No UK based blog about women can ignore the death this week of Margaret Thatcher. She has been too important for us all in the last 40 years, and not in ways that we enjoyed. For someone like me who has worked on both researching and supporting practical initiatives to recruit more women into science Margaret Thatcher is an anachronism. Biographers agree that Thatcher deliberately chose to study for Chemistry because she knew it would be easier for her to get access to Oxford for Chemistry than for another subject. They all agree that she always aimed for a career in politics had even told a fellow student that she would have been helped more in her political career if she had studied law. So rather than struggling to enter the masculine world of science, she used it as a useful stepping stone to an even more masculine world of politics.
I first came across Thatcher as a young student teacher in the early 1970s. She was Secretary of State for Education and I was part of a group of young teachers invited to the Houses of Parliament to ‘discuss’ issues with her. I think I went because I liked the idea of seeing the inside of a committee room in the House. I knew little about her, but was y wary of Conservative education policy. All I remember of her at the event was wondering why this was a billed as a discussion. We asked questions she didn’t answer them, but spoke about things she had clearly planned to speak about before we arrived. That just shows how innocent I was of professional politicians. I remember her voice as horribly grating: this was before she was ‘de-elocuted’, to undo the years of elocution lessons.
But despite this only and unpleasant experience of her, I supported her in the 1979 election. As a radical feminist I believed that having a political party in power led by a woman would be revolutionary enough to counterbalance the impact of the party having policies I did not agree with. My Lefty friends were horrified. But there was no way that the Labour party would have had a woman leader at that date, and it is important not to forget just how sexist traditional left wing political practice was. Very soon Thatcher made it clear that she was actively against feminism, and her actions suggest that she was not that keen on gender equality. I also learned a lesson that changed my feminism – that getting women into places of power does not necessarily change gender subordination or inequality. There are still many feminists who seem to believe that change will be brought about by equalising the numbers of women at the top of politics and the professions. It is a naïve position that doesn’t recognise that the complex interactions of gender/race/class/caste …. structure social position and power. Sometimes gender becomes the less important aspect of what detemines opportunity, and worse sometimes it blinds everyone to bigger issues of inequity and injustice which are hidden by its shining light. A recent IPPR report notes:
‘The narrow focus on women at the top and on work as purely emancipatory ignores the polarisation of women’s experiences of work and glosses over the fact that men also occupy different positions of power and class. Furthermore, the suggestion of linear progress for women risks reaffirming the current economic and political model, at a time when deep rethinking is required. The narrative of progress resonates with some families, but life has not gotten better for all women. Some compared their life to their grandmother’s, and felt it was worse.’
So yes, we now all think that leading a country is an appropriate job for a woman, but the daughter of a young single parent today probably has less opportunity to reach such a position than her post-war baby boomer grandmother. Are both these trends attributable to the Thatcher revolution?