Margaret Thatcher has been all over the news, social media, and my group chats of late owing to the new series of the Crown.
Growing up in Scotland, Thatcher was virtually a swear word. Like all Scots, I was raised to detest Thatcher and everything she stood for. She famously hated the Scots, and the feeling was definitely mutual. However, apart from the miners strikes (which I knew largely from my favourite film, Billy Elliot)and the fact that she was the first female prime minister of the UK, I knew shockingly little about her policies, personal life, or why she became the most controversial prime minister in British history. Whether you love her or hate her, she undoubtedly made, and changed, history. Her recent portrayal by Gillian Anderson in The Crown has left many confused about whether to feel sympathy or resentment towards her, so I thought now would be a good time to delve into this complex figure. Thatcher was a walking paradox – she was resolutely anti-feminist yet paved the way for future generations of women to enter British politics. I’ve always been wary of tackling this formidable figure, but now seems like the perfect opportunity to explore the truth behind the real Iron Lady who managed to simultaneously be a feminist icon and one of the most hated prime ministers in British history.
“Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important although difficult is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.”
Baroness Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts; 1925 – 2013) was Britain – and Europe’s – first female prime minister. Serving as leader of the Conservative (Tory) Party from 1975 and becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 until 1990. She was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century. Her ruthless policies earned her the nickname “The Iron Lady”.
Reactions to the news of Thatcher’s death in 2013 were mixed across the UK, ranging from tributes lauding her as Britain’s greatest-ever peacetime prime minister to public celebrations of her death and expressions of hatred and personalised vitriol. Thatcher received a ceremonial funeral, including full military honours, with a church service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attended her funeral, marking only the second time in the Queen’s reign that she attended the funeral of any of her former prime ministers; the first and only precedent being that of Winston Churchill, who received a state funeral in 1965. This suggests the respect that the Queen had for Maggie, despite their apparent differences.
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Decades later, Thatcher’s reign remains one of the most controversial in British history. Many have highlighted the economic success during her tenure. For example, the number of adults owning shares rose from 7 to 25% and more than a million families bought their council houses, giving an increase from 55 per cent to 67 per cent in owner occupiers from 1979 to 1990. The houses were sold at a discount of 33–55 per cent, leading to large profits for some new owners. Personal wealth rose by 80 per cent in real terms during the 1980s, mainly due to rising house prices and increased earnings. Shares in the privatised utilities were sold below their market value to ensure quick and wide sales, rather than maximise national income. Her laissez-faire approach to state welfare also remains popular among critics of the “nanny state”, which remains a popular condemnation of Labour policies.
Thatcher remains the longest-serving Prime Minister, and having led the Conservative Party to victory in three consecutive general elections, twice in a landslide, she ranks among the most popular party leaders in British history in terms of votes cast for the winning party.
Thus, despite her relatively poor average approval rating as prime minister, Thatcher has since ranked highly in retrospective opinion polling and, according to YouGov, is “see[n] in overall positive terms” by the British public.
However, it is also true that the “Thatcher years” were marked by periods of high unemployment and social unrest, and many critics on the left of the political spectrum fault her economic policies for the unemployment level. It is evident that many of the areas affected by mass unemployment as well as her monetarist economic policies remained blighted for decades, by such social problems as drug abuse, rising crime, and family breakdowns. Unemployment did not fall below its May 1979 level during her tenure, only marginally falling below its April 1979 level in 1990. The long-term effects of her policies on manufacturing remain contentious. Nonetheless, Thatcher insisted she had no regrets and was right to introduce the “poll tax” and withdraw subsidies from “outdated industries, whose markets were in terminal decline”, subsidies that created “the culture of dependency, which had done such damage to Britain”.
Her stance on immigration in the late 1970s was perceived as part of a rising racist public discourse. She feared that the rising support for the National Front was a threat to Conservative majority, and thus played on racial tensions in order to entice far-right supporters to vote Tory. Thus, she sought to undermine the NF narrative by acknowledging that many of their voters had serious concerns in need of addressing. In 1978 she criticised Labour immigration policy. These tactics worked and her rhetoric was followed by an increase in Conservative support at the expense of the NF. Critics on the left accused her of pandering to racism. Given the Islamophobia which is rife in the Tory party today, I would argue that this is one of Thatcher’s unfortunate (to say the least) legacies.
