The “Feminism” of Maggie Thatcher

I usually like watching Meryl Streep, but I seriously hope that she doesn’t win an Oscar on Sunday for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. I couldn’t stand the thought of more people going to see such a dreadful piece of right-wing propaganda.  I actually paid money to see The Iron Lady, a new film that is ostensibly about the life of Thatcher (nicknamed “the milk snatcher” for ending free school milk). All I could think about during the torturous 100 minutes, was what great timing this film is for the Republicans. Just as they try to sell neoliberal ideology to an increasingly impoverished working class, here comes a movie that celebrates one of their most ardent proponents. From the reviews, I expected a sanitized version of Thatcher’s hideously destructive policies, but this was so sanitized that you would have thought that this poor, misunderstood woman was in fact the best thing that ever happened to Britain since Marmite.

The film is mainly focused on the last few years where Thatcher’s increasing dementia makes her a kinder and gentler neoliberal. This was a clever ploy by the filmmakers since it would have been difficult to generate any empathy for Thatcher had it centered on her glory days of dismantling Britain’s welfare state. In place of the mean spirited, vicious shill of the elite that she was, we get a doddering old woman who has heart-warming conversations with deceased Denis. In flashbacks, she is depicted as the only Tory “man” enough to destroy the money-grabbing unions.

When we do get a glimpse, and mind you it is just a glimpse, of the hell she put the country through – from the miners’ strike to the Falkland’s war – the next scenes show her being celebrated,  because tough as she was, and however bitter the medicine, we are assured that her policies delivered Britain from socialist decay to prosperity. When the filmmakers show her critics, it is either hapless Michael Foot frothing at the mouth, or angry strikers screaming in her face as poor Maggie looks on pained and scared. The working class is reduced to a band of nameless thugs who are busy burning buildings, and too stupid to understand how her draconian cuts will, in the long run, save them. To be fair, there are scenes of police brutality, but these are overwhelmed by images of Thatcher shuffling around in her slippers talking to Denis.

One of the more interesting themes in the film is the idea that Thatcher saw herself as a trailblazer for women. Much has been written about her dislike of feminism, and the fact that women and children suffered disproportionally from her policies, and that during her time in office, she appointed just one woman to her cabinet. Of course, few feminists want to own Thatcher as a kindred sister, but in a way, Thatcher should be seen as an example of what happens when feminism adopts Thatcherism.

In a bizarre way, Thatcher’s “feminism” was prescient in that today’s popular feminism, with its celebration of individual empowerment and personal choices, indeed makes Thatcher a Third Wave feminist success story. The movie celebrates her tough decisions, and her obstinate agency, whatever the consequences. Similarly, today’s feminism-lite is all about the elite women who get to enjoy the goodies that capitalism hands out to a few of us, devoid of any political understanding of how economic, political and legal institutions operate to limit the life chances of poor white women and women of color. These elite women run the mainstream blogs, journals and publishing houses, and it is their experiences that become normalized and celebrated as feminism.

That these women may be working in institutions that reproduce gender, class and racial inequality, and hence are now part of the problem, is ignored, and those who do point this out are smacked down for denying women “agency.”  Equally problematic is the inability of elite feminists to understand that, just because they themselves have class and race privileges, this does not change the conditions of life for most women on the planet. Developing theory from the experiences of the most privileged individuals makes for a feminist movement that is popular with the boys, but irrelevant to most women. Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society; no structure, no collectivity, only individuals. She was wrong, but how awful that much of what passes for feminism today has embraced such an idea.

GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press)

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