Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher

Continuing our series on historic women as part of Women's History Month, Oona King profiles her fellow peer and Britain's only female prime minister - Baroness Thatcher.

Continuing our series on historic women as part of Women’s History Month, Oona King profiles her fellow peer and Britain’s only female prime minister – Baroness Thatcher

“Characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner.” – Aristophanes 4th century BC

Margaret Thatcher’s popularity is in some quarters enduring and devotional. Although you either love her or hate her, for those on the left, Thatcher was less Marmite, more Kryptonite. Disguised as a humble grocer’s daughter and housewife with a handbag, Thatcher was in fact a free-marketeer super-hero with special powers to shrink the state.

Foes of socialism and collectivism melted before her. She privatised and deregulated everything in sight, from railways and airplanes to houses, labour markets and the stock exchange.

To many on the left, Margaret Thatcher became the face of evil, an iron gargoyle to recoil against. The last time I wrote about her for the New Statesmen, one critic said the reason we hate her so was because she held up a mirror to the failures of the left. There’s something to be said for that. The winter of discontent wasn’t just on our watch, it was of our making.

Though the late 70s were also the fag-end of postwar decline following the end of empire – something no government could reverse – we have to accept we screwed it up. Uncollected rubbish, unburied corpses, unrepentant unions, unacceptable chaos. Although James Callaghan received more vitirol than he deserved for holding public sector pay rises to 5%, the fact is that IMF ‘supervision’ of the UK economy sank Labour’s chances.

Thatcher’s success could not have happened without our failure. Of course, other things helped her too once she was in Downing Street, not least a war and an assassination attempt.

But on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this month, it’s worth asking whether Britain’s first woman prime minister can escape the cartoon hate figure and become a heroine for women. For instance, many girls who grew up under Margaret Thatcher (I was 11 when she arrived at Downing Street, 23 when she left) knew in their hearts for the very first time that women could get to the top.

Margaret Thatcher also arguably fostered a greater entrepreneurial spirit in Britain, for men and women. And she undeniably restored a sense of pride to some parts of British society (especially the most and least privileged). She became a world figure who put Britain back on the world map when we seemed to have slipped off.

It’s surprising that in her early political career, Thatcher was one of the few Conservative MPs to support a bill to decriminalise homosexuality, and also voted in favour of David Steel’s bill to legalise abortion. But in some ways she was a Victorian leader, voting against relaxing divorce laws, supporting the death penalty, and pressing for the re-introduction of flogging. If you listen to her interview on the steps of Downing Street in 1979, she sounds like a cross between Enid Blyton and the Queen.

Over the years she improved her voice. But her real genius was that she was vulgar in the original Latin meaning of the word: to divulge to the common people. She offered working people what they’d previously been denied – home ownership, share ownership, and a feel-good factor about worshiping private ownership. She didn’t just sell houses, she sold aspiration.

She was a bit like the National Lottery – she “freed” ordinary people to dream they could be millionaires, but actually took money out of their pockets. She vanquished Keynes, idolised von Hayek, turned citizens into consumers, left manufacturing for dead – and flattened trades unions and communities along the way. When Margaret Thatcher stood on the steps of Downing Street and quoted St Francis of Assisi – “where there is discord may we bring harmony” – she was either ironic or mad.

She brought Britain many things, but not harmony. 

Depending on your viewpoint, Margaret Thatcher either saved Britain, or destroyed it. On balance, I’ll always think it was the latter. Yes, growing up she made me believe that women could get to the very top. But at the same time, it was always clear that she deftly climbed through a trap door in the glass ceiling only to let it slam shut behind her.

Yes she was a popular politician. Yes she was a historic Prime Minister. But no, she can never be a heroine for women.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

21 Responses to “Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher”

  1. Crimson Crip

    RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher: http://bit.ly/fscvei by Oona King

  2. Frank Spring

    RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher: http://bit.ly/fscvei by Oona King

  3. Pat Needles

    Women's History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher – Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/eHPw6D

  4. Barrie Ainsworth

    Women's History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher – Left Foot Forward http://ow.ly/1bQ6vI

  5. Simon

    “She was a bit like the National Lottery – she “freed” ordinary people to dream they could be millionaires, but actually took money out of their pockets.” A good point and I think an important one – it may seem petty but a policy I believe any future Labour government should have is to make the national lottery NFP and limit the payouts to £1 million. The lottery as it is is a huge propaganda victory for the right : the working class buying into the idea that it’s acceptable for some to have incredible wealth and others to have squat.

  6. Wes Streeting

    RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher: http://bit.ly/fscvei by Oona King

  7. Charlie Hawken

    RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher: http://bit.ly/fscvei by Oona King

  8. Hannah McFaull

    RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher: http://bit.ly/fscvei by Oona King

  9. Dave

    She was a cunt who ruined this country and my education.

  10. I'mPOSSIBLE.

    Margaret Thatcher – a women's heroine? | Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/f6C87E

  11. Tom Sheppard

    Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher | http://j.mp/fjm6eU

  12. C S

    Incorrect, it was John Major who privatised the railways! #corrections

  13. Mary Wollstonecraft

    Not a fan of her policies but in the name of #whm RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher http://bit.ly/iid2aY

  14. Mr. Sensible

    oona, given that, was it not a bit extraordinary that the Guardian listed her in its top 100 most enspiring women for International Womens’ Day, meanwhile someone like Mrs Mandella was overlooked?

    I think this quote from a letter in the following day’s paper sums it up perfectly:
    “Isn’t she more of a warning? That a woman can be just as sexist, just as anti-feminist, just as much of a bully as any man in power? She taught us that just having a woman at the top (anywhere) is not enough.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/09/inspiring-women-that-we-missed

    True she was our first female prime minister, but other than that…

  15. Stephen Isabirye

    RT @leftfootfwd: Women’s History Month profiles: Margaret Thatcher http://bit.ly/iid2aY The Famous Five:A Personal Anecdotage http://www.bbotw.com

  16. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – Your beloved (ex) Dear Leader, Gordon Brown loved her remember….

  17. Mr. Sensible

    And where did he say that, Mr Mouse?

  18. pinkslippers

    she knew how to cash in on others hiccups such as: Keith Joseph’s gaffe in Birmingham about the lower classes higher birth rate being a burden on the state, gave her the opportunity to step into the leadership competition in 1974….. …and she didn’t have to face Healy who was equally intelligent and more brutally effective across the dispatch box than Foot….So maybe she was extraordinary in her powers to manipulate the Labour failings to her benefit…. p.s Oona you forget that Callaghan’s government was brought down not only by the unions but his failure to act on its proposals for devolution of Scotland and Wales.

  19. David Mullen

    Pass the sick bag. New Labour was the bastard child of Thatcher and the above article gives a lot of credence to this theory.

  20. pinkslippers

    nicely said Mr. Mullen….

  21. Evalina

    I am a woman and Margaret is my heroine. Anyone can cross the glass ceiling, you just have to work as hard as she did. She wasn’t just politician, she changed the world for better. I guess you can’t understand how bad socialism and collectivism can be (don’t even want to mention communism) until you live under this regime. I did, I grew up in a communist Poland and I will be thankful to Thatcher forever.

Leave a Reply