Opinion: Despite her status, Thatcher did nothing to help improve the lives of women
References to Margaret Thatcher habitually prompt familiar questions regarding her status as a trailblazer for women, or, indeed, as a feminist icon who dispelled myths of female fragility and victimhood.
However, despite her remarkable political career and unscrupulous imposition of unpopular policies, t he Iron Lady was no feminist.
Thatcher acknowledged as much, once asking, “the feminists hate me, don’t they?” only to provide her own response: “And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”
The record on Thatcher and feminism, therefore, could not be clearer . Despite her pioneering leadership in the male-dominated world of politics, she did nothing to improve the lives of women . In fact she espoused the very ideology and values that entrenched disadvantage for women and a host of other historically marginalised people.
In her 11-year reign as prime minister she appointed only one woman to cabinet, and while announcing that the battle for women’s rights had been “largely won”, she refused to invest in affordable childcare or to increase child benefit. As working mothers were demonised for raising a “crèche generation”, Thatcher gave the impression of ditching cabinet meetings to rush home and get the dinner on the table for her (millionaire) husband.
In doing so, she made sure not to trample on the obviously contradictory but impeccably maintained construct of womanhood she had created: the ruthlessly individualistic career woman with an old-fashioned love of Victorian values.
It is this vision of womanhood and her legacy of “I’m all right Jill” attitudes and behaviour that have denied Thatcher a place in the pantheon of feminism, for feminism is fundamentally a social justice movement that works toward the empowerment of women.
By espousing certain values, such as solidarity, justice and equality, this movement seeks an end to the exploitative system of patriarchy, which benefits only the elite. Thatcher had no intention of improving women’s lot, nor did she adopt feminist values.
Madeline Albright once said that there is a special place reserved in hell for women who don’t help other women. The statement’s admonition of precisely the kind of self-serving anti-feminism Thatcher displayed is laudable, and serves as a useful reminder of the obligations we have toward each other in creating more equitable societies where women and men can thrive alongside each other.
On the other hand, there has been much talk of Thatcher’s death in a tone that is mistakenly triumphant and mocking. Some of this has been distinctly gendered, with graphics and slogans such as “ding-dong the witch is dead ” making the rounds on social media.
While it is understandable that people suffering poverty and stigma as a direct consequence of Thatcher’s flawed policies should feel relieved at her departure from this world, it is unclear why her death should present a triumph.
Triumph can only be claimed when one has actually done something to claim victory, yet Thatcher died of natural causes, and not at the hands of some heroic defender of the people she subjugated.
And yet, it is this casting of her in the role of Bond villain that feeds into the present triumphalism, as her death is viewed as the ultimate victory of good over evil, of the oppressed over the oppressor.
Thatcher was, of course, superb in her role, snatching milk from children, closing shady arms deals, eradicating entire industries, crushing unions, further enriching the rich, labelling anti-colonialist and anti-apartheid movements “terrorist ”, waging an unnecessary but politically expedient war, and allying herself with some of the worst dictators known to humankind.
However, by reducing her to a pantomime villain, we remain closed off from what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” – that is, evil that is systemic, carried out not necessarily by fanatical individuals but by followers of a certain ideology in a routine manner.
Given that much of what Thatcher presided over remains familiar today – high unemployment, increased inequality, ever-growing riches for an elite, austerity – we would do well to counter evil in all its guises, and to work toward more equitable societies, thereby achieving genuine triumphs and espousing a true feminism.
Clara Fischer is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. As part of the Equality Budgeting Campaign, the network is holding a seminar on equality in economic policymaking on April 20th .
This article first appeared in the Irish Times, 12th April 2013
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