IN 1982, the year Margaret Thatcher took Britain to war with Argentina, she declared victory in another conflict. “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won,” she said in a speech entitled Women In A Changing World.
“The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some women’s libbers.”
When it came to her relationship with women, Thatcher represented the ultimate paradox. She was the most powerful woman in Britain in an age where female politicians, chief executives and industry chiefs were thin on the ground. Yet she had little time for those who campaigned on equality for women and did little to advance their cause during her years in power.
As prime minister, she allowed just one other woman into the Cabinet – Janet Young, leader of the Lords between 1981 and 1983 – leaving other female talents such as Lynda Chalker languishing in junior posts.
Despite declaring early on in her career that women should be able to work, she did not endear herself to the nation’s mothers as prime minister, freezing child benefit, taking their children’s milk away and refusing to invest in affordable childcare because it encouraged working mothers to raise a “crèche generation”.
She had few female friends or influences. She idolised Alfred, her grocer father, crediting him in her memoirs for inspiring her career, yet demoted the women in her life, her mother Beatrice and sister Muriel, to bit parts.
And while she was a devoted mother to twins Mark and Carol, she was also a man’s woman, never more comfortable than when surrounded by obsequious and flirtatious courtiers ready to do her bidding.
A famous Spitting Image sketch, in which she takes her all-male Cabinet for dinner, orders steak and, when the waitress asks “what about the vegetables?” replies, “Oh, they’ll have the same as me”, was perhaps rather close to the bone. The only woman to which she had to defer, the Queen, apparently described her as “a bit of a frost”.
Yet when it suited her, Thatcher would play upon her female status. There was the very deliberate use of the feminine article in the famous one-liner “the lady’s not for turning”, that handbag, which she wielded like a powerful yet ladylike weapon, and the use of her married name in professional life, always prefixed with the title “Mrs”.
In recent years, women have remained split on whether she furthered or damaged the cause for equality. In 1997 Geri Halliwell anointed Thatcher “the first Spice Girl”, yet Labour politician Patricia Hewitt said in 2005 that despite being our first woman prime minister, “she did so much to undermine the position of women in society”.
But by becoming Britain’s first female prime minister, Thatcher blazed a trail for every female politician who came after her. The generation of female politicians emerging today grew up in a country where a woman leader was the norm. Simply by doing the job, she proved it could be done. And for that, every woman should be grateful.