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Thatcher, Britain's first female PM, leaves a mixed legacy on women

Though no feminist, and indeed largely opposed to promoting women even in her own party, Margaret Thatcher nonetheless set a new high-water mark for women in British politics.

By Ian EvansCorrespondent / April 12, 2013

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher did not support feminism and appointed only one female cabinet member during her tenure.

Gerald Penny/AP/File

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She was famously the "only man" in a cabinet made up of men.

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With her coiffured hair, power suits, and handbag, the late Margaret Thatcher bestrode the 1980s like a feminine Colossus, but rarely spoke of women’s rights or indeed enacted pro-female legislation – leaving a confused and mixed legacy.

In 11 years as prime minister between 1979 and 1990, she failed to promote any women members of Parliament to her cabinet – the government's senior ministers – rejecting positive discrimination and complaining about a lack of talent in the female ranks. The one woman appointed to the cabinet was an unelected peer: Baroness Young, who served as the first female leader of the House of Lords between 1981 and 1983.

However, while Mrs. Thatcher was reluctant to promote women when in the hot seat, she was not shy about promoting advantages of female leadership when she was seeking election. In 1975, when battling for the Tory leadership she famously said, "I've got a woman's ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it." And in 1979, she quipped, "Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country." 

So what happened between seeking power and gaining power?

'No icon of feminism'

Feminist writer Bea Campbell says there was a flicker of hope when Thatcher was elected Conservative leader in 1975, but the optimism later evaporated.

“She did not see herself as helping feminism, and she is in no way an icon of feminism. I remember interviewing Conservative women for my book 'The Iron Ladies.' They realized her audacity and her energy, but they were also absolutely aware and disappointed that she would not empower women."

“I was very disappointed that she took an active and robust disengagement from British women, despite the struggle and suffrage without which she would not have even had a vote, let alone become an MP and prime minister."

Historian Laura Beers of the American University in Washington, D.C., says the former prime minister was hostile to feminism. “I don’t think she lost any sleep over what feminists thought of her."

“Thatcher saw them as dungaree-wearing extremists and had no time for them. She was more interested in the economy and education, which she thought would help normal women’s lives," says Dr. Beers, who wrote a chapter of "Making Thatcher’s Britain," by Oxford academics Dr. Ben Jackson and Dr. Robert Saunders, titled "Thatcher and the Women’s Vote."

Ms. Campbell says that what Thatcher "did do was hold a feminine endorsement to a thoroughly patriarchal project. She was elitist, rather than egalitarian. She wanted to disengage the welfare state and reduce its impact on people’s lives, but women always do better in countries where there is a strong welfare ethos, health service, and help."

“When Barack Obama said she was an iconic figure for our daughters, he was wrong,” Campbell adds.

Missed opportunity?

Former Tory MP Edwina Currie, who served as a junior health minister in Thatcher’s government between 1986 and 1988, says the lack of female promotions was a stain on her legacy.

“There were plenty of good female politicians – Lynda Chalker, Emma Nicholson, Angela Rumbold – who would have made good ministers, but she didn’t look at them, which did create mutterings on the back benches. She believed women just had to work harder and be better than men to get on, but the lack of promotions didn’t help."

“She’d never have agreed to all-female shortlists which created the [Tony] ‘Blair Babes,’" Ms. Currie says, referring to the flood of female Labour MPs elected amid the party's 1997 landslide victory. "But she could have pushed constituencies to have more female parliamentary candidates, and the shires would have listened because they adored her. She could have promoted women to the cabinet.”

Beers notes that in some ways, Thatcher's reluctance to promote women is mirrored by that of former US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State Colin Powell. "There are parallels with Colin Powell, who was one of the first black men to reach high office in the political and defense establishment, but who was against affirmative action. Margaret Thatcher was the same – she thought women should be treated equally and didn’t want to give them special help.”

Currie says that mind-set may have been partially cultural. “Don’t forget that Margaret Thatcher became an MP in 1959, when there was still enormous prejudice against women, and became Conservative leader in 1975, when half of Britain’s women were still in the home," she says. “I think she reverted to type when in power and had that prejudice against women, which is an anomaly."

She adds: “Ironically, if Ted Heath hadn’t promoted her to the cabinet as education minister, she might not have had the launch pad to become Conservative leader in 1975 – but I think she forgot that too easily."

An example just the same?

“But having said that," Currie goes on, "Margaret Thatcher was a trailblazer for someone like me."

"I came from a similar background – my father had a shop, I was from the provinces, and I went to Oxford. She showed me it could be done. She said she was not a feminist and she hated them, but she was an inspiration to me in becoming an MP in 1983.”

Beers echoes the point. “Politically, I don’t support her policies but it’s hard not to be impressed by what she pulled off," she says.

"Even women who don’t like her would have to give grudging respect for getting to the top in what was a male-dominated arena and staying there.”

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