Margaret Thatcher and the True Scotsman

10/04/2013 09:41 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 10:12 BST

I'm not going to talk about her policies - although I think I mind them a lot more in hindsight than I did at the time - I want to talk about her other legacy. The feminist one. Yes, really.

We are often told that the UK lags behind other countries when it comes to the number of women in senior roles: as Members of Parliament, on company boards, or otherwise visible in public life. I have a feeling that at least some of this phenomenon is directly attributable to Mrs Thatcher herself. She was a certain kind of woman: strident, formal, unpersuadable, always right, dogmatic, self-important, pompous... in fact she exhibited many of the attributes common in unpopular male leaders. So much so, that a writer whom I very much like and respect wrote this on his twitter feed about Thatcher's death:

'General consensus this side of the fence. If only she had been a woman she'd have been OK.

As a woman her faults were all masculine. As a male she made the worst possible job of being female. Meanwhile the sky is still unfallen.'

Let's not dwell on the flippancy that comes from social media. I found these comments interesting, because the writer is obviously struggling with a cognitive dissonance, between what he remembers of Thatcher, and what he expects of women. The way to reconcile this in his mind is to jokingly label her a man, because we all know that a proper woman can't possibly act the way Thatcher did, don't we? Luck and Flaw agreed with him; their Spitting Image caricature of Thatcher usually showed her in a man's suit and a tie.

This regendering of Thatcher is an example of a rhetorical fallacy known as the 'No True Scotsman' argument, first noted by philosopher Anthony Flew, and described in Wikipedia as follows:

No True Scotsman is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.

To simplify, here's an example, again from Wikipedia:

Person A: 'No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.'

Person B: 'I am a Scotsman, and I put sugar on my porridge.'

Person A: 'Then you are not a true Scotsman.'

I hope that is a bit clearer! So we can reframe the fallacy as follows:

Person A: 'No woman is strident, formal, unpersuadable, always right, dogmatic... etc.'

Person B: 'But Mrs Thatcher is a woman and she is all of those things.'

Person A: 'Then Mrs Thatcher is not a proper woman, she must therefore be a man.'

And so, Person A maintains his (or her) stereotypes on what behaviours are possible from a 'proper' woman. And any woman who would find it insulting to be called a man, subliminally reminds herself never to be strident, formal, unpersuadable, always right, dogmatic... etc. for fear of the same negative comparison as Thatcher was subjected to.

I'm assuming that for this reason, many women who strive for positions of authority have backed down when they have been compared to Margaret Thatcher. It has happened to me, and for once I shut up very quickly. Thatcher is a great stick to beat us with. Even worse, many people who might have voted for, or promoted, an able and assertive woman, may not have done so, for fear they are encouraging a new Margaret Thatcher to emerge. Not only did Thatcher herself not promote the interests of women, but the public perception of her has probably tainted the careers of many able women. Because we know that women are all stereotypes, don't we, gentlemen?

It bothers me greatly, when well-meaning people, trying to be 'feminist', claim that we need more women at senior levels in organisations, because they bring a different skill-set to that of men. Skills like empathy, co-operation, nurturing, and non-aggression. It bothers me, because not only are they making vast assumptions about the characteristics that women are allowed to display, but they are asking women to play with only that poor set of cards in male-run environments. Some men I've spoken to about this admit that the women who are senior where they work are just as competitive, and just as astute at office politics, as any of the men. I guess those women have got where they are by natural selection.

Gender historian Elaine Chalus put it this way on @TheWomensRoomUK twitterfeed:

'too aggressive, combative, arrogant - not cooperative & consensual - based on stereotypes of femininity'

Since Thatcher's death was announced, social media has been full of women assuming (wrongly) they owe a debt to her, in comments like:

'Whatever you may think of her politics' (and there always seems to be some sort of preface of that sort) 'I grew up knowing women could be leaders.'

I'd suggest to them that Thatcher has actually made it harder for a generation of women to be taken seriously as potential leaders. If you seek her memorial, look around you.

I don't want to shock anybody, but women, like men, can and do exhibit a broad range of behaviours, from the traditionally feminine to the extreme case which was Margaret Thatcher. Our currently accepted gender construct for 'feminine' would tend to restrict us to a narrow range of ways to be in the world. For many of us, that construct feels oppressive. Give us some credit for being different individuals, just as men are. Some of us will become leaders. Most of us will not turn out to be the Second Maggie.

But above all, please be assured that women will not fit neatly into the box society has constructed for us - also known as The Kitchen. And we probably won't be making you a sandwich.