I can’t resist beginning this post with a clip from ‘Not the Nine o’clock News’ about reactions to dead politicians:
Now: I won’t be the only person doing this, for sure, but as one who lived through the Thatcher years I feel impelled to spend some time summing up her legacy and what it meant for me. It’s too much to cover in one post, so each day I’m going to take one aspect of her reign (sic) and deal with that. Today: women.
Clearly the most significant factor about Thatcher was that she was the first woman prime minister – and it might have seemed counter-intuitive that this should happen on the right-wing of politics rather than on the more liberal left. However, I don’t think her election should be seen primarily in the context of women’s rights. When push comes to shove, caste has always trumped gender, otherwise there would never have been any women leaders in human history. When it comes down to it, if no men of the right social class are available, the powers-that-be will put up with a woman from the right class rather than a man of the wrong class. Consider, for example, Indira Gandhi: the important thing about her was not that she was a woman; but that she was Nehru’s daughter. And so it is: from Cleopatra to Elizabeth I (and II) women have been allowed to rule if – and only if – a man of the right caste was unavailable.
So that’s the first point. Secondly, having clawed her way to the top, Thatcher showed no interest in helping other women to get where she was. ‘I got here on my own merits and so can you’ seems to have been her attitude: not only that but she failed to inaugurate any female-friendly legislation during her time in office. Her attitude to other women seems to have been somewhat scornful. She clearly revered her father and ignored her mother: as I said, she didn’t get on with the Queen at all, and seems to have favoured her son over her daughter; the result of which was that he became a spoiled prat (sic) while she turned out a fairly decent human being.
Her cabinet was exclusively male; and every man in it seems to have been either afraid of her or desperately in love with her. These public-school educated men saw her as a combination of all their female role-models: distant mother, strict matron and inaccessible ice-queen. She was utterly savage towards the more unassertive men, in particular Geoffrey (‘dead sheep’*) Howe, whereas one of the most repugnant men of that period, Alan Clarke, was head-over-heels in love with her. The point is, that no-one seems to have been able to relate to her as an equal. To be fair, towards female ‘inferiors’ she seems to have displayed a gentler side: Constituency Secretary Tessa Phillips, interviewed on radio yesterday, describes a softer, more human person – and even an ability to discuss handbags.
So, to sum up, the fact that she became PM says less about the advance of women than it does about the available men: and once in office she did nothing to help other women. She doesn’t seem to have had any truck with notions of equal rights in any case…
I used to dream of being stuck on a desert island with Thatcher and being able to tell her exactly what I thought of her an her policies: however, I suspect that being a consummate politician, she would have known exactly how to disarm me.
More on Thatcher tomorrow.