Was Thatcher Given the Sexist Treatment?

She came closest to being monarchy, so it is only apt that they promise her a funeral no less than Lady Diana’s.  Britons are terribly excited about her last rites, and many seem to convey that it is to make sure she is finally buried.

Her death at 87 should have been a regular and, one may say, redundant R.I.P. Instead, there has been a fusillade of anger, impossible to temper with the accolades.

She was quite rightly loathed for the things she did. However, given the lapse of time and the fact that the British government continues to be one of the nations that supports war and uses its Hague privilege for not entirely ethical reasons, has her death become a reason for regurgitation of liberal angst?

Morrisey, the former Smiths singer, was among the first to get started:

“Every move she made was charged by negativity; she destroyed the British manufacturing industry, she hated the miners, she hated the arts, she hated the Irish Freedom Fighters and allowed them to die, she hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them, she hated Greenpeace and environmental protectionists, she was the only European political leader who opposed a ban on the Ivory Trade, she had no wit and no warmth and even her own Cabinet booted her out…When the young Argentinian boys aboard The Belgrano had suffered a most appalling and unjust death, Thatcher gave the thumbs up sign for the British press. Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes.”

Had it been somebody else, perhaps even Di, people might have questioned Morrisey’s misogyny.  He got lucky simply because Maggie Thatcher liked being the only man in the cabinet.  What is considered a shocking statement is being replayed in a loop. She had said, infamously, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

Somewhere, the ire over issues has got mixed up with a matter of class.  The Grocer’s Daughter sounds like the title of a 19th century novel about a queen of suburbia; she cannot afford to be the Iron Lady, much less be conferred with the title of Baroness by a reigning monarch who did not even like her and who she appeared to have despised in equal measure.  If she is anti-feminism, then the queen is equally culpable.

Morrisey reveals his own chinks when he says: “She hated feminists even though it was largely due to the progression of the women’s movement that the British people allowed themselves to accept that a Prime Minister could actually be female. But because of Thatcher, there will never again be another woman in power in British politics, and rather than opening that particular door for other women, she closed it.”

This is a problem not just about Britain, but in societies across the globe, varied cultures notwithstanding. While the role of the feminist movement is hugely important in making women understand their potential and seek out opportunities to realise them, it is a delusion to believe that all women will benefit equally. They do not, and the struggles continue. It is disingenuous to imagine that only because of one dictatorial woman’s policies, British society will not accept another woman at the helm. It does not speak too well about such a society if women have to open doors (kind of mimicking chivalry) for other women rather than this being civilisational evolution. Are male leaders who have displayed a propensity for the very things that Ms. Thatcher did expected to help the cause of their gender?

Why treat the professional public sphere as a harem? Why don’t male leaders bring about this change in attitude and leave the space open for women as their right and not something they are granting them?  Feminism is, ideally, not about sops, although one agrees that certain laws need to ensure that women are not victimised by a largely patriarchal mindset. When French President, the late François Mitterrand described Thatcher’s features as the “eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”, he was performing a typical masculine ritual – of using a compliment as a weapon. Monroe, at least in the public imagination, stood for little more than sex appeal; Caligula’s warrior status is the stuff of legend. Had he stuck to the latter piece, it might have reduced him in some way.

This is echoed in Morrisey, when he states:

“Thatcher is remembered as The Iron Lady only because she possessed completely negative traits such as persistent stubbornness and a determined refusal to listen to others.”

How many male leaders listen to others? Why is this expected of women? Why does the moniker ‘Iron lady’ convey negative traits in women and the same iron looks good on a man on a mission with stubborn determination?

It is rather disconcerting that there wasn’t, and isn’t, much analysis of how Margaret Thatcher, despite all her flaws, was given the sexist treatment. Feminists are, therefore, doing precisely what men have done, which is why despite my own stand against her policies – in as much as I am aware of them and can comprehend their impact – I find myself asking these questions.

A few days ago U.S. President Barack Obama was accused of being sexist because he said that Kamala Harris is the “best looking Attorney General we have ever had”.  It was after listing her other qualities, and many saw it as reducing her stature. It was probably unnecessary, but at times we do tend to become too self-conscious. And, curiously, we believe such public expressions are not ‘gentlemanly’, which is really a posh version of machismo.

I’d pay more attention to what Obama said in his tribute to Thatcher: “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” This statement sounds so last summer. Must the glass ceiling example still prevail in public discourse and that too for a future generation?

In 2010, Margaret Thatcher was declared the most important role model and influential woman in the world in a survey by YouGov and AOL UK; it had a limited sample of 2000 respondents.

How do we measure influence? Can influence in one field cross all barriers? Does political influence translate into social influence? Does social influence coalesce seamlessly into psychological influence?

Is being a role model gender-specific? If it is so, then would the influence of men in the same field be measured differently? Would Thatcher’s male counterparts be considered more influential or less, and on what grounds? Since there was a clear gender orientation to the survey, she was in competition with other women. Her closest competitor was Florence Nightingale! Who would think about a nurse going around with a lantern to heal wounded soldiers as a contemporary inspiration?  Or was she a reminder of wars and therefore fresh again in memory?

The most revealing part of the survey was the question: who would they swap their lives with? Thatcher, who won the top position, was not someone they would want to be. Isn’t that what role models are about? Most women said they would like to exchange places with J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series.

Does it figure then that a woman who is not worthy of emulation and has not inspired or encouraged or had a deep impact is the one people want to be? Or possibly Thatcher had too much baggage for anyone to carry.

On April 17, if she does indeed get a funeral similar to the paparazzi princess, it is safe to assume that many might see this as the last nail in the coffin, an insult she deserved.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/



Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections