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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'

Xenia Fri 12-Apr-13 22:21:05

Yes, I used to save up my meagre pocket money to score the second hand music shop in a market to buy old scores. I had about two cassettes only in my music collection as no money to buy them. Now you can go on youtube if you can afford a computer or a phone with the internet and listen to just about any classical music you want and read and read about just about anything and yes plenty of children and teenagers do learn a lot through that route, but perhaps not as many as might.

sieglinde Fri 12-Apr-13 17:57:53

Yes, Xenia, I too puzzle over where all that aspiration went. But I do think culture is much more available now than it was in my childhood - the internet is a godsend - so it's odd that people don't avail themselves of it more. Though for all I know, they do - you'd need quite a sophisticated study to find out.

ParsleyTheLioness Fri 12-Apr-13 16:56:42

Whatever you might think of her politics, would the response to her death have been different if she were a man?

Xenia Fri 12-Apr-13 15:19:27

Yes, and it seems to be lost which is a shame. It was the cultural and intellectual capital of my parents (and probably my father's father although he died before I was born) which was the bigger legacy, much more than the education they bought or the fact we got central heating put into the house in due course when I was a child.

So why did it go because of TV? Why did I spend my teens at the piano and singing and composing and reading? There were televisions when I was a child. Surely the hope is not for money. The hope is of betterment to know that if you can sing or read or whatever the "cultural" activity might be that you will have that skill and pleasure for life - or so I hope for my children, not necessarily that they are rich although I do not want them to have a hard time if I can help it, but that they learn at home and school cultural pursuits and the like that will stay with them for life (not X factor etc). So nothing to stop a working class family not having a television or banning video games as a good few middle class families do or ration it. That seems to be what has got lost - some not all of the working classes no longer wanting or seeing as desirable literature and arts - I think there used to be more of a desire for "betterment" and may be those people now think well what is it better - why is my child singing complex choral music in latin any better than their singing along to Sexy Lady. There could still be hope for betterment and long walks to the library even if it were thought that there would never be a decent job.

Class traps? People can change their accent or clothes to fit the situation they are in. Most of us if we sell something as plenty of people do try to find common ground with others. When I was nearly 23 with a baby and working full time I found that gave me lots if common with customers who were 10 or 20 years older so I could use that as a thing about which to talk.

sieglinde Fri 12-Apr-13 14:06:44

I think though that ANY kind of class trap is sad. Why should everyone read the same things or listen to the same things as their parents? There should also be downward movement - what's wrong with middle class plumbers? - to suit tastes, skills and inclinations. I know some very posh gardeners, for example.

I don't think the kibbutz system worked out very well.... and some working people used to be wonderful singers, storytellers, and musicians - pithead brass bands, anyone? Welsh mining choirs? My own grandfather - not the indebted one, the other side of the family - was a bandmaster. (Like some more famous people's fathers, he owned a corner shop. He loved classical music so much that he and his friends sat and listened to Wagner on 78 rpm records... it was his only chance to hear it.) All that went because of TV.

Working class intellectual aspiration was also once very common. Read Jonathan Rose, The Intellectuals and the Working Class. But it was fuelled by hope. A lot of that hope has gone.

Xenia Fri 12-Apr-13 12:30:57

Indeed. The some of the children in grammar schools were taken from their own background and moved to a more middle class life. They came to love poetry, classical music and books and in a sense were alienated from their families and had to lead a double life in some cases.

May be comprehensives ensure no state school child gets the chance to change and become posh. If we just take classical music (one of my interests as 3 sons got music scholarships) it is much much easier as a boy treble to sing at school in choirs until you are 12 if you are in a single sex prep school than in a mixed state primary. So did we cut off the route to changing class for those who cannot to pay and does class matter in terms of career advancement? There are are heaps of Essex boys (and girls) with gold chains in the City still making money. However despite that in many other cases it does matter if you have nothing in common with those with whom you will work. Did my daughter get her first job because (a) her exam results and university are pretty good and she worked incredibly hard at school (b) because she's blonde and doesn't look too bad (c) because of her social skills which may or may not include accent or (d) because she ended up talking to someone at the assessment day lunch about a hobby they had in common which happened to be riding? I expect it was a mixture of those things - you do not even get to the interview stage unless you are just about all As, 2/1 from somewhere decent etc. but after that and indeed during the job you need to find connections with people and that does not have to be that you both ski in the same resorts.

It could just as easily be children - most of us who get on okay with people for whom we work learn to find common connections to make other people feel comfortable.

May be it is a non issue. I bet there has hardly ever been a time in British history when half the students at Oxbridge went to state schools. May be social mobility is not so bad after all.

