Saturday, 13 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher - feminist icon or devil incarnate?

White House Photo Office
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
So it finally happened - the Iron Lady breathed her last.

Maggie and me

I was/am a child of Thatcher - I was six months old when she became Prime Minister, and just passed my 12th birthday when she made that memorable good bye to Downing Street.

In our house, there was no worse insult than 'Conservative', and 'Maggie' symbolised all the evils of the world. For me, she was a towering eight-foot powerhouse of a woman, part Spitting Image doll, part political Hulk, synonymous with power, with Britain, with doing evil. I had no concept of any other prime minister - after all she had been the only one.

I remember the moment I was picked up from school and told that 'Maggie' was finally 'out'. Whilst being delighted that this monster was finally toppled, I couldn't conceive that the world might actually go on without her. I swung between disbelief and optimism about what this brave new Thatcherless world could hold.

Women at the top

Britain did manage to carry on without Thatcher at the helm, and it's been 24 years since then, but in all that time we've had no female leader - there's not even been anyone come close to leading any of the three main political parties.

Far from opening the gates to allow women into power, Thatcher seems to have been a single exception.

Was Thatcher a feminist?

By all accounts, Thatcher didn't consider herself a feminist and didn't have much truck with feminists, or for that matter, women. Only one woman made it into her cabinet (Baroness Young), perhaps because Thatcher felt herself better equipped to dominate men than women, and dominating was what she did best. 

But you don't have to be a feminist to be a feminist icon, in the same way that you don't have to be gay to be a gay icon (look at Marilyn Monroe). Whatever we think of Thatcher and her politics, as a woman she's one of the big achievers. 

We (the UK) have had female rulers before - Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, but they both inherited their positions, only because there weren't any suitably closely related men. Thatcher got there on her own merits. She wasn't even born into the ruling classes. The very fact that she managed to persuade one of the most conservative countries in the world to vote in a woman as prime minister, let alone getting the Tory party to accept her in the first place, is remarkable. And then stayed there for 11 and a half years. That's mind boggling. 

As a feminist (me not her), I might dislike her, but I have to admire her. She proved that you can be a woman and still get to the top. Or, to put it less positively, you don't have to have a cock to behave like one.

Hating Thatcher

This is easy and fun and I heartily recommend it. I'm not going to list the horrible things Thatcher did, there are plenty of places you can read about them. Nor am I buying a copy of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, although I appreciate the sentiment. I hate her more for the self-centred individualist ideology that she stood for, than for the individual things she's done (which I was quite young to comprehend), although many of them were hateful.

And if you disliked someone in life, I see no reason to go all soft and 'respecting the dead' on them once they're gone. The fact that we are no longer there to defend ourselves doesn't undo the wrongs we did. The comedian Mark Steel said this far better than me in the Independent: 'You can't just shut us up now that Margaret Thatcher's dead'.

It seems the Iron Lady's death is proving as controversial as her life. At a time when benefits are being cut so some of the poorest in our society are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, it's pretty disgusting that we're spending £8 million on her funeral. I'm not saying she shouldn't have a decent send off, but the living people who are struggling to get by should be the priority, not a dead woman, who may have been loved by half of the country, but was equally hated by the other half.

Hero or villain?

So what was Margaret Thatcher - the ultimate female pioneer, or a friend to oppressive regimes (apartheid and Pinochet), who thought nothing of bringing crushing unemployment onto the very people she was elected to serve? Feminist icon or devil incarnate? Both, if you ask me.

No matter how anti-feminist she was, she will  always have a place in history as the woman who got there first. Even if you say she did it like a man, she did it as a woman, and we can't forget that. Just bring on the next female leader so we can prove that other women can do it too - and maybe next time they'll take a few of us with them.

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