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Thatcher's Feminist Legacy

11/04/2013 13:48 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

Margaret Thatcher will no doubt be remembered as one of the most influential British women of the 20th Century, if not of all time. The dearth of women in leadership, not only in the UK, but around the world means that women in power often find themselves hailed as feminist icons, whether they identify with the goals of women's liberation or not. Thatcher was certainly one such reluctant feminist icon, sympathizing very little with the feminist agenda of her day and doing little to advance and empower women in Westminster or beyond. However we should not underestimate the psychological impact of having a woman at the fore of British politics for twelve years and the accidental effect her time in power had on women's aspirations. Throughout her career, Thatcher projected and normalised a certain kind of female success, quite possibly inspiring many other women to follow in her footsteps. However, this kind of female success was distinctly individualist and went against the grain of collective action that had characterised much of feminism so far.

Margaret Thatcher had a complex relationship with women's rights. She certainly wasn't a feminist, famously claiming to hate feminism and calling it a "poison". She was no advocate of female power or the sisterhood, doing little to advance women in her own party; during her twelve years in office, only one woman - Baroness Young - was appointed to her Cabinet. Her policies were also not particularly conducive to the advancement of women. She held a decidedly traditionalist stance, condemning working mothers for creating a "crèche generation" and refusing to invest in affordable childcare.

On the other hand, when it suited her politically, she positioned herself as the champion of the British woman, embracing her femininity. Before her ascent to the Conservative Party leadership, she used her sex as a point of difference, claiming she had a "woman's ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else leaves it".

And so Thatcher has come to encapsulate many contradictory images of womanhood. On the one hand, she embodied the traditional housewife, managing the country, as one would tend to a home. While to many, such as Russell Brand, her power was that of a matriarch, a national matron or headmistress. Whatever their views on her policies, her gender always plays a significant role in people's memories of her legacy. She is remembered as an exceptionally strong woman - her gender being significant whether one believes she succeeded in spite or because of it.

However, Thatcher herself and her ideology are at great odds with such a characterisation. She denied the importance of her gender, seeing "her sex as an irrelevancy" and being "annoyed by people who make too much of a fuss over it". Perhaps most importantly, her belief in individualism was incongruent with any belief in a women's movement or a desire to characterise herself as a feminist role model. She saw success as based entirely in the merit and achievement of individuals, and in many ways she was an example of this: a woman of modest background rising to the highest office in the land.

Having a woman in the top job doubtless had a great impact, both on female aspirations and the male perceptions of what women are capable of. However, her legacy for feminism and female ambition is a neo-liberal one. Thatcher's daughters would come to define female success in individualist terms, with the goal for many feminists being defined as individual success in the workplace. Thatcher's image brought us away from the early conceptions of second wave feminism as a true movement for female empowerment, to a catty generation of "lipstick feminists" fighting each other for their place in the boardroom, rather than acting together to tackle the problems that face women across the country together. Thatcher was the antithesis of the sisterhood, something we must now fight to rebuild, along with so many other means of collective action that she tore down.