Then there are what you pass down the generations issues - do we confiscate all wealth at death? Do we allow inheritance? Do we allow parents to pass on education, read to children or should to be faire we put all children in state organisations so no child benefits from a brighter parent reading it stories? I suppose that is one reason the children of the least well off do so much better than at home if they are in nurseries to age 3 than with a parent who is having problems at home and has a small vocabulary.

sieglinde Fri 12-Apr-13 12:15:37

Xenia, I kinda agree about the middling thing. That of course is why Crosland got rid of grammars - they were seen as alienating people from their roots. The idea was that in comprehensives they would remain working class but still be leaders.... confused

"if 1000 people are good and you have 2 vacancies and you know that 100% of those you have ever recruited who got AAA at A level and worked very hard to get into a top university do the job well and 1 in 100 of those with a poor CV do then you would be silly waste your time doing 1000 interviews when you should really apply a filter."

Yes, of course, but this tells us nothing about schools. Nor does your comment that despite the obstacles some people can still overcome them - doh, but why should it be so much harder for clever Wayne and Tracey than it is for thoroughly ordinary Troilus and Cressida?

Xenia Fri 12-Apr-13 12:04:03

I think the Beckwith study on university entrance to Russell Group universities did not find a big difference between comprehensives and grammar areas despite what a lot of people might have thought. 50% at Oxbridge from state schools does include a lot of grammars but I am not sure if you stripped them out that those areas of the country with no state grammars are worse proportionately.

What we have stopped doing by comprehensives in poor areas anyway is given an escape route to a different life and moving children from a working class to middle class environment. If you go to school where I was brought up they abolished grammars in about 1971 and direct grant schools and you cannot in a sense become posher through state provided schooling and I just do not mean accent and dress but moving into a different type of life and classmates from your background. If you work very hard it is possible to make those changes if you want but the more obvious route disappeared.

i think a good few very clever people do do well. If I look at successful people I have advised plenty of them left school at 15 and worked very hard and because of their brains they ended up owning a load of companies but they are the exception from those backgrounds.

On a national basis most of us probably UK plc to be allowing its best potential workers fufil their potential so we can compete with the best from abroad. if you only recruit from one group whatever that group is - males or Indians or aristocrats or dust bin men you are not going to exclude a lot of good people. On the other hand if 1000 people are good and you have 2 vacancies and you know that 100% of those you have ever recruited who got AAA at A level and worked very hard to get into a top university do the job well and 1 in 100 of those with a poor CV do then you would be silly waste your time doing 1000 interviews when you should really apply a filter.

LeBFG Fri 12-Apr-13 11:55:44

Yup, agree 100%.

sieglinde Fri 12-Apr-13 11:29:22

leBFG, the reason is that tech schools were NEVER properly funded here as they were in Germany, Austria and Australia. Agree about the tinkering, but that means actual FUNDING for those skilled manual jobs. perish the thought - instead let's have ludicrous degrees in which people are encouraged to dream on, like media studies and tourism studies... confused.

Actually, what if we shut down all block grants and govt support for all these degrees and put the money directly into technical ed? It would be a start.

LeBFG Fri 12-Apr-13 11:16:59

[best of both worlds]

LeBFG Fri 12-Apr-13 11:16:00

Hmm, interesting. Although I always think that non-academic routes are still sniffed at unneccessarily. Non-grammar-level pupils can still earn good money. Plumbers from my home town earn as much as teachers and the plumber course is heavily oversubscribed each year. The locals think plumbing is terribly respectable, as they should. I think possibly the older system was better but would require tinkering so the 80% were actually doing something worthwhile.

sieglinde Fri 12-Apr-13 11:02:19

Xenia is right, but so are the naysayers.

Grammars did/do hugely benefit some, but also disadvantage everyone else.

So we can decide - do we want a world where the very clever and diligent will OFTEN though not ALWAYS manage to get to the near-top, leaving everyone else NOWHERE, with no chance, including those unlucky enough to miss the first step,

Or do we want a world where it is VERY MUCH HARDER for anyone clever and diligent to get to the top, but somewhat easier for everyone to get there?

So a world where - say, 20% - of people have a 50% chance, and 80% no chance, versus a world where - say 80% of the people have a 10% chance?

I think fewer people would now do what my grandmother and my father did, because they would see a 10% chance as the same as no chance.

Xenia Fri 12-Apr-13 08:22:19

So looking that these three fathers above (and indeed my mother who was very bright, Mensa level etc, and passed the 11+state grammar and became a teacher (which given her background etc was a very successful outcome, children at private schools, biggish house etc)....

So of the four my two parents who got to state grammars then did well, professional jobs etc. The rest who did not did not. So the question is does segregating a few poor but very clever children at 11 into a middle class education mean more of the poor do better or have comprehensives enabled more of the less well off to move into those well paid professional classes. As with sieg my mother says she worked for 10 years to help put my father through his medical studies - first woman in the city to claim the married man's tax allowance etc although my father had some kind of state grant too which enabled it all.

