Why Thatcher is no feminist icon

By George Bainbridge, 2nd year Politics & History student. 

What constitutes a feminist icon? This post seeks to lay out a few criteria, and to demonstrate how Thatcher fundamentally failed to meet them and thus cannot be considered a feminist icon.

Firstly, I would contend that a totally fundamental part of being considered a feminist icon is that the person in question must be considered a powerful and unequivocal symbol of female equality: taking any reputable definition of feminism must see it as a movement striving for greater equality between men and women, and thus to be an icon for said movement it follows that an individual must be committed to female equality.

Those who argue in favour of the proposition might contend that Thatcher’s mere status as a female prime minister is enough to demonstrate a commitment to female equality, as it proved that women were able to smash the glass ceiling. Were we to even glance at Thatcher’s rhetoric this could be seen to be untrue; the corrosively and exclusively individualistic nature of her brand of neoliberalism is deeply at odds with feminist thought, a movement which identifies with the rhetoric of solidarity and equality, with those that have power supposedly helping those without.

Thatcher didn’t stand for a reorganisation of patriarchal society. Instead, she stood for what macho, sexist, patriarchal men stood for: militarism, the status quo, established power, entrenched inequality, heavily-rigged and supposedly individualist competition and the impoverished notion of freedom of the greedy savagery of an unregulated market in which man eats man and ‘woman is neither seen nor heard’, to quote the author Bidisha.

Let us suppose however, that we take proposition’s contention at face value and her actions (becoming a female PM) speak louder than her words: here too, we can see that in no way does Thatcher constitute a force for female equality. To quote Bidisha again, ‘on rape, domestic violence, childcare, benefits for single mothers, discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual inequality, Thatcher did nothing’. She failed to act even on equal pay for men and women. If her actions speak louder than her words, then Thatcher’s signal lack of policies which in any way helped to alleviate the systematic inequality faced by women speak very loudly indeed that she was no feminist icon.

A further criterion for being an icon of a movement is that the individual in question must be someone who is a representative symbol of that movement. Thatcher’s referring to feminism as ‘poison’ clearly shows that she was in no way representative of people in the feminist movement who spent their entire lives fighting for it, in the teeth of persistent demonisation of the word ‘feminism’ itself – for Thatcher to refer to it as poison not only put back the cause, but clearly demonstrates that she can in no way sufficiently be seen as a representative symbol of the feminist movement in the way necessary for her to be termed a feminist icon.

None of this is to say that Thatcher was not a successful woman, and it is not to say that she was not a formidable person. However, not all successful women are feminist icons – if people harm the cause of feminism in the course of their career, as this post argues Thatcher did, clearly they don’t get to be a feminist icon. Even if one were to concede proposition’s claim that she was a role model, if a person doesn’t go some way towards changing the unequal society people see you as a role model to succeed within, you cannot be termed a feminist icon.



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