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Guest blog: Natasha Walter says we should acknowledge Margaret Thatcher's achievement in breaking the male domination of politics

(73 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 08-Apr-13 15:01:53

As you may already know, it's been announced that Margaret Thatcher died this morning, following a stroke.

MN Blogger Natasha Walter (author of 'The New Feminism' and 'Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism') argues that, whatever we may think of Thatcher's political legacy, we must acknowledge her astonishing achievement in becoming this country's first female prime minister.

"I agree with those who say that, even now, at the moment of her passing, we should not sanitise the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. But nor should we deny her achievements. As the outsider who pushed her way inside, as the woman in a man's world, she was a towering rebuke to those who believe women are unsuited to the pursuit and enjoyment of power.

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a book in which I said:

"Let's start with Margaret Thatcher. No British woman this century can come close to her achievements in grasping power. Someone of the wrong sex and the wrong class broke through what looked like invincible barriers to reach into the heart of the establishment. Women who complain that Margaret Thatcher was not a feminist because she didn't help other women or openly acknowledge her debt to feminism have a point, but they are also missing something vital. She normalised female success. She showed that although female power and masculine power may have different languages, different metaphors, different gestures, different traditions, different ways of being glamorous or nasty, they are equally strong, equally valid ? No one can ever question whether women are capable of single-minded vigour, of efficient leadership, after Margeret Thatcher. She is the great unsung heroine of British feminism."

Nothing I have ever written before or since has brought so much fury on my head. Obviously, Thatcher was no feminist: she had no interest in social equality, she knew nothing of female solidarity. I was always aware of that. I come from a radical Left-wing family; she was the target against which we raged. I was there on those Embrace the Base and Stop the City marches where we chanted so passionately against her: Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out Out Out!

This anger against her still feels fresh and real, and rightly so - because her legacy still lives on in the policies of the current government, their contempt for the public sector, their stigmatising of the poor. But I hope that her achievement in breaking through the male domination of politics can nevertheless continue to be recognised. And it really was her achievement; she was not a consensus politician or a coalition-builder. As Hugo Young said about her, "She did not want to be liked." That is unusual in women, but it was vital for her success.

Although I find it impossible to identify with Thatcher or sympathise with her, her extraordinary ability to walk that lonely path of power cannot be brushed aside. I think that those of us who grew up when she was running the country began to take it almost for granted that women could wield power - more, that women could relish power and mourn the passing of power.

That's a lesson I fear my daughter is growing up without ever learning. When she thinks of a powerful personage, she thinks naturally of a man in a grey suit; when we thought of a powerful personage, we thought also of a woman with a throaty voice and a string of pearls. I wonder when we will achieve the lasting change which will mean that the next powerful female leader in the UK is not a one-off... and I fear that change might still be a long time coming.

Natasha Walter is the author of 'The New Feminism' and 'Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism'

fossil971 Tue 09-Apr-13 13:10:22

As a girl growing up in Lincolnshire in the 1980s, also from a working class and state school background, I could not help but notice that somebody from a similar background to me had not only got into Oxford but pushed past the men in grey suits and got to the top of government. I have a successful career now in a profession that was once exclusively male, and I can't deny in some simplistic way she was a role model. As I grew older I came to fiercely disagree with her politics and what she stood for, but where are the role models for girls now? A woman has as much right to do a bad job of being prime minister as a man.

LeBFG Tue 09-Apr-13 13:14:12

Thatcher could have been a whole lot richer if she had pursued a career in the private sector - she was a barrister for a while. It made sense (Xenia-style thinking) that she give up her career as OH was earning more. She really was surprising given her background. Hardly anyone from the working classes were doing PhDs in that era...she undeniably worked herself out of the working classes.

Xenia Tue 09-Apr-13 13:26:35

Her father owned a shop so may be she was nearer middle class than some. It was hated shop owners whom the London youth saw as "rich" who were the targets of the London riots.

sieglinde Tue 09-Apr-13 14:16:33

Thanks Xenia - I was finding it weird that shop-owners are suddenly 'the working class'. I seriously doubt Alderman Roberts saw himself that way.

LEBFG, what she COULD have earned isn't the point. She chose to leave it to Dennis and inherited wealth.

Was she doing a D Phil? Really? I thought she just had a bog-standard BSc.

LeBFG Tue 09-Apr-13 14:42:11

Ah, so it seems on further wiki investigation - she studied Chemistry at Oxford and worked as a research scientist to develop mr whippy ice cream (I thought this was her doctorate). Still, pretty impressive for someone of her class. Whether this is working class or lower mc we can all agree that she wasn't born into the inherited wealth of the upper classes where she was to do battle in her professional life years later smile.

LeBFG Tue 09-Apr-13 14:46:48

Plus sieglinde it really is the point. One or the other had to sacrifice their career if one of them was pursue politics full time. It made sense for the higher earner (and I assume less politically talented) to remain in job for the other to pursue the power. It was a choice that Thatcher made and a choice very much open to her (i.e. to choose between making lots of dosh for herself or career in politics).

sillyoldfool Tue 09-Apr-13 14:54:25

she might not have been born into money, but she married into it.

FrillyMilly Tue 09-Apr-13 18:43:52

Yes she shows women that anythings possible as long as you have money and we can acknowledge that she broke in to a male dominated world but only by doing it the same way they do, this is not an option open to many women.

She was not working class, her father owned two shops and was the mayor of their town

FrillyMilly Tue 09-Apr-13 18:47:08

Can I just ask why a female monarch is a sign that gender is not a barrier? That's a position that's a womans by luck of birth and if she had a brother would not have been hers. It's not exactly something we can all works towards becoming.

