Today, the Baroness Thatcher (after her retirement from politics, she was given a peerage) was laid to rest. In death as in life, Margaret Thatcher poses problems for feminists. As the first and the only female Prime Minister of Great Britain, she shattered a ceiling whose hardness resembled granite more than glass. Yet once in office, she did not fit the role expected of women pioneers. She did not merely part company with contemporary feminists. She disdained and ridiculed them.
The feminists hate me, don’t they?” she asked in a 1982 interview, three years into her tenure as Prime Minister. “And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”
“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she announced, and many feminists gladly returned the compliment. They have accused her of pulling up the drawbridge behind her once she had gained entry into the corridors of power. They have noted that in her eleven years at Ten Downing Street, she appointed only one woman cabinet member, and that one was to a rather unimportant position in the House of Lords. Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post blogger, has recorded Thatcher’s place in feminist history. Or rather, her lack of place.
Look at your average list of Female Trailblazers and Great Women in History and Women Leaders — Ashley Judd’s there, Chelsea Clinton, even Princess Diana — but there’s a giant hole shaped like the Iron Lady. The Guardian’s list of 10 Best Female Pioneers includes Coco Chanel and Kathryn Bigelow, but Margaret Thatcher? Go fish.
The Guardian’s list of the Ten Best Female Pioneers includes Eva Peron, but Thatcher’s nowhere to be seen. She does make About.com’s list of Top 100 Women of History, but then again, so does Rosie the Riveter, who is literally a fictional character.
Yet Thatcher’s position on feminism was more nuanced than her critics, and Thatcher’s own dismissive comments, might suggest.
Throughout her career, she urged women to get involved in the political process, both as voters and as candidates. On occasion, she didn’t mind extolling her own sex above the other one. She famously quipped: “In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” She referred to the House of Commons as “a dreadfully male-dominated place.”
Because Thatcher is enshrined as a champion of individualism, it is tempting to judge her as an individual, separate and apart from her contemporaries. But she was not an isolated phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher was actually a member of a small but distinguished company of women leaders. Judging her not just as an individual, but as a member of that select company, helps one to understand her character and her love/hate (some might say, hate/hate) relationship with feminism.
To understand Margaret Thatcher, one need also study her contemporaries Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir.
These three women ushered in a historic development. From earliest history to modern times, the only women to lead great nations were those who inherited or married into power. Once in power, some — such as, Elizabeth I of England, and Catherine the Great of Russia — proved themselves every bit as accomplished and ruthless as their male compatriots. But they owed their power, at least initially, to circumstance.
Then, in the brief period of thirteen years, from 1966 to 1979, these three very different women emerged onto the world stage. They made their own way onto that stage, the same way men did. They entered politics, they ran for office, they lost and they won, they made friends and they made enemies. Ultimately, following the same road men took, they rose to national leadership.
Margaret Thatcher was not the first of the three. She was the third. The first, Indira Gandhi, became Prime Minister of India in 1966 and served until 1977. She was elected again in 1980 served until her assassination in 1984. The second, Golda Meir, became Prime Minister of Israel, in 1969 and served until 1974.
Thatcher, who became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and leader of her nation in 1979, was a contemporary and an admirer of the Indian and the Israeli. Despite the differences in their political and economic philosophies, the three women had much in common.
They all lacked brothers. Golda Meir grew up in Russia in poverty, and five of her siblings died in early childhood. Her only two surviving siblings were both sisters. Margaret Thatcher had but one sibling, a sister. Indira Gandhi was an only child, the pampered daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian’s first Prime Minister.
The absence of brothers during their childhood meant that none of the three experienced the assignment of traditional gender roles at home. Without boys around for contrast, they grew up without any basis for comparison. This led to the belief, formed in early childhood, that they were boys’ equals. This belief was not some kind of political opinion. It was a core conviction, almost a part of their DNA.
Decades after her childhood, Gandhi reminisced: “… I felt that I could do what I liked and that it didn’t make any difference whether I was a boy or a girl.”
Golda Meir was equally definite that her sex didn’t matter. Interviewed by the famous and provocative journalist Oriana Fallaci, she gave this opinion on feminism:
Listen, I got into politics at the time of the First World War, when I was sixteen or seventeen, and I’ve never belonged to a women’s organization…the fact of being a woman has never, never, I say, been an obstacle.
Margaret Thatcher applied this same indifference to gender roles to her own family. When asked what she would do if forced to choose which child to educate – son Mark or daughter Carol—she said she would select the more intelligent one. “If money were short and I had to choose between educating my son or my daughter, I would choose entirely on merit.”
Another common trait among the trio was their war records. Many feminists, even today, hold to the frankly sexist viewpoint that the world would be a more peaceful place if there were more women leaders. Women are, by nature, more reasonable and practical, they say, while men are more insistent and bellicose.
The careers of Thatcher, Gandhi, and Meir lend no support to that notion. All three led their nations in successful wars. In the case of Golda Meir, there was of course no choice. Her nation was attacked on Yom Kippur in 1973, and its survival was at stake. But for Thatcher and Gandhi, their wars were matters more of choice than of necessity. In war as in childhood, the three women illustrated the same pattern: girls are no different than boys.
For both Gandhi and Meir, no less than for Thatcher, feminism was an alien doctrine, something which they could observe but to which they could not relate. “I am in no sense a feminist,” Gandhi wrote to an American friend in 1952. Year later, speaking at a New Delhi college, she elaborated: “I am not a feminist and I do not believe that anybody should get a preferential treatment merely because she happens to be a woman.”
Golda Meir echoed the sentiment. “Women’s liberation is just a lot of foolishness,” she said. “It’s the men who are discriminated against. They can’t bear children. And no one’s likely to do anything about that.” Meir was even more outspoken when she responded to Fallaci’s inquiry into her attitude toward “women’s lib”:
Do you mean those crazy women who burn their bras and go around all disheveled and and hate men? They’re crazy. Crazy. But how can one accept such crazy women who think it’s a misfortune to get pregnant and a disaster to bring children into the world? And when it’s the greatest privilege we women have over men!
To the extent these women cared about what would now be termed “women’s issues,” they cared only because such issues impacted what they considered truly important. Gandhi and Meir both lived their early adulthood under British rule. Both were devoted to the cause of national independence. If that helped women, all well and good. But nationalism, not feminism, was their object. During the British Mandate, Meir worked for the Women’s Labor Council and the Pioneer Women. She later noted: “I was attracted to them not so much because they concerned women as such, but because I was very interested in the work they were doing, particularly in the agricultural training farms they set up for immigrant girls.”
Similarly, Thatcher cared first and foremost about revitalizing the torpid British economy, which meant breaking the unions’ stranglehold. Gisela Stuart, a senior Labor Party leader, recently noted: “The left likes to forget that you have to go a long way to find something more chauvinistic than the brotherhood in the trade unions. She broke their power.” Taking on the macho world of the unions may have elevated women’s status in society, but that wasn’t her purpose. Her goal was to empower the economy, not the women.
Margaret Thatcher’s exit today marks the passing away not only of a remarkable woman, but of a remarkable class of women. We are long past the time when a politician – male or female – could say “I hate feminism” or could call feminists “crazy,” and hope to get elected. In today’s world of identity politics, one’s sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and age are all expected to shape one’s values and opinions. Thatcher and her sisters would have none of that. They believed firmly in their complete ideological autonomy. In that belief they were perhaps naïve. But the belief gave them the courage and the steel to take the stage, to take command, and to boldly say: “Shoo, lesser men. It’s my turn now.”