Monday, April 08, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Has died.  Melissa McEwan at Shakesville has a thoughtful article on Thatcher's role as the first (and still the only) female Prime Minister of Britain, pointing out the role of misogyny in the public criticisms of Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher is often given as an example of the thesis that the only way women can get into power as the First in some important job is to act like honorary men and preferably reactionary honorary men.  Any sign of feminism in such a woman is an absolute no-no, because opening the door  for one carefully groomed woman might be acceptable (the Smurfette principle), but the gates should not be left unbolted against the rest of the wild hordes.  It is therefore not surprising that she made only one high-level female appointment during her long rule or that her policies carefully avoided upsetting the existing gendered power structures in the British society.

I am not a fan of Thatcher's politics, and neither am I a fan of the way she pulled up the drawbridge after her own successful invasion of the corridors of power.  But I understood that at a particular time (from the 1950s to the 1990s) and in a particular place (the British Conservative Party) the way she was, felt and acted was the only way for a woman to reach real political power.

Thatcher was not a feminist, of course.  She is famous for openly disliking feminism, partly because she was blind to what feminism had given her:  The right to run for office, the right to vote.  She believed that her successes were based on nothing but her own talents and her own hard work.  Women's concerns she brushed off like so much dandruff on the shoulders of her black suit.

Given all this, what should feminism think about Thatcher if feminism was a person?  Embrace her for showing us at least one powerful woman?  Reject her because she rejected feminism? Wonder about the fact that in at least one survey more men than women ranked her as capable and that the man woman* writing about that also wrote this:

Feminism has long been associated with talk: combative rhetoric about equal rights, academic analysis of whether men and women are the same or whether women are actually better, that moldy debate over whether it’s possible for women to “have it all,” both career and family. Many a feminist like Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan, and more recently Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter, has made her mark through writing about gender issues—sometimes to considerable cultural effect, but still more talk.  Connotatively, a “feminist” has a chip on her shoulder the size of a two-by-four, never shuts up about “empowerment,” is eternally on the look out for sexist slights, and never considers the possibility that other people might deny her a job or dismiss her opinions because she is personally insufferable. The movement has often obsessed with language, leaving a legacy of awkward “him/her” constructions or faddish but equally sexist Bibles whose God is a “she.”  Given the humorless blah-blah-blah the term feminist evokes, it’s little wonder that many young women today avoid the label.

Margaret Thatcher was a real feminist. Not for what she said but for what she did. She did not pursue justice for her gender; women’s rights per se was clearly a low priority for her. She was out for herself and for what she believed in. 
I find that delicious!  The very definition of the exceptional woman and the oddest definition of feminism yet (and there are really weird ones out there!).

So what is Thatcher's legacy for women?  I would imagine that she would be angry at such a question.  Those women, always pestering her when she was nothing like them!  She was one of the boys, or at least a Smurfette among Smurfs.

I think Irin Carmon stated the answer to that question best:

By the same token, it’s possible to have the following measured approach to what Thatcher did for women’s representation in power: It’s better to have women in public life, even when we vehemently disagree with them, than to have no women in public life at all. Every single one counts toward the normalization of women in charge, however abhorrent their policies. Thatcher herself was a necessary rebuke to essentialism, to the humanity-constricting idea that women are inherently more collaborative, peaceful or nurturing. Bella Abzug once said, “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.” She was talking about female mediocrity, but the same goes for female wrongness.
*Apologies for getting Shriver's gender wrong there and thanks for grrljock for the correction.