Margaret Thatcher and Gender
“In politics, if you want anything said ask a man, if you want anything done ask a woman.”
It can be said without doubt that Margaret Thatcher evoked a wide range of opinions among the British public, before, during and after her premiership. One only needs to consider the campaign by anti-Thatcher campaigners to get Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to Number One in the British music charts shortly after her death to see that the legacy of her actions continues to resonate with large numbers of people.
Yet, we cannot forget that not only did Thatcher win three general elections in a row – the first time a party had won three consecutive elections since the provision of universal suffrage– but she was also the first female Prime Minister. The importance of gender, both actual and perceived, in Thatcher’s prime ministerial career should not be overlooked, something which has increasingly come to the forefront of British political historiography in recent years.
Anneke Ribberink comments that the application of gendered analysis to Thatcher’s premiership (much like gendered considerations of the Northern Irish Troubles) is a largely female phenomenon. Whilst excellent studies on gender in politics exist, their application to gender and women in Thatcher’s era is limited. This article considers some of the interesting ways one can apply gender to Thatcher’s Britain, most notably through her identification of herself as a housewife, the satirisation of Thatcher by the media, and the ways in which Thatcher’s gender was perceived by women in the late twentieth century.
Thatcher as a housewife
One of the unique campaigns made possible to a female Prime Minister was the ability to directly appeal to the largely unconsidered category of housewives. By the 1950s, it was widely acknowledged that there was a gender gap with regards to voting for the main parties: men were more likely to vote Labour, and women more likely to vote Conservative. For example, in 1955, 55% of women voters voted for the Conservatives, with only 42% voting for Labour candidates. Despite some uncertainty about precise figures about the changes to the gap in the 1980s, it is widely accepted that the next time Labour were victorious over the Conservatives in regards to the women’s vote was New Labour’s landslide victory of 1997 – an election which also saw 120 women MPs elected, 101 of whom were New Labour members.
Therefore, the housewife was a largely unclaimed voter, whose traditional allegiance had been the Conservatives. Thatcher’s campaigns and communications with the general public sought to consolidate this support base, and to ‘forge a bond’ between herself and the ordinary woman. An example of this is the interview conducted with Douglas Keay, for Women’s Own, in October 1987, in which she states, ‘most of us work…’ Throughout the interview, Thatcher continually uses the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ to describe the populace of Britain; this is done to indicate a solidarity between herself and the voter. When we consider the provenance of the publication of the interview, it becomes clear that Thatcher is focusing on females in the British population, given the magazine’s title and clear focus on women. Furthermore, the interview with Keay is interesting, for it is largely remembered for Thatcher’s controversial statement, ‘there is no such thing as society.’ This statement ensured that the interview’s topic (individual and governmental responsibility) gained a wider audience than merely Women’s Own; however, it is interesting and relevant to consider the fact that such a groundbreaking interview was conducted with a journalist for a women’s magazine. It indicates that, as well as aiming to show solidarity with ordinary women, Thatcher did not treat the readership as being uneducated; she actively chose the medium of a women’s magazine to reveal her conceptions of authority.
Furthermore, in an interview given to the BBC Radio One programme, Speak Easy, in November 1977 as the opposition leader, Thatcher clearly highlights to the listener that she remains an ordinary woman at the same time as being the political leader of Great Britain. Throughout the interview, Thatcher discusses her plans to make 10 Downing Street ‘nice and cosy’ when she moves in, a discussion occurring eighteen months before she was elected as Prime Minister. The write-up of the interview by the Daily Mail names ‘Mrs Thatcher [as] the housewife,’ commenting that she does all her cleaning at weekends, which goes further to associate Thatcher with Britain’s housewives. However, in the same interview, Thatcher discussed her views on being the first woman Tory Party leader, and that cutting taxes would be her first job as Prime Minister. As with her interview with Woman’s Own, in this interview, Thatcher is making herself appeal to ordinary women in Britain by showing herself to be a housewife, just like them; she then draws them into the political sphere subtly, deftly tying herself to these inherently Conservative policies.
Thatcher as satire?
Something interesting to consider is the satire produced of Thatcher and her government, both during her premiership and after. Despite the ‘New Britannia’ promised by Tony Blair when his New Labour party won a resounding 171-seat majority in the 1997 General Election, images of Thatcher (and Thatcherism) continued to loom large. These tended to gloss over John Major, says Heather Joyce, reflecting how Thatcher dominated the late twentieth century political landscape. Particularly post-Blair’s election, cartoonists (for example Michael Cummings) tend to efface differences between Thatcher and Blair, often presenting the politicians as family members. Cartoons done in the ‘family-style’ tend to present Thatcher as the mother and Blair as the son; Thatcher is often dressed in a traditional dress, armed (as ever) with her handbag. An example of this is the Peter Brookes cartoon for The Times in 1996. Pictured left, it suggests that the ‘New’ Labour policy is actually merely Thatcher’s policy redressed. The cartoon gives prominence to Thatcher; indeed, the way she is holding Blair’s arm is indicative of the notion that she is guiding him towards victory. However, during her premiership, portrayals of Thatcher tended to take a much more masculine form. Examples from cartoonists such as Cummings and Nicholas Garland dating from across the 1980s portray a masculine Thatcher; in one, Thatcher is dressed as a male sportsman running from the miners. In another, she is described as thinking she is Charles de Gaulle, wearing his uniform. These can be considered the inversion of the traditional ‘put him in a dress’ cartoon to weaken the credibility of politicians, something which has occurred for decades. It is interesting to consider this use of masculine dress to depict Thatcher; though appearing solely derogatory, it can be considered both an endorsement and a rejection of her and her policies. In a very sexist manner, it can be considered an endorsement, because it is suggesting that, despite being a woman, she is a strong Prime Minister – strong enough to be considered the equivalent of a male. Yet it is also a rejection, because, as discussed above, Thatcher’s aim was to appeal to both sexes; by suggesting that she is a male politician, it is inferred that she is failing to capture the attention of her ‘target audience’.
