The Handbagger Gets Handbagged: Will the Iron Lady Leave a Legacy for Young Women to Follow?


Andrea Vallone

If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.
Margaret Thatcher

Dubbed “The Iron Lady,” “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher,” “Shrew,” “Attila the Hen,” or more simply, “the Bitch,” Margaret Thatcher died last Monday on April 8 at the age of 87. Some will remember Thatcher as the ultimate female icon, and others will remember her as that vaguely well-dressed she-devil who would never gain entry into the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. What would Thatcher say?

Most likely she probably wouldn’t give two flying ducks if people called her a meanie; Thatcher was met with a plethora of epithets beginning with her seat as the President of the Conservative Association at Oxford in the 1940s. Thus any posthumous slander by our agoraphobic friends on the World Wide Web would be met with an eye-roll. But what is equally, if not more, subversive than the commentaries on her persona or political views are the assaults on her portrait as a leading lady of the “fairer sex.”

On paper, Thatcher sounds like the woman to beat: she was the first woman to become prime minister of Britain and the first ever to pilot a major Western power post World War II. With a firm foot forward she held office for a total of 11 years—a feat unparalleled in 20th century Britain. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, her tenure was longer than any British Prime Minister in 150 years. The woman must have been doing something right (pun unintended).

Quite simply, WWII spat out a decrepit country and Thatcher caught it. Britain was experiencing intense economic decline—ravaged with inflation, budget deficits and social unrest—and Thatcher greeted it with open arms. Her stringent short-term policies (such as increasing taxes at the lowest point of Britain’s recession), although put forth to improve Britain in the long term, were, unfortunately, not met with applause (déjà vu anyone?). But, just two years after her election, Britain saw economic recovery. Moreover, Thatcher swiftly reclaimed the Falkland Islands from Argentinean invasion the following year. Implementing high-risk economic policies coupled with advocating a strenuous and autonomous foreign policy, Thatcher turned heads. She was re-elected for second and third terms in which she played similar tunes by meeting crises with rigorous policies and increasing Britain’s popularity both at home and abroad. She may have been a bitch, but damn, this bitch was good.

And yet, feminists from every corner of the world tell you to talk to the hand (or sometimes even, the fist) if Thatcher is associated with supporting women; simply put, Thatcher was the woman who didn’t care about women. Only eight women were appointed during Thatcher’s tenure and only one of them, Baroness Young, advanced higher than junior minister, and she was never elected to parliament. From the words of University of California, Santa Barbara’s own Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and Chair of the Feminist Studies Department, Thatcher “destroyed the welfare state, which was good for women,” essentially “making things worse for poor women.” Thatcher’s response to the lack of sisters in government during her tenure was: “But no, a woman must rise through merit. There must be no discrimination.” In effect, Thatcher did not view her gender as a factor in her rise to power, and thus would not treat gender as a particularly notable trait. Thatcher saw the loss of support from young women to the Conservative Party as simply a loss of voters, period—not a particular sector.

For Professor Boris, Thatcher demonstrated that “women can be equal to men” that “women can be just as bellicose as men,” however that “individual advancement does not advance the interests of the group.” What about in Hilary Clinton’s case, a liberal woman consistently fighting for the interests of the group, and yet not advancing individually? How does this reflect on America—a conservative party with a female leader can succeed in Britain but a liberal one in America cannot? The irony is suffocating. But what about global society overall, does a woman have to ditch the group to soar to victory?

There is no doubt that Thatcher’s achievements number many; but did she explicitly fight for Women’s Lib? No. But did she indirectly enact progression in said realm? Definitely. To quote Harriet Jones, curator of the Iron Ladies exhibition, in her comment to The Guardian, “Is feminism the same as alcoholism? Do you have to say you are one before you can be one?” Thatcher definitely did not set out to be “liked” by her sisters, and as a result did not compromise her agenda in achieving many economic and political triumphs for both Britain and America. She will definitely be remembered as a historical icon—but she will also be remembered as a female historical icon. But one can’t help but wonder if Thatcher set the status quo—does one have to be a bitch to succeed? Thatcher would probably say, “I see no relevance between the two.”