In the midst of all the Facebook statuses about Swarthmore’s own controversies, opinions on Margaret Thatcher’s role as a politician and a woman made a brief appearance on my news feed as word of her passing spread. The Iron Lady was a remarkably divisive political personality for her controversial politics and her status as Britain’s first, and to date only, female prime minister. While many in Britain have celebrated her death with parties and jokes about privatization and free milk, others have taken the opportunity to acknowledge and applaud the woman who broke through the glass ceiling and forged a significant political career for herself. What we choose to stress about Thatcher’s legacy is entirely our own choice, but in our scramble to label her either a terrible politician, or a feminist icon or even an anti-feminist woman who ought to be thoroughly derided, we draw crooked, fuzzy lines between the individual, her status as a female leader and her politics.
As many have already said and countless historians will recount in boring textbooks for years to come, Margaret Thatcher broke through class and gender barriers to make a place for herself in Britain’s highly patriarchal political structure. If we stop the story here, her professional success in the face of economic and gendered disadvantages is commendable and aspirational. Observing a woman as prime minister in 10 Downing Street probably inspired countless little girls to be politicians. For women and men everywhere, Thatcher’s political success normalized the idea of having women in powerful positions and reinforced the notion that women can do all the things that men can. However, what Thatcher did during her stint as prime minister mars the story of her personal success considerably. The Conservative politician introduced harsh measures for privatization, shut down coal factories rendering many jobless and strapped for cash, reduced milk subsidies and declared herself anything but a feminist. Arguably, she did not turn out to be a good politician or leader. Most were glad to see her off when she finally left office as a widely hated politician. Her political life may not be an admirable one, depending on your personal political views, but that does not necessarily have to detract from the achievement of how far this woman made it professionally. Acknowledging one positive aspect of her does not lead to an inherent endorsement about other aspects of her that we may disagree with.
Did Margaret Thatcher make it easier for other women to enter the political arena or promote gender equality through her position? She was infamously averse to the term ‘feminist’ and all that the label entailed, like instituting measures for gender equality. But did the simple fact of having a woman as prime minister improve the prospects of other female politicians? An optimist could argue that just having a woman be prime minister was a large step forward in the array of professional possibilities for women. But what of the quality of leadership that said woman provided? The idea of women as leaders would probably have more legitimacy in people’s eyes if they had the example of a female leader who wasn’t just successful in reaching the post but commendably handled the post too.
Britain has not had a female prime minister since, and one has to wonder if old Maggie’s questionable and divisive legacy did more harm than good for other aspiring female politicians. If we laud Thatcher for managing to rise through the ranks as a “female politician”, it does not mean that her ability to execute the job of a politician was contingent on her gender. But this is a carefully made distinction that is hard to emphasize in a world ready to slot a successful woman as a “feminist icon” or “female politician” and not simply an individual who happens to be a woman and overcame obstacles to reach professional success. Yes, we need more women to look up to but not every successful woman is willing to be an inspirational figure for other women.
Thatcher isn’t alone in this category of prominent female leaders. An interesting example of a female political leader whose legacy is still unset is Angela Merkel. The German chancellor is arguably the most important person in the European Union right now and largely responsible for handling the Euro Crisis. Curiously enough, she does not choose to identify as a feminist either and by her own admission does not fight for women’s rights. Yet, one cannot discount the fact that she is one of the most powerful and influential people in the world and not many women are. When the Euro Crisis has concluded in one way or another, will we think of Merkel as the example of a successful female politician or a Thatcher-esque entity that played a large role in the European Union’s miserable attempts to fix itself? Will her success actually make it easier for women in German politics or will her failure be marked as that of a misguided leader?
Maybe this is why women like Thatcher and Merkel distanced themselves from the political connotations of feminism. They would much rather be perceived and judged as individuals and politicians rather than stress their sex and the limitations that can sometimes come along with it. When talking about a politician we can talk about their personal selves and their political or professional selves but in the case of a female politician or leader, we should think of gender as a component of the individual, the position of a female leader and professional prowess of the person as separate categories. Margaret Thatcher was a successful woman, but a poor female icon and politician.