22/04/2013 13:29 BST | Updated 22/06/2013 06:12 BST

The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Masters House: Thatcher's Legacy on Power, Leadership and Feminism


In response to Margret Thatcher's death, much has been written, usually introduced by the words 'Britain's first female Prime Minister'. She has been described by some on the right as the ultimate feminist icon, and across the spectrum as important as the first female leader in Whitehall, a woman 'gaining power' in a man's world. However, Thatcher did nothing but harm feminism, and the wonderful Audre Lourde quote 'the Masters tools will never dismantle the Masters house' depicts exactly why.

The power yielded by Thatcher during her tenure as leader can only be understood through the normative lens of exerting 'powers over' others'. An understanding of this use (or abuse) of power explains why certain groups are dominant; it explains why the vast majority of money, land, resources and leadership positions are in the hands of white, middle class men. It is characterized by authority, strength, force, and ruthlessness, even violence. By contrast, feminist conceptions of power infer 'power to do' or 'to be able', characterized by capability, potential and ability. Feminist theories offer an alternative social model based in the notion of power as a resource for social good - to be equally distributed.

Gender difference, (as well as race, sexuality, disability and class), is the embodiment of power; men have it, women do not. To gain power, Thatcher had to essentially 'be' a man. She embodied the normative conceptions of power in her leadership. Authoritative, strong, ruthless, and forceful, even violent (think of her foreign policy towards the Falklands). In doing so, she proved that the only way to compete in a system created by white, middle class men, is to be one of them. She showed that the leadership characteristics we value highly in women as mothers; care, compassion, fairness, inclusivity, compromise, sympathy, are permissible only in a domestic (and may I add, unpaid) sense. Instead, to succeed in a man's world (i.e. everywhere but the home) success is valued only in measures of 'power over'.

She embodied 'power over', in a way that no male leader before or after her has done and in doing so became a poster-woman for male modes of dominance instead of being a role model for feminism. Thus, those who claim Thatcher as a feminist icon reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what feminism is - rather than creating new models and structures which could bring about equality and open the door for women to access leadership roles based on valuing what women can bring to the table, Thatcher reinforced with emphasis the existing structures which value only male conceptions of power. The internalization of patriarchal concepts of power and leadership that this brought about was unprecedented, as women and men from right to left accepted and normalized her macho leadership style and continue to revere her as a feminist icon.

David Cameron remarked that Thatcher had "smashed through the glass ceiling" - she did, but not for women, simply for herself. She did not open the door for other women behind her; rather, she smashed the glass and replaced it with barbed wire fencing. She reinforced a system that does not allow for female leadership unless it acquiesces to patriarchal modes. Despite remarking that ;I think women just have a special ability to cope' she did not see fit to reward the capable women around her, promoting only one woman to cabinet during her tenure. In fact, the comment was a purely self-serving compliment, which emphasizes her individualistic nature that is at odds with feminism. Thatcher did not care for other women or for dismantling patriarchy; she embraced patriarchy and imbued its notion of 'power over'.

Tessa Jowell MP wrote in the Guardian this week: 'by mentoring women and giving them experience of how to deal with politics as it is, we can introduce a new generation of parliamentarians who are able to continue the feminisation we started'. I understand her thought process of the importance of increasing the numbers of women in politics, however I have to respectfully disagree that ingratiating women into the existing structures by teaching them 'how to deal' with it, is the route to 'feminisation'. The system is inherently patriarchal, it forces women to leave those invaluable characteristics associated with being a woman at the door. To rise to the top, you have to be willing to be the absolute best at playing by men's rules. Thatcher was better than the rest at playing the patriarch; she reinforced the existing system and slammed the door in the face of women and feminism.

The title of Tessa Jowell's article, Thatcher's legacy for women was nonexistent, struck a chord with me, but after some consideration I had to disagree. I would say that Thatcher's legacy is considerable upon both women and on feminism; the effect of her policies was devastatingly detrimental to individual women, while her use of 'power over' in her role as a leader was instrumental in a wave of internalized patriarchal values. Furthermore, her ideology systematically denied, on every level, any form of institutionalized oppression; the foundation of feminist theory.

In the end, Thatcher was a victim of her own use of power; she acted as part of the ruling group, doing their will and furthering their interests, but was ultimately ousted by the same group. Ultimately it was a group of white, middle class men, the cabinet, who exerted their 'power over' Thatcher, because despite her machoism, she was still disposable. Instead of her, they instated Major whom they rightly conceived of as someone they could manipulate and control. The 'masters tools' got the better of her in the end. It was the one time that I could conceive of her as a woman rather than a prime minister. Oh the irony of that Iron Lady.