As the world marks the passing of Margaret Thatcher at age 87, some of the attention has inevitably focused on her unique status as Britain’s first and only female prime minister. When Thatcher was elected in 1979, she was only the eighth woman in world history to lead a state without being a hereditary monarch.
Yet Thatcher’s legacy as a female public figure of towering achievement is a paradox. Too often, she is rejected by feminists who shudder at her conservative politics — and embraced by conservatives who ignore her feminist life.
Thatcher did not call herself a feminist. Indeed, she has been quoted as saying, "I hate feminism. It is poison" — though this statement comes from the recollection of the former Thatcher adviser, author and historian Paul Johnson, who is himself a critic of feminism.
Whatever her beliefs, Thatcher was certainly a trailblazer. She was a grocer’s daughter who became the first person in her family to go to college — Oxford, no less. She got a degree in chemistry, became active in politics and trained as a lawyer, gaining admission to the bar in 1953.
A few years ago, feminist writer Zoe Williams wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian that Thatcher was "against single mothers, working mothers, women in general" and only "made an exception for herself."
Not true. As a rising conservative politician, the future Iron Lady wrote a letter to a newspaper lamenting that many women were held back from professional success by the prejudice against women combining marriage and career. This letter, titled Wake Up Women, was published in 1952 — more than 10 years before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Thatcher herself was a working mother, winning a seat in Parliament when she had six-year-old twins. Later, as prime minister, she came under fire for making critical remarks about a generation of "creche" (nursery) children; but this was less about traditional gender roles than state-funded day care. Thatcher had a lifelong antipathy to activist government, fearing that it would inevitably lead to authoritarianism.
Unlike many of her fellow conservatives, both British and American, Thatcher extended her opposition to interventionist government to moral as well as economic matters. In the 1960s, she was one of the few conservatives in Parliament who voted to decriminalize male homosexuality and legalize abortion.
In a 1978 interview for The Catholic Herald, she harshly lectured the interviewer when he asked what the government should do about rising divorce rates, telling him, "Governments aren’t Big Brother."
Thatcher generally did not concern herself with "women’s issues" but when she did address them publicly, it was to support women’s advancement. In 1988, she spoke out in favour of the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, for example.
She was also a feminist role model by being utterly unafraid to be seen as harsh or unlikable. That’s a refreshing alternative to so-called feminists who wring their hands over how victimized women supposedly are by the slightest whiff of social disapproval.
Although feminists may wrongly mock Thatcher, conservatives fail to acknowledge the ways in which she defied their own shibboleths. Far too many on the right still cling to stereotypes of women as nurturing and unambitious, or they warn — either with glee or with supposed concern — that successful women are doomed to misery because no feminine woman can find happiness with a less powerful man. Yet Thatcher’s marriage to her husband, Dennis, seems to have been loving and satisfying.
In all the ways that matter, Thatcher was a feminist. It’s time for both her feminist detractors and her conservative admirers to admit it.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.