Wednesday 23 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'It's time feminists acknowledged Thatcher blazed the trail for today's women leaders'

Courageous: Margaret Thatcher proved that women can lead. Photo: PA
Courageous: Margaret Thatcher proved that women can lead. Photo: PA
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

We really are seeing a flourishing of women at the top of international politics: Ursula von der Leyen (mother of seven, as it happens) as the new president of the European Commission; Christine Lagarde, new boss at the European Central Bank.

In America, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are both possible contenders for the next presidential election, while in Germany, the most powerful political figure, Angela Merkel, is due to be succeeded by another woman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

There has never been a better time, on the world stage, to be a woman in politics. Or indeed, in other branches of power and governance: from the FTSE to social media to business boards, there is now a widespread demand for more women as candidates for top positions.

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Feminism, which has long campaigned for this, should be well pleased with the opportunities opening up. And now, too, perhaps is the moment for feminism to acknowledge the mammy of them all, who surely led the way - the late Margaret Thatcher.

For most of her lifetime, the sisterhood loathed Thatcher and, when she died, some feminists joined in with rather tasteless celebrations, yelling "Ding, dong! The witch is dead!".

Maggie had been subjected to a kind of "gender excommunication" by feminism: she was described as "more of a man" than a woman, and always portrayed in 'Spitting Image' satire as a masculine figure. The Labour MP and thespian Glenda Jackson said that Ms Thatcher might have been biologically a woman, but she wasn't a woman "on my terms". In a short story, the author Hilary Mantel portrayed her as "a psychological transvestite", who was a ripe target for assassination.

No, Maggie was not accepted as a role-model basically because she was a Tory. The Marxist-feminist Beatrix Campbell saw the "iron lady" template as akin to bossy right-wing matrons like Mary Whitehouse, who had nothing in common with the progressive agenda of feminism.

For her part, Maggie didn't sympathise with the collectivist approach of feminist dogma. She believed in self-help and independence of thought. One of her biographers, Robin Harris, noted that she affirmed Methodist mottoes such as: "Rely on yourself. Believe in yourself. Don't do something just because everyone else does." She got to be prime minister through self-belief, hard work, going against the grain - there were very few women in the UK parliament when she first sought election - and overcoming obstacles in her way.

Her private secretary Caroline Slocock notes in a recent memoir that Maggie said "I owe nothing to women's lib", because she overcame disadvantages by her own efforts. At school, the headmistress would not permit Margaret to learn Latin - then essential for entrance to Oxford. So, even as a schoolgirl, she found a way to organise private tuition in Latin so she could get into Somerville College, which she did.

Women didn't speak at the Oxford Union at the time - so young Maggie became president of the Conservative Association instead.

Thatcher didn't talk the talk of feminism, but she walked the walk. She didn't embrace feminist ideology - although interestingly, she did vote for abortion rights - but she did show, by her actions and example, that a woman could be an outstanding leader - indeed, next to Winston Churchill, some commentators regard her as the most remarkable British prime minister of the 20th century.

That she was flawed goes without saying - everyone is flawed. Every politician makes errors of judgment. Her battle against the miners was relentless - although, in a paradoxical turn of events, coal mining is now regarded as one of the most grievous offenders in the battle against climate change.

She was not sympathetic to the Irish dimension, regarded the Bobby Sands saga as "mawkish", and called Northern Ireland "as British as Finchley" - it's in the UK, but bears little resemblance, otherwise, to that North London constituency. The war over the Falklands was conducted with Boadicea-like resolve, and not always with humanitarian sensitivity, but the Argentines, led by the fascist General Galtieri, misjudged every step. In the end, she lost touch with her own cabinet.

But all that said, Maggie showed leadership, courage, confidence - and she banished, for all time, doubts that had been expressed previously as to whether a woman politician could lead. Yes, she can.

And yet, according to Ms Slocock's memoir 'People Like Us', Maggie ran No 10 in a very feminine way. It was like a family and the staff were treated like family members. Ms Slocock, herself a left-wing feminist, was surprised to find the PM bringing her a hyacinth plant on her first day. There was conversation about clothes, shoes and jewellery. Ms Slocock, who is a critic of workplaces being too strongly modelled on masculine norms, found the feminine side of Maggie's regime encouraging.

Maggie also used her sexual charms when she chose to - she was proud of her shapely legs and would sometimes display them. She knew they were an asset.

In the world we are moving into, women in commanding positions will be everywhere, and that's hugely positive.

It's surely time the sisterhood made peace with the woman who, in modern times, blazed the trail.

Irish Independent

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