Thatcher as a feminist symbol?
Thatcher did not consider herself a feminist. However, that did not mean that other women did not view her gender as an important part of her appeal to them. Randall and Lovenduski argue that her pinnacle position in the British Government had at least some effect; it indicated to ordinary women that they could indeed survive in a “man’s world”. A series of interviews conducted by Jane Pilcher in the mid-1990s indicate that, whilst there was a range of views on Thatcher, the fact that she was a female was of great significance. When asked about important events over the years, one respondent said, ‘Margaret Thatcher is one of the biggest. For us women.’ This suggests that the symbolic power of Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister negated the lack of progress she made on the front of women’s equality during her premiership, at least in the years after.
However, whilst her symbolic role is important, many feminists both at the time and subsequently strongly disapproved of the fact that Thatcher did nothing, or at best very little, to either encourage more women into politics, or to improve the situation of ordinary women. One finding by Pilcher was that most women expected Thatcher to promote and prioritise women’s issues, and felt disappointed by her failure to do so. Indeed. Laura Beers comments that feminists viewed her as the enemy of women’s liberation. However, we cannot forget that this was not the view of most women; though the gender gap in voting had narrowed in the 1980s, a significant number of women continued to admire and/or agree with Thatcher. Though the statistics differ slightly between the various opinion pollsters, MORI polls suggest that 46% of women in 1983 voted Conservative, whereas only 42% of men did. Though this is a much narrower gap than in previous opinion polls, that the gap remains indicates that, for some reason, women continued to vote Conservative. Whether this is explained by Thatcher’s appeal to women or merely by an innate ‘conservatism’ within women, will never be completely clear.
To conclude, it is clear that considering gender in conjunction with Thatcher’s premiership offers a deeper and more vibrant understanding of the intricacies of Thatcherism. By creating (or adapting) links between herself and the ‘ordinary housewife’, she sought to further secure the votes of many women who were deemed likely to vote Conservative. The social construct of Thatcher the housewife valorised, to an extent, the ordinary woman who looked after the home; whilst reinforcing traditional gender roles, this rhetoric can most certainly be seen as Thatcher’s attempts to include women in the political dialogue. Considering the satirised version of Thatcher with gender in mind is also interesting, particularly when considering her continued representation despite having retired from politics. The range of representations, from ‘sharp-featured woman wearing a dress’ to her representation as a man, indicated that Satirists treated Thatcher’s gender as fluid and dependent on her political position at the time. When at the height of power – notably in the aftermath of the Falklands War – Thatcher was frequently portrayed as a masculine figure, arguably portraying her as a woman who can do a man’s job well. However, when no longer a figure in current politics, Thatcher was represented as a woman – the mother of New Labour, the new branch of Thatcherism. Thatcher’s gender itself was also important to women across the country; it showed that women could survive in a man’s world. Though her failure to implement policies to help women led to feminists vilifying her, we cannot forget that a majority of women voted Conservative, time after time. How far this was down to Thatcher being female is not at all clear, but the admiration she received from many women can only have helped
Therefore, it is clear that applying gender to Thatcher’s premiership offers a useful and different way to consider the changes wrought by Thatcher and Thatcherism in the latter part of the twentieth century. Thatcher has changed the game for women across the country in a variety of ways.
Written by Victoria Bettney
Beers, Laura. ‘Thatcher and the Women’s Vote.” In Making Thatcher’s Britain. Edited by Ben Jackson, 113-131. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
‘Interview for Women’s Own.’ Margaret Thatcher Foundation. September 23, 1987. Accessed Feburary 10, 2016. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689.
KL0357 by Kevin Kallaugher. For The Observer, February 12, 1984. Accessed February 29, 2016. https://www.cartoons.ac.uk/browse/cartoon_item/anytext=margaret%20thatcher?year_from=1975&year_to=1990&count=28&order_by=date&page=696
NG2961 by Nicholas Garland. For the Daily Telegraph, Feburary 19, 1985. Accessed March 1, 2016. https://www.cartoons.ac.uk/browse/cartoon_item/anytext=margaret%20thatcher?year_from=1975&year_to=1990&count=28&order_by=date&page=739
PCO455 by Peter Brookes. For The Times, October 18, 1996. Accessed Feburary 19, 2016. https://www.cartoons.ac.uk/browse/cartoon_item/anytext=thatcher%20and%20blair%20family?page=4
Pilcher, Jane. ‘British Women Talking about Margaret Thatcher.’ The European Journal of Women’s Studies, no. 2. (1995): 493-508.
‘Radio Interview for BBC Radio 1 Speak Easy.’ Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 21 November 1977. Accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103290.
Ribberink, Anneke. ‘”I Don’t Think of Myself as the First Woman Prime Minister”: Gender, Identity, and Image in Margaret Thatcher’s Career.’ In Making Reputations: Power, Persuasion and the Individual In Modern British Politics. Edited by Richard Toye and Julie Gottlieb, 166-179. London: Ibtauris & co ltd, 2005.
‘Thatcher and Europe.’ Cartoon by Michael Cummings. http://sectioneuroterminale.blogspot.co.uk/2014_06_01_archive.html