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Column: Margaret Thatcher, a feminist icon? She certainly wouldn’t have called herself one

Margaret Thatcher normalised female success, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that women were unsuited to the pursuit of power, but mechanisms, such as electoral gender quotas would have been anathema to her, writes Margaret O’Keefe.

Margaret O'Keeffe

BIOEPIC, THE IRON Lady, depicts the late Margaret Thatcher as a feminist icon. But was she? Natasha Walter, co-founder of Women for Refugee Women and author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and the New Feminism, writes that Thatcher is a figure that feminists would be foolish to dismiss. She concedes that Mrs Thatcher was no feminist, with no interest in social equality and knew nothing of female solidarity. Walter, however, believes that Margaret Thatcher normalised female success, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that women were unsuited to the pursuit of power.

Women in Irish political life

In Ireland, elected female representatives, let alone female political leaders, remain a rarity. Currently, just 25 TDs, 15 per cent of the Dáil are women. This statistic places Ireland in 89th position in a global league table for the percentage of women in politics.  The 5050 Group was founded in September 2010 to campaign for electoral quotas in a bid to address the gross under representation of women in Irish political life. We believe that as a principle of democracy, the composition of the Oireachtas and other elected bodies need to reflect population diversity.

Mrs Thatcher’s view on the centrality of the individual, rather than society, was shaped by the work of FA Hayek. Hayek had sought to develop attempts to establish a systematic political philosophy on behalf of free market economics and individual liberty. Hayek’s political perspective as to the primacy of the individual over society was implicitly articulated by Margaret Thatcher in an interview with Women‘s Own magazine in 1987, when she (in) famously remarked that:

there is no such thing as society.  There are individual men and women, and there are families.

We have much in common

Curiously, she and I would have had much in common. Like Mrs Thatcher, I believe that nothing can be achieved without hard work. Like her, I also believe that if you think you are right you have to fight to the end to succeed. While speculative, and despite these commonalities, I doubt that Mrs Thatcher would have shared my, albeit reluctant, support for electoral quotas.

For unlike, Mrs Thatcher, I believe that there is such a thing as society. Thus, like many other men and women, I believe that the lack of women in public life is an issue which needs to be addressed at the societal, rather than at the individual level.

In contrast, given her attachment to Hayek’s belief in the primacy of the individual, Margaret Thatcher may have claimed that a woman in politics may succeed solely on merit. She might say, after all, she certainly did. As ‘the grocer’s daughter’, she breached both class and gender barriers to lead a Tory Party substantially grounded in ‘old money’ and historical privilege. Arguably then, mechanisms, such as electoral quotas, which help to even out an uneven playing field, would have been anathema to her.

Demonising Thatcher

Thus, it is easy to demonise Mrs Thatcher as an anti-feminist. Indeed, I have wondered if the breadth and depth of hostility often directed at her is in reality a form of unconscious sexism. Ian McEwan writes “in retrospect, in much dissenting commentary there was often a taint of unexamined sexism”.

Furthermore, in privileging individualism at the expense of the societal, Mrs Thatcher failed to see that not everybody, notwithstanding their ability, effort and hard work, has an equal chance to succeed in politics or indeed in any other social or economic domain. Every day in Ireland, women and men because of their class background, ethnicity, religion and/or sexual orientation face an ongoing struggle to succeed in a highly competitive labour market. They may even experience naked discrimination and prejudice. In sum, Mrs Thatcher failed to grasp the saliency of structural inequalities which act as barriers to individual self-realisation and career success.

Pervasive structural inequalities have different and additional implications for female advancement, as women tend to experience particular gender and class, alongside other barriers. Furthermore, Thatcher’s refusal to see that society does matter, that interdependence, i.e. that we all depend on each other, is key to a functioning, healthy society was also profoundly damaging. The notion of the autonomous, rational individual maximising his/her success in the labour market became an archetype for this historical period, as exemplified by Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character. Indeed, Brian Reade claims that Thatcher’s economic legacy created a generation raised on a creed of greed.

Stunning electoral success

In addition, it is easy to forget that Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s prime minister for more than a decade from 1979 to 1990, a total of 11 years. In essence, she enjoyed stunning electoral success. This level of success infers that many people in Britain, including many from the British working class – both men and women – shared and supported Thatcherite policies.

That is cold comfort, however, to those people living in communities, such as the south Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil and other communities in the north east of England, fragmented and impoverished as a consequence of free market economics.

In Ireland, we have embraced a close relation of Thatcherism – Austerity. The opposite of austerity policies are progressive economic policies, premised on social and economic equality. These policies are also underpinned by an authentic social solidarity, rather than self-serving appeals by elites to solidarity and patriotism. Progressive economic policies aim to support the weakest in society; they privilege poverty proofing and gender proofing. Thus, they privilege people over the economy. Instead, we live with economic policies which protect the powerful and economically insulated.

Undermining hard fought for equality gains

While we may abhor Thatcherism, the reality is that support for free market policies is increasingly evident. Ultimately, these policies undermine hard fought for equality gains, not just for women but for all who may fail to succeed in what is often a harsh environment, where the strong prevail and the weak flounder.

As citizens of a Republic, in one of the world’s richest countries, surely we can create a better future than that which is currently on offer?  Yes, we can do better!

PICS: Signs of Thatcher: loved and hated in life and death>

Thatcher: “You can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars”>

Margaret O’Keefe is a lecturer in Community Development at Cork Institute of Technology. She is a member of the 5050 Group – an organisation that are looking to achieve gender parity in Irish politics by the year 2020.

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Margaret O'Keeffe

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