Thatcher and women’s liberation

// 9 April 2013

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This is the first in a number of personal reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death that we will be publishing on the blog.

 “Was Margaret Thatcher a feminist?” Along with “Can you be a feminist and wear high heels?”, this is one of the media’s favourite questions for feminist commentators. And like the latter (equally tiresome) question, it has a short and a long answer.

The short answer? A decided “no”, from the lady herself:

The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.

The long answer? Well, it’s still ultimately a “no”, but here’s why.

Margaret Thatcher was indeed the first female Prime Minister. She made it to the top in a sexist, male dominated society. She proved, it could be argued, that women and men are equals.

But she did it on men’s terms. And she did it without sparing a second thought for other women.

She may very well have inspired and boosted the confidence of some individual women. But the key point here is that feminism – unlike Thatcher’s ideology – is not about individualism. Feminism is about liberation for all women.

Liberation for all women is not achieved when a single wealthy woman takes a position of power.

Liberation for all women is not achieved through economic policies that increase social inequality, poverty and unemployment, and decimate entire communities.

Liberation for all women is not achieved by attacking workers’ ability to organise*.

Liberation for all women is not achieved through the demonisation of gay people.

Liberation for all women is not achieved through criticising and refusing to support mothers.

Liberation for all women is not achieved through racism and support for murderous dictators.

Thatcher may have succeeded as an individual woman, but her actions cemented the structural oppressions that blight women’s lives both in the UK and worldwide. Even within the confines of the contemporary political system and her own party, she failed to support women, appointing only one woman to her cabinet during her eleven years in office.

Margaret Thatcher is no feminist icon. Rather, she is a perfect illustration of how important it is for feminists to focus on liberation, on the creation of a new society that allows all genders to be free from all forms of oppression, rather than fighting for the rights of already privileged women to gain “equality” with their male peers.

*Apologies for the rather biased BBC report – I struggled to find an alternative link.

Photo created from work provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, shared under a Creative Commons licence, via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments From You

Cath Annabel // Posted 9 April 2013 at 5:56 pm

The Don’t Hate, Donate initiative is a brilliant way to mark the occasion of Thatcher’s demise – be the society that she said didn’t exist, and support some of the groups and communities that her policies damaged so badly.

summerhillsquare // Posted 11 April 2013 at 1:30 pm

Fascinating. I agree with all of the above statements, however, if so, does it matter if women are in positions of power or not? A male leader could deliver the above objectives, so do we need to worry about voting for women candidates?

Rachel // Posted 11 April 2013 at 1:50 pm

I really have to disagree with some of this post. While I agree that Margaret Thatcher was absolutely not a feminist or a feminist icon. It is a fact that she was a female role model to women like me, who saw a woman who was strong and would not be bullied into silence and was passionate about and stood by her beliefs. Some of the things you have attributed to her, are to me, wrong, and more biased than the BBC article you link to.

In some ways I think she was more hated because she was a woman and many feel let down that she wasn’t a feminist and didn’t do more for women. But you have to look at the era (when she was born women weren’t even allowed to vote) and I don’t think she had much of a choice other than to conform to men’s terms. Despite this she never wore trousers, and still did her own housework and cooked and looked after her children.

To say she didn’t spare a thought for women is wrong. She depised stay at home mums it is true – mostly because she didn’t want to be one. I think this says a lot about some of her attitudes towards women, a trap that a lot of us fall into (much like the sexual empowerment trap), a feeling that those women that conform to the traditional roles of women are letting the side down. (The film Mona Lisa Smile shows this very well). But she did make sure that mothers were the ones who were paid child benefit not fathers. She voted to legalise abortion. By the end of her tem in office working women’s pay rose to it’s highest levels and has stayed there.

She was not a wealthy woman at all she was a grocer’s daughter, working middle class who worked hard to get an education and get into politics. I admit this is not poor but it is also not rich.

On the issue of the massive unemployment figure I cannot see how that can be attributed to her polcies when it was in the early years of her first term and is far more likely to be the fault of the previous labour government. By 87 unemployment was falling.

Blaming her for today’s polices is just ridiculous, these are the decisions of other people, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron a complete decade of people who could have made changes, how is it none of them get as much hate.

She closed grammar schools for more accessible comprehensives, so that more children could get a good education to help get themselves out of poverty. School attendance doubled because of this.