So why did say my parents do pretty well and get into the grammar schools? I am sure some of it would be their own parents. My father's father had to leave school at 12 as he was ill but he then spent his life reading and learning and studying himself and worked hard and had his own business, JP, councillor, pillar of the community so I suppose there he was in the 1920s wanting his children not to leave school at 12, to get a state grammar education and love learning and books. My mother's mother - widowed - took herself off to India to work as a nanny in the 20s before she was married - so domestic service but fairly adventurous domestic service.

sieglinde Thu 11-Apr-13 20:34:18

Wow, your father sounds amazingly like mine, but mine got a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school - hell on earth - and left to work as a sandblaster from 18.

His mother had by then paid off all the debts his father had left by working as a hairdresser - they were farmers, but dirt-poor, and had bought the land in 1929 with a huge loan. So Dad got a place to do engineering and put himself through by driving a taxi at night to pay his room and board, and she worked to pay the fees, which were huge. So he ended up pretty prosperous solid management. But this was in Australia. He was and is an absolutely brilliant mechanic too - at 87! - and always loved cars. But he's never seen himself as part of an elite.

LeBFG Thu 11-Apr-13 19:37:25

My father was born in 47 and was a teen in the 60s - he went to a primary school that decided before any student entered the school that no one was of 'grammar school material'. He was taught the 3 Rs, left on his 15th birthday and was employed as a labourer. He's never been out of work. But was never and could never be part of the intellectual or social elite. He is, however, a gifted engineer with a brain for electronics and maths (wish I'd inherited that!) that in any other social class would have secured him a degree and a well paid job at the very least. He would certainly give a hollow laugh (as would his peers) if I told him there was greater social mobility in the post war period than today even though grammar schools and uni grants existed.

However, as interesting as this may be, you'll not convince me of your POV and I'm sure this is off topic.

Xenia Thu 11-Apr-13 19:00:10

World War II caused social mobility. The NHS, the welfare state were all set up or expanded. Women had worked during WWII and the state had provided nurseries. Many young people did well IF they got to state grammar schools. My father could take his second degree - medicine because suddenly in the 40s there were some student grants. However in periods of recession things are always tougher. I remember the 70s. I remember the 90s crash and interest rates at 12% on mortgages and no jobs to be had. i was telling those people I was addressing today about the 115 job applications I had to make at university - there was a whole generation graduating then in the early 80s many of whom never were able to get good jobs as the country was in such a mess, just emerging into the light because of the good Thatcher did thankfully.

Ultimately if social mobility works at its very best the very bright all rise to the top and left behind will be those with an IQ of say 90 who we would not want in top jobs as brain surgeons. So in a sense if you have had really good social mobility a sign of its success is a reduction in future social mobility. I am not saying we are at the saturation point yet but it is one explanation of when it might reduce and why it may not be a bad thing it has reduced.

Gherkinsmummy Thu 11-Apr-13 16:01:48

LeBFG In the post war era there were so many jobs that we had to import people from the colonies to do them. Working class kids left school and got jobs straight away. Compare that to now when university graduates are working as cleaners and tell me, honestly, that the UK is more socially mobile now than it was in the 1950s.

LeBFG Thu 11-Apr-13 12:38:13

Read my posts Gherkinsmummy. I said that the UK is more socailly mobile today than in the 40/50s.

sieglinde Thu 11-Apr-13 12:32:00

The brightest children of anywhere aren't guaranteed the hike in income anymore, though. The figures are based on an era when fewer people went to university.

Dare i say that the better-off are more comfortable with debt because they are used to having big mortgages?

Xenia Thu 11-Apr-13 09:53:23

In student fees it is a fascinating issue. If you are rich but your parents don't support you at university nor let you live at home in university holidays then you have less than a child of a taxi driver or an unemployed family at university.

If the brightest children of the working classes cannot get out a calculator and look at whether a degree is worth having then they do not desrve to be at university. There is even a non refundable grant payment if your home is poor which those whose parents do not pay them a penny but the parents earn more do not receive and you do not pay a penny of student fees until you earn over the threshold.

sieglinde Thu 11-Apr-13 08:24:08

"The reality is that university costs the poor less". In gross cash, yes. As a proportion of income, absolutely not.

Many poor families simply can't accept the idea of the huge debts incurred.

LineRunner Wed 10-Apr-13 19:05:25

Two hours in Parliament for the first woman even to be called to speak (Thatcher tributes).

Look for Glenda Jackson on Thatcher - 'sharp elbows, sharp knees'.

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.

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.

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