The leadership race, or what semblance of a leadership race there was, between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom has been one dominated by explicit focus on gender and what, to my mind, is the irrationally optimistic heralding of a feminist revolution. In the over-simplified eyes of many media outlets, two women on the ballot card rang synonymous with uncontaminated progress, change and victory for women, with many racing to draw comparisons between both candidates and Britain's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Let me stress: I would love to think that our Prime Minister being a woman could mean more for feminism than simply the reassertion that head of state is a genderless position, however I remain infinitely more cautious, and Thatcher is the main reason why.
When, on 4th May 1979, a former Lincolnshire grammar school girl stood on the steps of Number 10, Downing Street in a royal blue suit quoting St Francis of Assisi, Britain felt itself to be witnessing a landmark victory for women. She beamed triumphantly from the front pages of international newspapers under ground-breaking headlines: "FIRST WOMAN TO HEAD A EUROPEAN GOVERNMENT". The power of those images and the effect of her win can never be underestimated. A woman was Prime Minister: in and of itself, this was revolutionary.
But the progress stopped there. What ostensibly appeared to be a victory for feminism - the rise to power of Britain's first female Prime Minister at the zenith of the Women's Liberation movement - was, in actuality, greatly undermined by Thatcher's total dissociation from the cause. Infamously claiming "I owe nothing to women's lib" and denouncing feminism as "poison", she hypocritically reinforced restrictive gender stereotypes which she herself had defied in her ascension to power. As her daughter, Carol, said, "She led by example", but this - for feminists - was never quite enough, with activist Beatrix Campbell concluding: "Nothing Margaret Thatcher did, absolutely nothing, created positive change for women. In fact she made everything worse."
During her ascension to power, hope and optimism for the advancement of women under Thatcher can be forgiven, for she continually endorsed the widening of the female arena, stating that "the home should be the centre but not the boundary of a woman's life". In an article she wrote in 1952 entitled 'Wake Up, Women!' Thatcher insisted that having a career and children "could be combined", claiming that "the idea that the family suffers is [...] quite mistaken". Although promising, such statements were wholeheartedly undermined by the unbendingly Victorian stance she adopted from the 1970s onwards, rendering the rise to power of the first female premier, as former politician Shirley Williams famously lamented, "a wasted opportunity on a gargantuan scale". As Prime Minister she came increasingly to attribute social problems, crime and educational failure to the neglect of children by working mothers, condemning the rise of a "crèche society", freezing child benefit and introducing a tax on workplace nurseries, adding between £700 to £1,000 to women's tax bills. Having become a role model for the generation behind her, Thatcher came to see herself as the exception to the rule, hypocritically condemning her emulators and championing the very stereotypes she had defied thirty years before.
Throughout her entire time in office, just one woman - Baroness Young, an unelected peer - secured a place in Thatcher's Cabinet, merely for one term. Fewer female MPs returned in Thatcher's 1979 government than in any election since 1951. In terms of in the workplace, so little progress was made on reducing the gender wage gap, that the European Court was forced to intervene, criticising the 1970 Equal Pay Act for failing to comply with the EEC Equal Pay Directive. Margaret Thatcher was no feminist hero and would have scorned the title herself. Her premiership tells us that it takes more than being elected to smash a glass ceiling; it takes helping others up too, not pulling the ladder up behind you.
So, for me, Theresa May becoming Prime Minister is no clear sign of a new epoch of feminist history. That a woman will be head of state is undeniably a marker of our society being a great deal more egalitarian than it once was, and the effect that this will have on the generation growing up currently fills me with hope and confidence. When John Major succeeded Thatcher in 1990, Jenni Murray's 7 year old son, having only lived in a country under Thatcher, looked confusedly up at her and exclaimed, "Mum, I thought that was a woman's job!" Anecdotes such as this emphasise the ideological impact of female premiership on concepts of gender roles, however 'woman' (sadly) does not equal 'feminist' and it is a premature leap to assume that May will, in terms of legislation, take us all forward into a golden era of equality. We must wait and see what her time in office holds for us before simplistically and wrongfully labelling her a feminist hero for nothing other than being a woman.
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