Handbags & Gladrags: Why Margaret Thatcher matters

She may have claimed she owed “nothing to women’s lib”, but do today’s women owe anything to Margaret Thatcher? This morning’s panel – titled Ironing it out: Margaret Thatcher – feminist icon? – attempted to answer that question. Journalists Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism,  Ann Leslie – who travelled around China with Thatcher when the latter was Leader of the Opposition – were joined by Laura Liswood,  Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders to discuss women’s relationship with the Iron Lady.

It was a subject close to my heart – sitting through Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance earlier this year, I realised that I knew very little about her outside the political satire that dominated the left wing newspapers and comedy shows of the early 1990s. Reading John Campbell’s impressively detailed two-volume biography – The Grocer’s Daughter and The Iron Lady – I found myself fascinated by a woman whose struggles I recognised.

But as the most divisive politician of the 20th century, how could I – as a left wing feminist whose earliest political memory was my father slamming the door in the face of a pollster who wanted to know if he backed Thatcher in her final fight against the colleagues that deposed her – honestly say that I admired her? Over the past few months I’ve kept quiet about my conflicted feelings, but today Natasha articulated everything I’ve been too embarrassed to say.

Afterwards I spoke to ReeRee Rockette, who had spoken up during the panel to say that when it comes to her importance as a role model for women, Thatcher’s policies aren’t important. The fact is that she achieved something no other woman had before – and tellingly, her three successors have all been men – and with a dearth of high profile female politicians, women have to take what they can get. She may have double-glazed the glass ceiling as soon as she’d smashed through it, but the fact that she got as far as she did is a triumph for feminism whether she likes it or not.

Ann made the point that Thatcher didn’t like women “because she knew that we knew what she was up to.” She wasn’t above using her feminine – and sexual – wiles for her own ends, but her real achievement was taking on the trappings of masculinity and making them work for her. Laura explained that the majority of female politicians have a less direct way of speaking, and are more modest in their descriptions of themselves and their views. Thatcher had none of that – there was, she so often said, no alternative. It was her way or the highway and politicians who didn’t get on board were dismissed as ‘wets’ and shuffled out of the Cabinet.

Although there’s a lot to be said for consensus politics, it’s refreshing to find a woman who wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind and had no intention of changing it. When asked if we considered her a feminist icon, only a handful of women raised their hands awkwardly. I was one of them. I may not like her convictions, but her courage in them is inspirational. I’ve gone from using her surname as an insult to finding her something of a role model – sorry Maggie, but this is one lady who is for turning.

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