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Thatcher's Gender Framed Her Politics

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THATCHER
AP

Margaret Thatcher soared through the political firmament of the twentieth century like a Roman candle. And one of the things that made her special was her gender. She was Britain's first female prime minister. The fact that she was a woman framed her politics. Yet, paradoxically, Thatcher was no feminist. And many working class women in Britain's industrial heartlands would say she destroyed their communities.

It is not frequently remarked on, but the fact that she was a woman gave her an edge in her leadership challenge to Tory party leader Edward Heath, because she was simply underestimated by her peers. Even her mentors like Airey Neave MP and Keith Joseph MP may have thought initially that they had a woman, who reflected their politics, but was biddable. In fact Thatcher was far from a nicely coifed cipher for the Tory right. But they could not have known that in the very beginning.

The man that she removed as leader of her party, Edward Heath, never forgave her. He went on to smoulder, visibly sulking, on the benches of the House of Commons for nearly ten years. One can only speculate that he might not have been quite so bitter if he had not been removed by someone he despised who was also a woman.

But the most striking effect of her gender was how difficult men found her to handle. The Tory politicians of her era would have had little to do with women. They had largely gone to all male private schools, went on to all male universities and moved in an all male world of work. Women were nannies and wives, not professional colleagues. Thatcher used their discomfiture with her to advantage. I first became an MP in 1987 when she was still prime minister. Up to that point I had spent my entire adult life campaigning against her and everything that she represented. But even I had to marvel at this carefully turned out woman with her elegant ankles who sat in the chamber of the House of Commons surrounded by serried ranks of grey male Tories in grey suits, who were all absolutely terrified of her. The Labour leader Neil Kinnock never worked out how to deal with her. However much he hated her politics, he always found it difficult to attack a woman. Foreign leaders were also struck by the fact of her gender. The French president Francois Mitterrand famously described her as having the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe. And her relationships with the American president Ronald Reagan and the Russian leader Gorbachev took on a unique quality because of the man/woman dynamic.

But Thatcher was certainly not a feminist either in principle or in practise. She is alleged to have said that feminism was "poison". Far from seeing herself as a role model to female politicians, she actually promoted fewer female MPs than her male predecessors. She was the archetypal successful woman who revelled in being 'one of the boys'. But in a curious way the cult around her, particularly in the later years of her career, was one that could only have been excited by a woman.

Millions of ordinary women had nothing to thank Thatcher for. Her monetarist policies wiped out fully 15% of Britain's industrial base. Her frontal assault on the National Union of Mineworkers destroyed mining communities up and down the country. There are pit villages everywhere that have never recovered from the Thatcher years. Her supporters glorify the fact that she demolished trade union power. But that left Britain a far more unequal society. And woman and communities suffered from that.

I remember the day she resigned, forced out by her own colleagues. The atmosphere in the House of Commons that evening was extraordinary. Tory MPs were giddy with excitement. There was a sort of suppressed excitement but also a palpable guilt. They were like schoolboys who had assassinated matron. They knew they had done something wrong, but they could not help revelling in it.

Whatever you think of her political record, no one can deny Thatcher's historic status. But no one can deny either that, despite her disavowal of feminism, her gender was an essential part of the myth of Thatcher.

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