In 2011, the film, “The Iron Lady,” directed and written by and starring a woman, reignited longstanding controversy about Britain’s first female prime minister. Once again feminists wondered what to make of her and the social and print media went wild with debate. On the one hand, Margaret or Maggie Thatcher was one of the very few women at that time to head a major government. In fact she won three majorities, stamped her style of forceful leadership on Britain, and maintained her own in relations with Republican President Ronald Reagan of the United States and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada. For decades, this talented daughter of a grocer kept a club of smug upper-class Tory males at bay and proved in economic policy and much else that, as she said, the “lady’s not for turning.” On the other hand, despite an Oxford degree in Chemistry at Somerville College working with a future female Nobel prize-winner, Dorothy Hodgkin, and a first cabinet ministership, obtained only because of longstanding feminist campaigns, she was famous or notorious for saying “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib” and “the battle for women’s rights has been largely won.” Also problematic from the perspective of many feminists was her war on British trade unions, notably the miners, and with Argentina over the Falklands. Neither other political women nor women’s rights in general benefited in obvious ways from any of her administrations (Bashevkin). Is it correct to say, as did one unidentified male historian in 2002, that “Mrs. Thatcher is not a woman” (Ribberink)? The partisanship she still generates makes assessment difficult. Feminist theorist Mary Eagleton helps us, however, in emphasizing the “distinction between ‘being’ a feminist (which Margaret Thatcher clearly is not) and producing feminist effects (which Margaret Thatcher—inadvertently, unwillingly and in restricted areas—has done).” While acknowledging Thatcher’s “anti-feminist effects, not to mention lots of policies that adversely impacted on women,” she rightly concludes “it is still the case that simply to name women is … a feminist gesture”(154). Both misogynous and feminist observers understood full well that a woman, in fact an “Iron Lady,” as the Russians dubbed her, at the helm of state mattered, albeit not always in the ways they preferred. If we are to understand Margaret Thatcher, we need to ask more nuanced questions, just like the careful interpretation offered by American actress and feminist Meryl Streep. Dutch scholar Anneke Ribberink who describes how Thatcher tried “to make herself invisible—through perfection” and to appear “tough” by “staying away from women’s issues in 1960s” provides a good beginning. By the time Thatcher came to power in 1979, she had perfected a style of “gender-bending” that confused opponents and opened restricted space in the national imagination and in politics. In that sense, she became the modern embodiment of Britain’s great Queen Elizabeth who famously said in visiting her troops before they fought the Spanish Armada in 1588, “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king.”
Resources & Further Reading
Bashevkin, Sylvia. 1998. Women on the Defensive: Living Through Conservative Times. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Eagleton, Mary. 2003. “Literature” in M. Eagleton, ed. . A Concise Companion to Feminist Theory. Malden: MA: Blackwell Publishing. 153-172.
Henig, Ruth and Simon. 2001. Women and political power. Europe since 1945. London: Routledge.
Lewis, Jane. 1994. Women in Britain since 1945. Women, Family, Work and the State in the Post-War Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
“Margaret Thatcher: a feminist icon?”/ 2012. The Women’s Blog with Jane Martinson Jan. 5. The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2012/jan/05/margaret-thatcher-feminist-icon
Nunn, Heather. 2002. Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy. The Political Culture of Gender and Nation, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Pilcher, Jane. 1995. “The Gender Significance of Women in Power: British Women Talking about Margaret Thatcher”. The European Journal of Women’s Studies. November. 493-508.
Pugh, Martin. 2000. Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain, 1914-1999. 2nd Edition. London: Macmillan Press Ltd..
Ribberink, Anneke. 2010. “Gender Politics with Margaret Thatcher: Vulnerability and Toughness,” Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies Issue 30.
Ribberink, Anneke. 2005. “‘I don’t think of myself as the first woman Prime Minister’: Gender, Identity and Image in Margaret Thatcher’s Career”. In R. Toye and J. Gottlieb (ed.), Making Reputations. Power, Persuasion and the Individual in Modern British Politics. London: IB Tauris. 166-179.
Thatcher, Margaret. The Downing Years: Memoirs of the Premiership, 1979-90 (1993) and The Path to Power: Memoirs 1925-79 (1995); Statecraft: Reflections on International Affairs (2002).