Attacking the workers ability to organise, not sure I really understand this point but I believe you mean about attacking the unions who did not allow their members to vote and penalised people who would not strike often with violence – to me they were the ones I saw destroying families and increasing poverty. The mines she was closing an the businesses she privatised were not making money and costing the taxpayer masses of money.

Voting for section 28 is against promoting gay relationships not demonisation of gay people, which was inline with her christian beliefs. She voted for decriminalisation of homosexual relationships.

She was not anti apartheid and not totally against immigrants, her decisions to against certain policies were to do with the fact that she thought the policies were too limited to be of any benefit. Yes she thought Mandela and other resistance fighters were terrorists, but then I think this was largely influenced by the Irish bombings and she wasn’t alone in this thinking.

Yes she supported Pinochet for his attempts to acheive democracy but not for his actions against his people.

Yes she put funding into Kymer Rouge but did not support Pol Pot at all and actually believed they were trying to reach a different part of the system, and part of this decision was tied to keeping Russia from being a nuclear enemy.

As for your last paragraph – most of her foreign policies and decisions when you really look into them were all with the aim of liberation and freedom and democracy.

So although I do not think she was a feminist she did share some feminist views and aims.

Laura // Posted 11 April 2013 at 3:58 pm

Hi summerhillsquare,

I think generally women are more likely to push for women’s rights than men, because we have a better idea and direct experience of the issues we face: women have always been the driving force behind feminism. So I think it’s still important to support female candidates and do all we can to get women into politics. However, men can and do help further women’s rights, and if I had to choose between Thatcher and a man who listened to women and used his power to support us, then I would of course vote for the man.

Carrie Dunn // Posted 11 April 2013 at 5:42 pm

Hi Rachel, I do completely agree that some of the abuse and criticism levelled at Thatcher is because she was a woman. (Glenda Jackson’s comments in Parliament about her not being a woman is a great example.)

Though you make several comments I disagree with, I just wanted to pick up on this point you make in particular –

“She was not a wealthy woman at all she was a grocer’s daughter, working middle class who worked hard to get an education and get into politics. I admit this is not poor but it is also not rich.”

She did of course work hard to get an education – I believe her secondary and tertiary educations were both funded by scholarships, which much have been hugely competitive. However, her parents and her husband (a multi-millionaire) supported her financially through her first unsuccessful campaigns in politics; and her husband then, I believe, funded her re-training for a new career. I think this wealth and comfortable background is important to acknowledge.

VS // Posted 11 April 2013 at 7:46 pm

I disagree with Rachel’s comments. I think Thatcher and her free market monetarist ideology was responsible for unemployment trebling in her first few years of power. She was so determined to reduce inflation and to avoid subsidising what she saw as ‘lame duck’ industries that she let unemployment soar to levels not seen since the 1930s. I don’t think Rachel can blame the previous Labour government for this.

In terms of child benefit going to women, that was a policy passed when the previous Labour government was in power and Barbara Castle was social security secretary.

In terms of trade unions, I would argue that trade unions are an important counterbalance to the power of employers. By weakening them, she allowed employers to treat their workforce more badly than they would have done otherwise. And this lead to the growing inequality in society. The unemployed and workers at the bottom of the income distribution did not benefit from her policies. In terms of violence at strikes, bear in mind that the pickets – who, remember, in the case of the miners’ strike had gone without money for months as part of a strike to save their communities – were facing a police that was acting very hostilely to them [policemen used to wave wads of banknotes at striking miners]. And, the miners who crossed the picket lines were, from the point of view of strikers, stabbing them in the back. After all, the point of the miners’ strike was to defend the pits she was going to close – they were fighting for benefits for all miners [incl. the strike-breakers] so it was wrong for the strike-breakers to undermine the struggle by going into work and getting money while their comrades were doing without. It is the basic principle of solidarity, something which Thatcherites and those wedded to a free market, individualistic ideology don’t understand.

VS // Posted 11 April 2013 at 7:54 pm

Sorry, some further points, in relation to the grammar schools point – it was the Labour government of 1964-70 that started the process of comprehensivisation [although you are right Thatcher didn’t reverse it].

In terms of Pinochet, I disagree with Rachel’s point vehemently. I think she supported him because he was a pro-Western leader. She did not care how many people his regime imprisoned or tortured because he was on ‘our’ side in the Cold War.

