How Margaret Thatcher Advanced Women's Liberation

Feminists should celebrate the iconic British leader.


As Margaret Thatcher is laid to rest and the world continues to take stock of her life, the inevitable questions arise that would have no counterpart for a male leader: What did Thatcher and her legacy mean for women and for feminism? There was little love lost between the Iron Lady and the "Women's Libbers," as she called them. But if liberation means pursuing one's own path regardless of others' notions of what women should be, then Britain's former Prime Minister was one of the great liberated women of the 20th century—one who defied both traditional and feminist prescriptions.

Some feminist commentators have dismissed Thatcher as the type of high-achieving woman who has no interest in challenging gender inequality but sees herself as an exception, an honorary man. But that is simply not true. In February 1952, Thatcher—then a 26-year-old aspiring politician—wrote an article for a popular tabloid, The Sunday Graphic, expressing the hope that Elizabeth II's recent ascension as Queen of England would "help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places" and usher in a new era for women. Deploring the "mistaken" idea that the family suffers when women combine marriage and motherhood with careers outside the home, she cited the inspiring examples of outstanding women in various fields—and warned that unless female success becomes more common, "we shall have betrayed the tremendous work of those who fought for equal rights."  This call to action was titled, "Wake Up, Women."

Other little-known facts in Thatcher's biography also demonstrate that she did not avoid identifying with women. At Oxford, where she studied chemistry, she spent a year doing lab work under a trailblazing female scientist—Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, future Nobel Prize winner. Despite their political differences, Thatcher regarded Hodgkin as her mentor and later had her portrait installed at 10 Downing Street.

As a politician, Thatcher did not focus on "women's issues"—partly because, notes historian Amanda Foreman, she had to avoid being pigeonholed into a female political ghetto. (Because of that, Foreman says, she gave up her early effort while in Parliament to change the tax code to incorporate the costs of child care.) However, she always supported abortion rights, saying that "one of the worst things anyone can do in this world is to bring an unwanted child into it," and generally strongly believed that the government should not play Big Brother on social issues. In 1988, angering traditionalists in the Anglican Church, she spoke out in favor of women's ordination to the priesthood. She also angered feminists by warning against a generation of "crèche" (day care) children; her issue, however, was not with working mothers but with government programs that she was convinced had grown so large as to threaten liberty.

Left-wing British journalist Fiona Millar asserts that it was the Labor Party, not the conservative Thatcher, that advanced women's cause by promoting government-mandated paid maternity leave. Yet there is evidence that overly generous "family-friendly" policies can trap women on the mommy track and make them less desirable employees, and thus be less conducive to dismantling gender inequality in the marketplace than the American-style individualism Thatcher championed. Another leftist female journalist who makes no secret of "hating" Thatcher even while conceding that she broadened horizons for women, Zoe Williams, concedes that Thatcher's relentless assault on the power of labor unions—bastions of traditional working-class manhood—likely facilitated and sped up women's entry into the labor force.

Williams also cavils that Thatcher "had no interest in peace, or sundry other matters that might be considered 'feminine.'" The irony, of course, is that such definitions of "the feminine" rest on the very stereotypes the women's movement ostensibly challenged. Yet even as Thatcher set an unprecedented example of female leadership, many feminists were taking the view that women in politics should bring "feminine" values and qualities into the public sphere. That meant stressing mutual care rather than self-reliance, emphasizing "need" rather than justice, and seeking peace and compromise rather than asserting strength. 

Thatcher's refusal to conform to such neo-traditional stereotypes would likely have earned her the wrath of the sisterhood even if she had been more outspoken on behalf of women's rights. Member of Parliament and former actress Glenda Jackson caused a stir recently when, during a tribute to Thatcher in the House of Commons, she not only assailed the late premier's "heinous" legacy but questioned her female identity, saying that women of the World War II generation would not have seen their ideas of "womanliness" in Thatcher: "The first Prime Minister of female gender, OK. But a woman? Not on my terms."

This suggestion that conservative women are somehow "not real women" is not a new thing on the left. It is a bizarre permutation of the more old-fashioned misogyny that denies a woman's femaleness if she is too ambitious or outspoken, or insufficiently maternal.

Meanwhile, conservatives who salute Thatcher often downplay the extent to which she broke traditional molds of femininity. She was a woman who wrote, all the way back in 1952, that a woman could have children and resume her career after a short break. In 1991, six months after leaving office, she was quoted as saying, "Home is where you come to when you've got nothing better to do." 

Margaret Thatcher refused to be the angel of the hearth; she also refused to be the angel of the giant nursery of the welfare state. In the end, she is being judged by her ideas and achievements that mattered for all humanity regardless of gender. That's women's liberation.

This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.