Critics on the left continue to describe her as divisive and claim she condoned greed and selfishness, was an enemy to the working classes, and left wounds in British society which have never healed.
“Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”
However, perhaps most interesting is the question of whether or not Thatcher should be regarded as a feminist icon.
Undoubtedly, Thatcher made history by becoming the first female PM in European history. She herself believed that this was a feat that would not be accomplished in her life time, so that she managed to defeat not only the misogyny of society but the sexism and opposition she faced from her own party is admirable. There is an argument to be made that much of her “Iron Lady” persona was a mask which she felt forced to wear in order to dispel notions that women were too compassionate or emotional to be political rulers. That it would be decades until another woman would follow in her footsteps (and much less successfully) show that it was in no way inevitable that she could rise to the most important job in the UK, and this can only have served as a role model for young women who dreamed of making a difference to their society.
Nonetheless, Thatcher did “little to advance the political cause of women” either within her party or the government. Historians have noted that, although Thatcher had struggled laboriously against the sexist prejudices of her day to rise to the top, she made no effort to ease the path for other women – “pulling the ladder up behind her” as many have suggested. Thatcher did not regard women’s rights as requiring particular attention as she did not, especially during her premiership, consider that women were being deprived of their rights. She had once suggested the shortlisting of women by default for all public appointments, yet had also proposed that those with young children ought to leave the work force. She made much of emphasising that her role as wife and mother was more important than her job.
The writer of The Crown, Peter Morgan, spoke on the official podcast of his difficulty in portraying Thatcher as a feminist icon. I’m going to quote him here in full, because I think it highlights the confliction one feels in approaching Thatcher with a feminist lens:
‘She’s an interesting case because she did things that make her a feminist icon and yet she had absolutely no time or regard for women in a professional way so she was anything but a sister! And yet, the way in which she overcame the boys-club, patronising, contempt – a great deal of her political challenges came from old men within her own cabinet who were both contemptuous of her gender and of her background – and her ability to see them off makes her a feminist heroine. And yet, her attitude to women – y’know no sooner would be she be a feminist icon and then she’d be scuttling off home to make sure she’d ironed her husband’s shirts or bringing him breakfast in bed….If you went anywhere in the world…Margaret Thatcher was those two words “Mrs Thatcher”.’
It seems that Thatcher is destined to remain a contentious figure of British history, but make history she certainly did. It seems that in public memory, she has retained her figure of feminist icon: In 2015 she topped a poll by Scottish Widows, of the most influential woman of the past 200 years; and in 2016 topped BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Power List of women judged to have had the biggest impact on female lives over the past 70 years. In 2020, Time magazine included Thatcher’s name on its list of 100 Women of the Year. She was chosen as the Woman of the Year 1982, the year in which the Falklands War began under her command and resulted in the British victory. As a politican, Thatcher has been similarly applauded posthumously: she ranked highest among living persons in the 2002 BBC poll 100 Greatest Britons and in 1999, Time deemed her one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
“If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Thus, Thatcher’s feminist legacy remains a mirky water. While many would rather disassociate her rule with feminism owing to the controversial nature of her reign, others uphold her as breaking the glass ceiling and smashing the stereotypes and discrimination of her time to outshine the traditional male elite. Personally, I think that it is important for feminism to acknowledge that bad eggs as much as the good ones. No one considers controversial male politicians as an example of why men should no longer rule – the same should apply for Thatcher. Rather than end with my own opinion of The Iron Lady, I want to end with the words of historian John Campbell (2011, 499), as I feel that they best sum up this complex, controversial, and colossal woman of British history and her lasting legacy on the UK and it’s memory:
“Margaret Thatcher was not merely the first woman and the longest-serving Prime Minister of modern times, but the most admired, most hated, most idolised and most vilified public figure of the second half of the twentieth century. To some she was the saviour of her country who … created a vigorous enterprise economy which twenty years later was still outperforming the more regulated economies of the Continent. To others, she was a narrow ideologue whose hard-faced policies legitimised greed, deliberately increased inequality… and destroyed the nation’s sense of solidarity and civic pride. There is no reconciling these views: yet both are true.”