In terms of South Africa, I think she was anti-ANC and their armed struggle, hence she called them ‘terrorists’ and was against the sanctions they called for.

Now, if you are a pacifist, then that is a reasonable line to oppose an armed liberation struggle. Otherwise, I think it is a bit racist – since her view was basically saying that Western powers and their allies have a right to use force when they want [e.g. the Falklands War] but that black South Africans don’t have the right to use armed force to liberate themselves from an apartheid regime.

Jess McCabe // Posted 11 April 2013 at 9:43 pm

Hi Rachel,

I just wanted to address some of your comments:

“She was not anti apartheid and not totally against immigrants…”

“Yes she thought Mandela and other resistance fighters were terrorists, but…”

“Yes she supported Pinochet for his attempts to acheive democracy but…”

“Yes she put funding into Kymer Rouge but..”

Supporting dictatorships and brutal regimes that persecuted their own people, and on the other hand identifying those who were fighting for basic liberty and freedom as terrorists… Those are hideous things to do.

The word “but” doesn’t come after those statements.

If nothing else, think of the women who suffered such rape and brutality under those regimes. Just one example: a commission investigating political prisoners under Thatcher’s pal Pinochet in 2003 found that nearly every female prisoner was raped.

Let’s not minimise or pretend that those regimes weren’t that bad!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 11 April 2013 at 10:56 pm

Massive unemployment was Thatcher’s fault. Her government actively pursued an economic policy of mass unemployment as they thought that it was cheaper to have a large unemployment payment bill than to further subsidise many of our industries. It wasn’t a mistake or side effect; it was a known outcome that was considered at the time by her government and decided to be the best course of action.

VS // Posted 11 April 2013 at 11:40 pm

Thatcher talked about “freedom” (and Rachel seems to echo this). But, as RH Tawney said, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow”. We also need a strong state – and independent institutions like trade unions – to control the ‘freedoms’ of the rich and big business to behave in a ruthless, profit-seeking fashion.

summerhillsquare // Posted 12 April 2013 at 10:05 am

VS – I love that quote! I seem to remeber unemployment was though a “price worth paying” and was a deliberate startegy to keep wages and conditions to the minimum – kinda like the current government. Only this time its women who are bearing the brunt of unemployment, underemployment, wage cuts and loss of benefits and services. Her legacy lives on in the most sexist way.

Ellen // Posted 12 April 2013 at 3:28 pm

A number of the people on this thread have come dangerously close to the “conservative or moderate girls and women are Not Real Women”.

Like most people i have a mixture of conservative and progressive views. Even though i am too young to remember ‘the miners’ strike, I have read about how union leaders before Thatcher could paralyse public services and shut down whole industries. I violently disagree with the notion pushed by many of the F-Word bloggers that unions should be given back that power.

VS // Posted 12 April 2013 at 8:17 pm

Yes, strikes can disrupt services and cause inconvenience for the general public. However, it is throwing the ‘baby out with the bathwater’ to object to trade union power because of this since, to my mind, trade union power is needed to increase workers’ wages. Also, in the past, some of the unions fought for things like better pensions and food subsidies to support their members in retirement and to ensure that those who were out of work could get the basics cheaply.

In the 1970s about 65% of national income was accounted for by in wages and salaries [the rest was rent, profits, interest, dividends etc]. Now it is more like 50%. See for stats.

The trade unions would argue – in my view rightly – that it is when they had strong bargaining power that workers were able to get decent pay rises from their employers. Now that they are weak, workers are getting no or low pay rises and company profits and bonuses for the people at the top are soaring.

Yes, trade union leaders [like many of us men!] can be biased against women and hold stereotypical views. However, it is only by organising in trade unions and being active in them that women workers can get a better deal. And, these days, a lot of union leaders (including the Gen Sec of the TUC) are women.

In my view, for what its worth as a social-democratic man, the best way for women in the low-paid sectors that they dominate to get better pay, better terms & conditions etc is to organise in unions. If shop workers or cleaners had a stronger union, then I am sure there would be less of them on the minimum wage and more of them earning a decent ‘living wage’.

To me, the alternative to Thatcherism is a society where there is full employment, decent wages, a decent welfare state, and public utilities like the railways run in the interests of the people not private profiteers. And I think it is something that most ordinary, working-class, men and women should unite around. It is the vision that Labour put forward in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and it is a shame that voters rejected it and went for Thatcher & the Tories instead.

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