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Margaret Thatcher was no feminist, but she's still a women's icon

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When the shortlist for the new leader of the Conservative Party was whittled down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom back in July, it was hoped that this first all-woman election would be free of sexism.

But then, Leadsom gave an interview in which she said being a mother would make her a better leader than May, who wanted children but couldn’t have them. The hope that gender wouldn’t be an issue had been destroyed. Fortunately, so had Leadsom’s chances of being leader.

Yet even if she had become Britain’s second female Prime Minister, you could guarantee that some pundits on both the left and the right would call Leadsom ‘the new Thatcher,’ as many did call Theresa May. That we automatically reach for this comparison, lazy though it is, is a testament to enduring importance of Britain’s first female leader.

It is in recognition of this importance that BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour last week announced that Margaret Thatcher had topped their list of ‘most influential women of the past 70 years,’ beating other candidates including feminist Germaine Greer, Beyoncé, and the fictional Bridget Jones, of diary fame.

Many members of the panel were not the biggest of Thatcher fans, but like anyone who ever thought seriously about her, they realised she had a kind of power, of which being a woman was an essential part.

Over 40 years ago, during the leadership election that put Thatcher at the top of the Conservative Party, a slimy backbencher called Hugh Fraser ran against her, purely out of his belief that a woman should not be leader. Fraser has been deservedly forgotten by history, as has the sheer amount of naked sexism that Thatcher faced before she got to Downing Street.

Though by 1979 a woman had been on the throne for nearly 30 years, Thatcher was different from Her Majesty the Queen. She was not someone who would sit silently and smile, but a woman who threatened the established order.

There are two aspects to Britain’s first female leader which the Women’s Hour panel considered. The first was her determination to see the country she loved recover from the slow decline it was enduring since the end of the Second World War. On the eve of Thatcher’s election, Britain was strike-ridden, stagnant and corrupt, and had become known as ‘the sick man of Europe.’

The second aspect was Thatcher’s own femininity, which, unfairly or not, she always knew how to use. Being a smartly-dressed, charismatic and forthright lady set her apart from the world of dreary, grey-suited men from which she emerged. It wasn’t long before she was defying those who had written her off.

Perhaps it is because she had been so widely underestimated that nobody ever liked her. Not only was she hated by traditional opponents in the Labour Party and in the left-wing press, but she was also loathed by many of her own colleagues, as well as the with highly conservative and establishment institutions such as the Church of England and Buckingham Palace.

Though her enemies were numerous, she had one crucial advantage over them. She didn’t care, much preferring to get on with the job.

So as her opponents sneered, Thatcher changed how the economy was run and how society was organised. Further afield, she had the then two most powerful men in the world - America's Ronald Reagan and the USSR's Mikhail Gorbachev - eating out of her hand. Not bad for the grocer’s daughter from Grantham.

Though as the Women’s Hour panel pointed out, she was no feminist. Thatcher deliberately decided against promoting other women to the cabinet, believing others would undermine her authority over compliant men. More disgracefully, her economic policies were certainly of no help to many women in 1980s Britain. It is said that Thatcherism’s many cruelties actually gave the country the concept of the struggling single mother.

Nor was she the only woman in the last 70 years to have made an impact. Another candidate on the Women’s Hour shortlist, Helen Brooks, also deserved the top spot. Brooks may not be as well remembered, but her work in setting up contraceptive services for women was of seminal importance, if it can be put like that, to female sexual independence.

Thatcher, however, for all her faults, has come to symbolise the important way in which a determined woman overcame the forces, most of them patriarchal, that would have overwhelmed a less gutsy leader.

Andrea Leadsom is almost certainly one of her admirers, but the Northamptonshire MP gravely misjudged Thatcher’s importance to women in politics when she went for cynicism rather than conviction. Some iron ladies we needed, others we can all do without.

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