Januarymadness Tue 09-Apr-13 19:14:36

Being Queen may be an accident of birth but the fact remains that the monarchy do have power and infuence. The Queen is a strong woman with visible independence. Queens throughout British history are something we can be proud of they oversaw the eras of most significant developments in history. As a child I was not aware of the ins and outs of monarchy or politics but I was aware that in my eyes women ruled the "world" (I know it wasn't the world but in a childs eyes you get what I mean)

Xenia Tue 09-Apr-13 21:17:37

Queen is important. To have a female monarch and a female PM was uniquely wonder and coming not so long after the Equal Pay Act 1970 was a wonderful culmination of women's improvement in their position which thankfully by and large has continued indeed even now when 60% of graduates are female, women earn more than men up to age 30 and we are moving to a situation where more and more women earn more than their husbands.

Whether people are of the left or the rights I would not most mumsnetters would want many more women moving to positions of power in the UK and encourage their own political parties and trade unions to promote more women. It is an issue over which left and right can come together and find common ground - that they object both to the villification of Lady Thatcher and Harriet Harman for example both of whom were subject to particular opprobrium simply because they were/are female.

AGiddyKipperInOneHand Tue 09-Apr-13 21:33:18

She may have gone to a state school, but it was a grammar school, and her out of school interests were playing the piano, swimming, field hockey. My Mum went to grammar school in the industrial North and they could barely afford a second hand uniform for her, she has never played a piano, and never been further than Sheffield before she was married.

Yes, there are more women in politics, law, medicine and other traditional professions, and we have teachers to thank for that. Thatcher had very little affect, in fact if anything while she was in power, other women were being held back. The conservative party were notably slow to even out opportunities for women compared to other parties after her as well. As she set such a domineering and divisive example, she was a contentious role model at best, as no one else had the privilege and backing she took for granted (mistakenly) as something she had earned and worked for.

K8Middleton Tue 09-Apr-13 21:43:03

I actually guffawed at the suggestion Mrs T dragged herself up from the lower classes. She was born middle class and married money. She also benefited from an age of social mobility that is now long gone.

I also agree with Bella and whoever made the comment about pulling the ladder up after herself.

Barbara Castle and lots of other women politicians of the time are far, far more inspirational than Maggie. I always thought she felt she had to over compensate for being a woman and went too far.

reallyyummymummy Tue 09-Apr-13 22:17:13

She may have relied on her husband's money to get her into politics but he did not make her prime minister - she did that by herself.

She definitely was not a feminist icon and didn't care to be. As a woman I think there is a lot to respect in her - her single mindedness and courage would be characteristics that I would appreciate in my children.

K8Middleton Tue 09-Apr-13 22:42:18

I'd prefer my dc to have a bit of humility myself but each to their own smile

swallowthree Tue 09-Apr-13 22:57:11

The Nationwide encounter with Diana Gould about the sinking of the Belgrano is a good example of two strong women debating. I know which one of these women is the better role model for my children. The one who was calmly telling the truth not the one blustering, bulldozing and as history has shown, lying. Single mindedness is not always admirable. And yes agree about Barbara Castle - architect of the equal pay act.

LeBFG Wed 10-Apr-13 08:26:39

Kate - social mobility now gone? I find that hard to believe - plenty of people from the lower classes go to university and get good jobs. Plenty of people marry money. In what way is the UK less socially mobile than in 40s and 50s Britain when MT went to uni, married and started her political career?

K8Middleton Wed 10-Apr-13 10:44:08

I didn't say it had gone. I said the age MT is a product of is long gone. Reports from OECD, Sutton Trust and the parliamentary committee tasked with investigating social mobility are all reporting that social mobility in the UK has stagnated somewhat.

sieglinde Wed 10-Apr-13 11:07:13

yummy, she was made PM by some silly old men who tried to use her as a stalking horse candidate for Willie Whitelaw. They discounted her because she was a woman. Very silly of them.

K8, agree; the grammars did promote social mobility on an enormous scale and in that respect have not been replaced.

swallowthree Wed 10-Apr-13 11:11:35

Even Edwina Curry commented that she pulled the ladder up behind her for other women. Just nonsense that she did anything for women.

LeBFG Wed 10-Apr-13 12:03:27

I feel it's a terribly sad thing the grammars have been (largely) removed and they did enable some to move socially. For everyone else who didn't pass the 11+ however, they were trapped. But let's just compare social mobility in the 40/50s with today. Even if mobility has stagnated, many more people have access to higher education and the upper earning echelons - we do, more or less, live in a meritocracy. MT was trying to make her career in the time before Mad Men fgs - inherited wealth and private education were the breeding grounds of the future earners and powerful. Correct me if I'm wrong.

mayajan Wed 10-Apr-13 12:10:23

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

Gherkinsmummy Wed 10-Apr-13 17:19:33

LeBFG, are you joking? Even the Torygraph reports that the UK is less socially mobile. The gap between rich and poor is widening, with the poor condemned to go to failing schools and to take on huge debt if they hope to go to university. Many sectors now expect you to do work experience and internships, easy to find if you are well connected and can afford not to earn any money. And housing - most young people can't begin to think about getting on the housing ladder or saving for a deposit.

Xenia Wed 10-Apr-13 18:49:53

The reality is that university costs the poor less so if they cannot do internet searches to check that perhaps they do not deserve university places. In some business areas like law internships are paid vacation schemes - if you are bright enough it is much easier now than it was 50 years ago.

However it is certainly currently a recession caused in some part by Labour's spend spend spend.

aftermay Wed 10-Apr-13 19:02:34

Xenia - will you never tire of hating the poor and pontificating about the past, the present and the future? Gah.

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