Maggie and Misogyny

A couple of times recently, the question has come up in comments whether former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was subjected to sexist attacks akin to that which Hillary Clinton has been, so I figured I'd do a post about it. The short answer is yes. The long answer follows.

There were a plethora of incidents that had the distinct whiff of misogyny while Thatcher was in office, things that were dismissed as attributable to her divisive politics, but should leave any rational person sincerely questioning if the same would have been done to a Mr. Thatcher. Perhaps the most notable of these extreme protests was the decapitation of a stone statue of Mrs. Thatcher, attacked and beheaded while on public exhibition. The violence of it is jarring. Less obvious are examples like a challenge to her leadership mounted from within her own party receiving 60 votes—a relatively small percentage of nearly 400 Conservative MPs, but a shockingly large number of votes against a sitting Prime Minister. That she was the first female Prime Minister is meant to be incidental; isn't it always?

There's more indisputable evidence to be found in the preponderance of sexist rhetoric routinely used against her.

Often her moniker "the Iron Lady" is cited as evidence of sexist rhetoric, although that's probably the least appropriate example. It was Soviet Russia's Defense Ministry newspaper that christened her the Iron Lady, after she gave a typically belligerent speech about how the USSR were "bent on world dominance" and "put guns before butter." Thatcher herself liked the nickname, and it was adopted in Britain to—both favorably and unfavorably—describe her unwavering will. But it was not really sexist.

Her other oft-used nickname, however, was. Thatcher was dubbed "Attila the Hen" by a male peer, and it stuck. (No wonder she embraced Iron Lady, eh?) The moniker was frequently invoked beside the usual parade of "woman-only" (or emasculating) indicators—strident, shrill, hectoring, shrewish, etc. The British Members of Parliament often launched the nastiest, substance-less sexist attacks, as MP Austin Mitchell: "It's been a touching spectacle: the brave little woman getting on with the woman's work of trying to dominate the world." Yowza.

One of the ugliest displays was during Thatcher's fall from grace, beginning in '89, when her political vulnerability opened her up to a shocking level of misogynist vitriol—including from members of her own party, angling to be her replacement. This 1989 Guardian article, republished as part of a special edition marking the 50-year anniversary of the Guardian's women's page, captures the tone at the time:

Tory MP Emma Nicholson is convinced that a bitter, anti-woman undercurrent is flaring up in Parliament and not just on the Labour benches. 'They will use anything to attack the Prime Minister and I think they are sacrificing their acceptance of women as equals to get at her.' Inside and outside Westminster, there's talk of political challengers being 'hand-bagged', of curtains being bought for the retirement home in Dulwich, of babyminding the new grandson, while Downing Street is countering with propaganda about a 'caring' ethos and teamwork.

The Prime Minister is suddenly a woman again as the men in her party circle for the succession and the men on the opposite benches get their first whiff of power for over a decade. Her personality and leadership style are making a lot of the political running. It's almost inevitable that her gender will be implicated - it has always been a political challenge for both her allies and her opponents.
As the article makes clear ("She has tremendous appeal as a role model for modern women, while paradoxically emphasising their traditional roles as homemakers and mothers, and remaining indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the needs of working women."), Thatcher was herself hostile to women in many ways, especially women who pursued untraditional paths, separating herself from such women by affecting a "beyond womanhood" pose as it suited her—though, of course, vacillating between being "the only real man in the cabinet" for the purposes of warring and being "governess and grandmother" for the purposes of imposing conservative ideals of traditional womanhood left her more open to gender-based attacks, not less.

It also created an atmosphere in which even compliments of Thatcher were deeply sexist. Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's famous assessment of Margaret Thatcher was: "In her presence you pretty quickly forget that she's a woman." In November, Peggy Noonan wrote a piece waxing nostalgic for the Iron Lady, in which she rhapsodized:

Margaret Thatcher would no more have identified herself as a woman, or claimed special pleading that she was a mere frail girl, or asked you to sympathize with her because of her sex, than she would have called up the Kremlin and asked how quickly she could surrender.

She represented a movement. She was its head. She was great figure, a person in history, and she was a woman. She was in it for serious reasons, not to advance the claims of a gender but to reclaim for England its economic freedom, and return its political culture to common sense. Her rise wasn't symbolic but actual.

In fact, she wasn't so much a woman as a lady. I remember a gentleman who worked with her speaking of her allure, how she'd relax after a late-night meeting and you'd walk by and catch just the faintest whiff of perfume, smoke and scotch. She worked hard and was tough. One always imagined her lightly smacking some incompetent on the head with her purse, for she carried a purse, as a lady would. She is still tough. A Reagan aide told me that after she was incapacitated by a stroke she flew to Reagan's funeral in Washington, went through the ceremony, flew with Mrs. Reagan to California for the burial, and never once on the plane removed her heels. That is tough.
The cognitive dissonance in praising someone as not "so much a woman as a lady" just after claiming Thatcher would have not have "identified herself as a woman" and just after anointing her "tough" for managing to withstand an entire plane journey in heels is enough to give a feminist whiplash. And it is spectacularly wrong: Thatcher indeed did identify herself as a woman, when it suited her—as when admonishing women who had less lofty employment goals than heading a movement, like silly old self-fulfillment.

Like modern incarnations of the professional political woman who disdains women's equality movements in spite of having benefited from (see: Coulter, Ann), Thatcher presented a conundrum for feminists, as well—and some of them were more than willing to take the bait.

Pauline Melville, a feminist comic at the time, said, 'She was a reactionary old cow, so fair game absolutely.'

…For Melville, it was entirely the politics that motivated her; she had no intention of making a career out of being a comedian.

Racist and sexist jokes were outlawed, though clearly they made an exception for Margaret Thatcher, about whom anything could be said. Clearly, some women didn't count.
And, even now, Thatcher can't escape the sexism that has always plagued her. In aNew Statesman review of a book on Thatcher, titled "The Mummy Returns"(as in a British mum, not an interred Egyptian), reviewer Suzanne Moore notes, "She is the unhinged, vengeful madwoman in the attic, the unlaid ghost."

The truth is that hatred of Thatcher has also driven even men I otherwise admire to shocking lengths. The closing track on Morrissey's first solo album, Viva Hate, is called "Margaret on the Guillotine."

The kind people / Have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine
Cause people like you / Make me feel so tired / When will you die ?

…And people like you / Make me feel so old inside / Please die
Do not shelter this dream / Make it real / Make the dream real
It ends with the sound of a falling guillotine.

And when I saw Eddie Izzard, like his countryman Morrissey a resolute feminist ally, live at the Royal George several years ago, he had a long, uncharacteristically mean bit that would charitably be described as his calling Margaret Thatcher a cunt for 5 minutes.

There is truly an endless well of legitimate reasons on which to object to Margaret Thatcher as both a politician and a person, but always, always, the first line of offense is that she's a woman—and it always has been.

The more the world changes, the more it stays the same…

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus