Margaret Thatcher never cared much for feminists and other progressive equal-rights movements. Yet she deserves to be honored by those of us who do, whether we like the result of her politics or not.
Thatcher, who died recently at age 87 after a stroke, was irritated ironically by her most memorable achievement, that she was her country’s first and, so far, only woman to be elected prime minister.
That’s no small achievement. Yet she bristled at any suggestion that she had gotten to where she was by any means other than her own merit.
“I would hate a person to ask me a question, Are you a quota woman or are you a merit woman?” she said in a 1993 interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, three years after she left office. “Well, I would like [the assessment of] whatever I did to be that I got there because I was the right person for the job. It didn’t matter as a man or a woman. I had the right qualities for the job, the right beliefs, the right principles. I wasn’t a quota.”
Such is the burden of being a “first” or “only.” Thatcher had at least two glass ceilings to break. One was discrimination against her for being a woman. The other was the presumption that she had received special breaks because she was a woman. British politicians were becoming sensitive in these post-1960s times, after all, to the need to have at least one woman at the table.
She competed in a man’s world, determined to beat other men at their own game, her biographers say, and didn’t want any favors to her as a woman.
It is fair to say, looking at her biography, that her breaking of glass ceilings came most of all from an inner courage, conviction, resourcefulness and determination that ultimately was inseparable from the rest of her formidable personality.
After all, this shopkeeper’s daughter from eastern England graduated with a chemistry degree from Oxford University and later became a barrister at time when neither profession welcomed women.
If anything, she had her own Thatcherite form of feminism, speaking of women not as victims but for their strengths. “If you want something said, ask a man,” she said in a 1965 speech to a national women’s group. “If you want something done, ask a woman.”
And she had few illusions about the thickness of glass ceilings, saying in the early 1970s that she did not expect to live long enough to see a female prime minister. Instead, she eventually exceeded her own expectations.
Yet Thatcher also was a very polarizing figure. Unlike her good friend President Ronald Reagan, whose folksy Irish storyteller’s wit often smoothed ruffled feathers, Thatcher’s stiff-upper-lip call for tough measures left many feathers quite ruffled.
Yet tough measures were needed. Britain in the late 1970s, where I briefly worked as a reporter, was flat on its back politically, economically and spiritually with postwar, postindustrial decline. Thatcher pushed tax cuts, privatization, union busting and tight-spending policies that brought relief to many but increased suffering to others.
A year later, however, her principled inflexibility led to her party removing her from power. It also paved the way to a new center-left “third way” politics that helped bring Tony Blair to power in England — and Bill Clinton-style Democrats in the U.S.
It is hard to know how much of Margaret Thatcher’s public toughness grew out of a need to overcome sexist stereotypes about women as leaders. But there’s no question she helped provide a model of leadership that crosses party and gender lines.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.