

We also hear how little Mrs Thatcher did for women, whilst ignoring the prejudices of the party she belonged to. If Mrs Thatcher had shown any feminist leanings or attempted to use her position to promote women’s rights, she would never have been tolerated as party leader. Before Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, people did not believe that a woman was even capable of doing the job, yet she tackled issues that male Prime Ministers before her had successively failed to do, and went on to become Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister, winning 3 elections. Noone can now say that women cannot be strong and capable leaders.

Mrs Thatcher lost power 21 years ago, yet still we hear her blamed for the problems of today even though for much of that 21 years we have had a Labour government. If her policies were so bad for Britain why did they not reverse them? Why did they not invest in manufacturing, build more Council houses, eradicate inequality? To blame Mrs Thatcher for the failure of subsequent governments seems like scapegoating and smacks of misogyny. She did a lot of things that had to be done and did them in Britain’s best interests.

When Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 Britain was on the road to ruin, but by the time she left we were the fifth strongest economy in Europe with restored national pride. I think she deserves some credit for that. RIP Mrs T.

Holly Combe // Posted 15 April 2013 at 1:37 pm

I agree about the misogynistic scapegoating behind some of the blame on Thatcher for the failure of subsequent governments. As I indicated in my post, I don’t think there’s any excuse for giving Thatcher an air of some special kind of evil just because she happened to be a woman. Like Grace Dent, I don’t think one woman with power during the 1980s should carry the can for everything (I’m paraphrasing slightly but I see her point). However, it perhaps bears repeating that, as Thatcher was Prime Minister of the country for 11 years, it is not unreasonable to hold Thatcherism -and therefore Thatcher herself- responsible for a hell of a lot that followed, regardless of whether you would blame or praise her.

Indeed, you ask “if her policies were so bad for Britain why did they not reverse them?” Well surely one reason for that is that a lot of damage had already been done. We then had seven more years of Conservative government under Major and, of course, New Labour then went on to inflict a whole load of damage of their own by betraying values the party was known for (a subject for another day). The values of Thatcherism seeped everywhere and continue to do so, to the detriment of workers’ rights and the lives of already marginalised people.

To briefly pick up on the point about the apparent callousness of strikes when the work in question is so vital (e.g. medical), I’d suggest we direct our anger at the reason why those strikes were happening in the first place. Again, the influence of Thatcherism is arguably to blame for the ease with which we berate individuals as mere cogs in machines rather than the machines themselves (government, business etc) and those with the power to operate them.

“Before Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, people did not believe that a woman was even capable of doing the job… No-one can now say that women cannot be strong and capable leaders.”

Before Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, some sexists on the right [EDIT: and left!] did not believe a woman was capable of the job. Now some sexists on the left see it as evidence for “Never again” [EDIT: while some sexists on the right make her the exception to the rule]. I’d say these positions are sexist, regardless of Thatcher’s deeds.

VS // Posted 15 April 2013 at 11:21 pm

Helen’s comment above repeats some incorrect talking points from the Right. Firstly, Britain was not “on the road to ruin”. We were a developed country then and are a developed country now. Paul Krugman has some good charts showing there was no Thatcherite “economic miracle” (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/did-thatcher-turn-britain-around/) despite what some of her fans might say. Yes, we fell behind France and Germany in the 60s, but it wasn’t a massive decline and we have only just closed the gap with France and still have less GDP/head and productivity than Germany.

Secondly, in terms of Helen’s attacks on the unions, I will repeat what I said in my previous comments in another thread. The percentage of GDP (national income) going in wages has fallen from 65% to 53% since 1979. This means that workers are getting less of what they produce in wages and, also, inequality has grown. That process started under Thatcher. Helen uses emotive arguments to criticise strikers. Now, yes, some strikes do cause danger to the public – but, normally, “life and limb” services [like emergency medical care and emergency fire responses] don’t get called out on strike. And, before Thatcher’s trade union laws banned secondary action [that is, strikes by one group of workers in support of a claim by another group of workers], these strikes could often be avoided by other workers going on strike in support of their demands [e.g. ancillary staff in hospitals going on strike in support of both their own pay claim and the nurses’ and – in exchange – the nurses’ union would help pay towards the cleaners, porters etc strike pay]. That was solidarity in action. The changes in the law have stopped this, so every group of workers has to take action on its own – which can be more problematic. Also, workers went on strike because they had genuine grievances about their terms and conditions. Often they were working for wages you or I wouldn’t want to receive and, unless we are prepared to do their often very tough work at the low pay they were getting, I would not criticise them.

The one good point Helen makes is that Labour didn’t reverse this. This is in part because no government wants a powerful, independent, trade union movement with the power to stand up to it when it brings in harsh policies of wage restraint or job cuts or to spend lots of money on renationalising industries. And, also, because Blair agreed with much of the Thatcher agenda. This doesn’t mean it was right, though – it is a reason to take a position to the left of both Blair and Thatcher.

Colin W. Wells // Posted 16 April 2013 at 1:02 am

Why feminist for a start? There are men in this world and just as I was going to make a comment about Mrs Thatcher! I will anyway. Apparently, she fought for freedom of speech, for freedom of expression and other liberties. Unfortunately, she only sanctioned them to elite members of conservative glory while the rest of the country (and more especially Northern Ireland where I am from) sank into the depressive situation we still endure. Two million pounds of tax payers money for her funeral! What an insult! What a joke! But it is not funny.

Sammy1975 // Posted 16 April 2013 at 8:05 pm

I started secondary school in 87′ at the beginning of Mrs T’s last term and can honestly say, I looked up to her as a woman. I remember as a teenager watching her speak in the Commons, she was smart, she had conviction, she was at the top of her game. I just don’t agree that she did nothing to encourage women. Whilst I may not have been old enough to appreciate the politics at that time, I certainly felt inspired by her as an orator and I believe she ignited my passion for public speaking.

I feel strongly that I want to defend her against the vitriol and I think a part of that is because she was female. People may not have thought a woman capable before she became PM and I think her gender also attributes, in part, to the strength of feeling against her. What may be seen as strong leadership qualities in a man are regarded as cold-hearted and callous in a woman.

In support of Helen’s point about the closing of pits, why has she been the one to be so vilified, despite Harold Wilson’s over-whelming record for pit closure’s over a much shorter period? (have I missed something?) Wilson was also responsible for withdrawing milk from secondary schools and yet, MT was labelled as the milk snatcher, as education secretary under Heath.

The hyperbole, selective story-telling and vile celebrations about her death have strengthened my feelings towards her, now that she has gone.

VS // Posted 17 April 2013 at 7:59 am

It’s factually wrong to say the Wilson government withdrew free milk. It was Thatcher as Education Secretary under the Heath government (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Thatcher#Education_Secretary_and_Cabinet_Minister_.281970.E2.80.931974.29).

In terms of pit closures, yes, a lot were closed before Thatcher came into power. But this was done in more of a negotiated way and, as there was closer to full employment at the time, miners were more able to find jobs elsewhere. This wasn’t the case for Thatcher’s 80s and Major’s 90s wave of pit closures.

I can see why Sammy1975 might be annoyed that a lot of the abuse of Thatcher has been sexist – calling her a “witch” etc, but that doesn’t change the fact that her policies were damaging to lots of ordinary people and to the social fabric of the country. She should be criticised for her policies. And it is inconsistent in the extreme for people to defend her if they would have criticised a man who did the same things.

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