Was Thatcher A Feminist?


Meryl Streep has a knack for accents. She also has a knack for humanising the characters she performs. In the case of The Iron Lady, Streep’s Oscar-winning performance casts a rosy glow over the record of Margaret Thatcher that not even the few clips of police brutality in the movie can displace.

As Boris Johnson, the Tory mayor of London, noted of the film, "Nothing and no one has done more, in the 22 years since she was kicked out of office, to rehabilitate Margaret Thatcher. As anyone who has been on the BBC’s Question Time will know, you only have to mention her name and you will come under a fusillade of boos. Not any more, I suspect; or not so much — not after this film."

Streep welcomed the challenge of the role, telling USA Today: "There’s no part like this because there’s no woman like this. I’m going to turn that down because I don’t like her politics? My God … Part of what interested me about this whole thing was seeing why we are so uncomfortable on a certain level with women leaders and with their male partners feeling diminished. It’s an interesting thing for us to contemplate."

But Streep didn’t just contemplate the difficulty of playing a powerful woman. She also decided to salvage her choice by declaring that Margaret Thatcher is or was a "feminist".

The question is not whether Streep is correct or not in making this claim (she isn’t), but why anybody would bother making it in the first place.

Thatcher disdained any such association with feminism. Her advisor Paul Johnson wrote in The Spectator of 12 March 2011 about a conversation he had with Thatcher in which she said, "The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison."

Johnson went on to provide this rather amusing explanation of Thatcher’s hatred of the mysterious band entitled "the feminists": "They hated her successful power-dressing, her extraordinary skill in keeping the hairdo impeccable during the longest and most stressful day (such a contrast to the pathetic Shirley Williams) and her ruthless use of female allure to get her ends."

It is true that Thatcher made some interesting uses of "female allure" to get her ends. For example, Christopher Hitchens in a 1997 article in the Independent Women’s Forum told in florid terms of an incident in the late 1970s in the House of Lords Rosebery Room (as you do), when he had a disagreement with Thatcher about Rhodesia:

"Did I imagine it, or did she recognize the name of the scribe [Hitchens means himself] who had hymned her feminine allure? At once we were embroiled in an argument on the subject of racism and decolonization. I was (I only mention it) correct on my facts as well as my principles. She was lousy on both. But what a bonny fighter! She wouldn’t give an inch. I found myself conceding her a trivial point, and bowing as I did so. She smiled.

"’Bow lower,’ she said.

"Suddenly robbed of volition, I complied.

‘No – much lower.’

"By now near to drowning in complicity and subjection, I obeyed.

"She withdrew from behind her back a rolled-up copy of the Parliamentary orders of the day, and she gave me a sound smack before I could — how does one put this? — straighten up. I regained the perpendicular in some blushful confusion and difficulty, to see her swing away and look over her shoulder, the words ‘naughty boy’ floating over me in my near trance-like state, as the journo witnesses closed in to say, ‘What was that all about?’ I told them they would never understand, and — what do you know — they never did."

I am not sure that compliance with "feminine allure" is the most appropriate way to capture the kind of sycophantic masochism that delights in being called "naughty boy" after being hit with the parliamentary orders. But there is certainly nothing particularly feminist about getting one’s "ends" in this way.

Thatcher distanced herself as much and as often as possible from feminism and feminists, as her daughter Carol wrote in a memoir of her mother. It is unclear if Thatcher even thought of herself as a woman in any important sense. "I don’t think of myself as the first woman Prime Minister," she said after the 1979 election.

Thatcher’s outright hostility to the very idea makes it difficult to see how the question even arises whether she is a feminist or, as she might put it, "a woman’s libber". Streep explained her claim at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival by saying that she had discovered she had a lot in common with Thatcher, and indeed that "We all have a lot more in common with Margaret Thatcher than we care to admit".

Streep said that in her view, Thatcher "would have been kicking and screaming the entire way to the feminist altar, but she was a feminist, whether she likes it or not". According to Streep, the evidence for this is that Thatcher, unlike the right-wing in America, was (allegedly) pro-choice and once told President Reagan that he should not use abortion as a tool of international politics.

Thatcher’s allegedly pro-choice stance has also been cited by writers like Anne Summers, who argues that the "shrieks" (because that’s what feminists do) when Thatcher is called a feminist are misplaced. Summers argues for the centrality to feminism of the "ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility". On these criteria, Summers argues like Streep that Thatcher was a feminist — in spite of herself.

But again there is simply no evidence that Thatcher set out to foster the ability of British women to support themselves. There was no support, only derision, for the wives and daughters of miners in the course of Thatcher’s ferocious attack on the working class, its associations and its rights. There is no evidence that Thatcher fostered the ability of the widows of the Falklands to support themselves (remember Denis Thatcher’s defence in 1983 of his wife as having been "stitched up by bloody BBC poofs and Trots" after her unrepentant justification of the Falklands War).

And in regard to abortion, there is not much to show that Thatcher supported "the right to control one’s fertility". Streep’s Reagan anecdote seems to have come from a friend of a friend, and its significance is unclear. Thatcher’s Wikipedia entry claims that Thatcher consistently voted for liberal abortion laws, and perhaps that entry is the source for the view that Thatcher supported abortion access.

Thatcher voted for David Steel’s 1967 abortion reform bill, but then so did many others in parliament, on both sides of politics. Some of those voted for the measure on feminist grounds, some voted on eugenics grounds, some voted to give more certainty to the medical profession.

It is not clear why Thatcher voted as she did because she did not speak in the debate, but there is no evidence of her vote being on the ground of "the right to control one’s fertility". Thatcher did not speak in the debates on private member’s bills seeking to amend the Abortion Act in 1967, 1975, 1977 or 1979, and for the majority of the votes in those years, she was either absent or abstained.

The case for Thatcher’s feminism is a cloud of smoke. Until any better evidence emerges, I’ll continue to launch a fusillade of boos at the mention of her name, or any other aspect of Thatcherama. There is no reason on feminist grounds to be sympathetic to the woman, her power or her policies, only to those who were hurt through those long years.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.