Margaret Thatcher was reformer and trailblazer - but not a feminist

Margaret Thatcher was a female trailblazer, but never considered herself a feminist: and her example has failed to usher in another female PM or boost female MP numbers. EPA/Andy Rain

The death of the first - and so far only - female British prime minister raises the question of how to judge her contribution to feminism and leadership.

Given that only now we have our first female PM, this debate is very current. The announcement of Thatcher’s demise came during the ABC’s all female Q&A this week so it allowed Tony Jones to raise the question of her contribution with the panellists.

Not surprisingly, their responses mostly reflected their views on her political approaches rather than her gender. Germaine Greer encapsulated the underlying issue clearly when she talked about the difference between women’s liberation and gender equality, in terms of a major social revolution versus just doing it on male terms.

Thatcher was, with US President Ronald Reagan, the main proponent of political ideologies based on individually based market-driven choices, not collectivist social provisions. It is her political stance as the main proponent of neo-liberal that will influence arguments about her value as first Western female PM.

It is not just an argument about different ideological stances, as feminisms are diverse, but whether even a liberal definition of feminism as individual equality can encompass someone who introduced economic policies that deny the existence of the social.

If feminism is about re-valuing the contributions, seen as traditional feminine roles, these don’t fit economic models. Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society makes it hard to define her contribution, as feminist.

I remember a quip in the 1980s that Thatcher’s contribution to women’s liberation was on par with Idi Amin’s to Black liberation. While tasteless post mortem, it illustrates feminist views at the time. By assuming that individuals had control over their life chances she denied the existence of structural barriers, and undermined the need for any public political intervention.

Having a Conservative woman pushing radical right views that undermined social options for change is more relevant to judging her contribution than her gender. The relatively new women’s movement then may have had doubts about state support for the changes we wanted, but we were very clear that social change and fairness were not on a market-based agenda.

Her death also followed a Sunday Sydney Opera House All about Women discussion, where I was one of the speakers.

We discussed issues of power and progress. If the sessions could be seen as some measure of achievements, then progress can be judged as slow. Invisible women, How to Juggle and Misogyny were three of the sessions, maybe balanced by Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee’s success stories of women in Liberia. So more than 40 years after the second wave women’s movement took off, and 34 years after Thatcher’s election , we still need to question why change is so slow. Part of this I blame on Thatcher’s legacy.

But on the plus side, she demonstrated to women that it was possible to succeed in the world of conservative British politics. She won three elections, the longest serving UK PM in the last century. She dramatically changed the way the UK was governed and unwound much of the post-war welfare state. Apparently, she recently said her greatest political achievement was Tony Blair as he did not wind back her privatisation, smaller government agenda.

She proved that a woman could do the job she did just as well as any man, and this is her legacy. She also modelled a female leadership style described as the Iron Lady. She never claimed to have been a feminist or even a supporter, coming closest with the statement that women were more likely to do what was needed to be done, than men.

Notably, her example as PM has not been followed by another UK female PM nor has her example really encouraged the election of more female PMs elsewhere, still rare birds.

Her legacy for feminism depends on whether we are counting number “getting there”, or looking at the longer-term influences of her role.

I have detailed my concerns about her effective promotion of neo-liberalism with Reagan, which has undermined the possibilities of expanding government intervention to redistribute male power and resources.

Another problem I have is the way her leadership style and content can be used to undermine arguments about the need to broaden the criteria for what is seen as good leadership.

She managed her role as PM by manifesting extraordinary levels of toughness and commitment to purpose that would fit neatly any macho model.

Reactions to her death are mixed. I am listening to a radio broadcast from London on the ABC, with voices celebrating her demise for undermining the social well-being of many Brits. Business people are cheering her undermining of unions. Tina Brown, veteran journalist, was trying to find the right thing to say on CNN, so praised her skills as PM but couldn’t find an answer when asked what her contribution to feminism had been.

A cabbie talked of her understanding that working people wanted to acquire wealth too and facilitated their ambitions.

Underlying all these debates is the question of how to define contributions to gender equality. Is it just a question of numbers, or are we looking for liberation from the straitjackets of gender-based constraints?

Is having more women in positions of power enough to create gender equity and will it create a fairer society? It is over 20 years since Thatcher left office and her legacy for feminism can be defined as the powerful damage of her anti-social policies rather than her leadership example.

The discussion of progress reminds me of a badge from earlier days of women’s liberation that stated that women who wanted to be equal to men lacked ambition. Making a better world than the macho version promoted by Maggie Thatcher was our starting point. I also remember an ex-boss who explained that simple gender equality meant as many flawed women as men in top positions - is that real social change?

Maybe I’m wrong to want something better, but I am starting by reversing Thatcher’s dismissal of the social by claiming that most of us prefer to live in a good society, not just an economy.