Former Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher was the first and only woman premier Britain has ever had. But despite being a leader in a crucial time for women’s rights internationally, the Iron Lady never considered herself a feminist. She said to her adviser,
The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.
She also rejected the idea that feminists helped her career at all. She once said, “I owe nothing to women’s lib.”
But, much like in the U.S., it was a long struggle to get British women the right to be involved in politics. It took until 1918 with the passing of the Eligibility of Women Act for women to be allowed to be elected into parliament.
In fact, even Thatcher once had no confidence in the position of prime minister being filled by a woman. Six years before she won office she said, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” The year Thatcher did become prime minister, 1979, was also the year the number of woman members of parliament (MPs) was at a 30-year low (PDF).
Whether Thatcher recognized its significance or not, her career added an example to the list of woman trailblazers; her image provided young girls with the opportunity to see that women can be strong (even if unpopular) leaders, too.
President Barack Obama, in a statement released today about Thatcher’s death, commented,
As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.
Progressives would note that Thatcher’s refusal of feminism went right along with her other social policies. “Thatcherism” was overwhelmingly conservative and revolved around a totally free-market, anti-union system. She believed that “socialism” was ruining Britain and that the poor should work harder to achieve wealth. In her first term she said that she intended “to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation.” (Sound a little like Mitt Romney in 2012?)
Her policies, critics say, led to the significant widening of the wage gap and a huge divide between Britain’s industrialized North and its service-industry South.
Thatcher’s approach was similar to that of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and the connection between Reagan and Thatcher was widely acknowledged—the two were closely allied and had similar agendas. U.S. feminists fought Reagan in similar ways to how British feminists fought Thatcher. In 1983, even the Republican head of the National Women’s Political Caucus called Reagan “insensitive to the needs of women.”
Much like the reaction to Reagan from U.S. progressives, British people outside her Conservative party were skeptical of Thatcher throughout her time as prime minister. In 1987, parliament member Gordon Brown—a member of the Labor party who would later become PM himself—told The New York Times,
Mrs. Thatcher says she is going to eradicate socialism … What she means is that she plans to eradicate the right to education and the health and social services, as we know them.
In the year Thatcher was elected, Jenny Earl, the director of Rights for Women—one of Britain’s feminist movements at the time—commented to The Leader-Post about Thatcher’s election,
Margaret Thatcher as prime minister does not represent anything progressive as far as we are concerned … She doesn’t want to antagonize women or make them feel guilty about not working so she constantly stresses the women’s role in the home—one quite evidently she does not fancy for herself.
However, Thatcher made a difference just by being an influential woman holding a leadership position. In 1979, Eileen Fairweather, editor of the British feminist magazine Spare Rib, said in an interview with The New York Times,
But still, it is certainly true that every little girl in school knows now—as she did not know a year ago—that she can aspire to being the Prime Minister, that to be a woman is not necessarily to be second rate, and that’s wonderful.