Thatcher: A Feminist Retrospective

With the Iron Lady released in cinemas last week, prompting protests by some of her victims, there has been a wave of renewed interest in the evil cunt, including attempts to portray her as some kind of feminist icon. Thatcher was no feminist icon – she had no feminist principles and once explicitly stated that she owed nothing to feminism, clearly situating herself outside the struggles of generations of women who had fought for equality.  She was however a woman, and consequently not immune from the sexist and macho attitudes.

The film does a good job of portraying how difficult it must have been for a female politician in the 50s.  Although the first female MP was elected in 1918, Constance Markiecicz, like other Sinn Fein MPs, refused to take up her seat.  A sufferagette she had been imprisoned under the Cat and Mouse Act and had played an active role in the first wave of feminism.   Thatcher had no such history in the women’s movement, her political ambitions were forged not on the streets and of lived experience of struggle, but of a typical male career path of smoke filled rooms and impressing to party chairmen.

As shown in the film, the Houses of Parliament were even more of a boys club then than now, with women excluded from many of the areas where the behind the scenes politicking was done. The House of Commons sported 11 bars, a hostile environment for women of the fifties, and no creche for a mother of young children – just as well Thatcher had a multi-millionaire husband and no worries about getting back in time for the school run.  Despite a twenty year campaign this situation didn’t change until just two years ago, under protest from some MPs and prompting right wing outrage over the cost of converting a bar into a creche, although the cost of refurbishing the bar which had been converted at a similar rate went unremarked at the time.

One of the strangest things about the film is that it is totally bereft of politics. The first film biography of the longest serving and arguably most controversial Prime Minister of the twentieth century, yet aside from photo-ops and soundbites with heads of state, mixed in with old film reels of protesters and striking workers, no exploration was made of the politics of her time in office.  Looking back over that time, it is interesting to note the key themes which have emerged and which have sticking power.

Apart from the miners strike, the thing which Thatcher is probably most notorious for is her decision to remove funding for free school milk for schoolchildren.  This came as part of a raft of changes, including the upping of school meal charges and increases in Further Education fees.  The other two have been forgotten, yet the removal of milk lingers, and Thatcher, Thatcher; Milk Snatcher remains a meme that resonates through the generations.

Free milk had been introduced into schools under the 1944 Education Act for all children up to the age of 18.  It was actually Harold Wilson’s government in 1968, who first sheared back the provision three years before Thatcher withdrew it further to only children under seven.*   Yet it is Thatcher, who is remembered as the milk snatcher – not the unnamed and unknown Education Secretary who served under Wilson.

The narrative of a woman, and a mother no less, snatching milk from mewling children is too strong a narrative to resist.  The provision of milk is the first duty of a mother, and the provision of milk is broader a political issue.  In the mid-70s, formula milk was being marketed as a modern and liberatory method of child feeding.  As women were starting to enter the workplace in greater numbers and demand equal pay and recognition for their labour, formula feeding limited the impact of maternity on women’s role in the workplace.  In this context the withdrawal of free provided milk from a woman, resonated with the withdrawal from breastfeeding and the competition that men were now facing from increasing number of female employees.

Thatcher also presided over the decimation of British Industry – the coal, iron and steel industries all effectively shut down in the 80s, leading communities up and down the country devastated and desolate following their demise.  These were men’s jobs: heavy, industrial, dirty jobs.  As the fight led by Women Against Pit Closures amply demonstrated, those jobs sustained families and communities and there can be no attacks on workers rights which do not negatively affect the working class of both genders, yet the narrative of a woman taking away the self-respect, dignity and identity of the men of hard labour who worked in mines, in steelyards and on the docks at a time when feminism was in the ascendancy and women were gaining status within the world of work had a pull for the left which was hard to resist and sexist slogans resounded.

An interesting bit of the film, and the one time where I actually warmed to the (fictional) woman was at the scene in the doctors, where she is trying to convince the skeptical and patronising medic that she was not mad, although some may argue that talking to her dead husband was one of the least harmful manifestations of her delusions.  In that scene she espouses a very Arendtian philosophy  saying (and I may misquote here…)

One must watch ones thoughts, as thoughts become words; words become actions; actions become habits and habits become character.

Thatcher Character, The Iron Lady

I can find no evidence that Thatcher ever said those words or indeed that she was in any way influenced by Arendt. It seems strange that in a film so bereft of the political philosophy that Thatcher embodied, that a philosophy she has no association with would become one of the most meaty parts of the film. The one aspect of political philosophy that Arendt and Thatcher, both remarkably prominent women in their fields, did share was a rejection of feminism.

[Thatcher] has not feminized politics… but she has offered feminine endorsement to patriarchal power.

Bea Campbell, Iron Ladies: Why women vote Tory

For all her spoutings of “housewifely wisdom”, her instance on feminine hairdos, refusal to wear trouser suits and the iconic status of her handbag.  Thatcher was ultimately a patriarch.  She led from the front, treating any disagreements with disdain and – as is shown in the film – dominating and humiliating cabinet ministers who deviated from her one true path.

She was a beneficiary of feminism, a demonstration that women could achieve anything, normalising female success, yet at the same time this had a flip side – after all if Thatcher could be Prime Minister, it must be down to individual failings that other women did not make their mark in the same way.  Supporting a narrative that feminism was redundant and that any woman could achieve anything if only they set their minds to it, she injected a premise of ruthlessness and female ambition into the image of late 80s and early 90s feminism, spawning the Spice Girls/ladette version of “feminism”.

Consequently when the film portrays her as a frail old woman, rambling and emotionally dependent on her dead husband, the eternal vision of a ruthless, calculating politician determined to destroy anything which stood in the way of her ambitions is undermined.  Not undermined enough though for you not to want someone to emerge from the hallway in the final scene and give her a good shove down the stairs.

*edited for accuracy, see comments (14/01/12)

Other Feminist Reviews of “The Iron Lady”

The Iron Lady: A Portrait of the Arsehole as an Old Bat, Another Angry Woman

The Lady is Not for Watching, International Socialist Group

Mrs T: Unreliable Narrator, New Statesman


 

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