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Exceptional Thatcher and the feminist fallacy


Margaret Thatcher's face superimposed onto Star Wars action sceneMargaret Thatcher was many things: a pioneer, a visionary, a trailblazer. But there is one thing she absolutely was not, and that is a feminist.

But that hasn't stopped many pundits from trying to paint her as exactly that. From the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri who called her a 'feminist triumph' to author Lionel Shriver who, in a piece as extraordinary for its misrepresentation of feminism as for its mis-remembrance of the former British PM, bestowed on Thatcher a sort of Greatest Feminist Who Ever Lived award even as she ridiculed the very existence of feminism itself.

I'm not going to dissect Thatcher's political legacy, I'll leave that to others more capable than me. What I am here to do is to strike down this belligerent notion — often put forward by conservative women who can't seem to understand that feminism is by its very nature a left-leaning ideology — that everything a woman does is 'feminist' simply by dint of the fact that it is a woman doing it.

This misguided notion — that every choice a woman makes is to be celebrated as a victory for feminism, because, well, hey, a woman made a choice — is diluting the meaning and effectiveness of feminism, enabling even women who are overtly hostile to feminism to claim the title of Champion of Women.

As feminist writer Clementine Ford put it, although 'choice and the ability to freely make it is central to feminist ideology ... it doesn't follow that all choices should be accepted as feminist acts and therefore given a free pass'.

Incredibly, Petri seems put out by the fact that Thatcher is not regarded as a feminist icon, even though Petri herself quotes Thatcher declaring, 'I hate feminism. It is poison.'

Shriver, meanwhile, simply states, 'if we had more feminists like Thatcher, we'd have vastly more women in Parliament and the US Senate'. Um, no, we most certainly would not. Throughout her three terms, Thatcher appointed only one other woman to her Cabinet. Compare that to our own Julia Gillard, who, in only her second term, made history by appointing six women to the outer ministry (that's 60 per cent), and three to the Cabinet.

Feminism is not, as Petri and Shriver appear to assert, about one woman breaking through the ranks and going where no woman has before. It is about acknowledging that women are still systematically marginalised, and actively working to end this discrimination. It is also about accepting that women are no less capable than men and deserve the same opportunities. In this regard, Thatcher did nothing to help pave the way for other women.

You can't be a feminist if you reap rewards for yourself but are content to allow the barriers barring other women to remain standing. Feminism is an ideology that fundamentally demands women be given the same rights, obligations and opportunities as men.

Thatcher was not a feminist. What she was, was An Exceptional Woman. The Exceptional Woman is one who is successful and brilliant, but nonetheless remains the only woman allowed to play in a male dominated game.

History, literature, and popular culture are littered with Exceptional Women. Star Wars' Princess Leia, Harry Potter's Hermione Granger and Tatum O'Neill in the baseball comedy, The Bad News Bears, 'the best player on the team but still the only female player on the team', all exemplify the Exceptional Woman.

Joan of Arc was an Exceptional Woman, as was Queen Hatshepsut, one of the most successful pharaohs and, according to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, 'the first great woman in history of whom we are informed'.

But great women are not necessarily feminist women. And Exceptional Women are definitely not feminist women, because they operate on the assumption that they are, well, exceptional. Whereas feminism realises the inherent potential and worth in all women, Exceptional Women succeed because of their perceived likeness, not to other women, but to men. Consequently, they make things harder, not easier, for other women.

Thatcher is not alone. Exceptional Women politicians have existed in the modern era in the East, as well as the West — see Benazir Bhutto and Indira Ghandi.

These female politicians, even those who claimed to champion women, such as Bhutto, are the antithesis of feminism because, as the Pakistani feminist organisations who quickly grew disillusioned with Bhutto's failure to implement policies which improved the lives of women can attest, they do precious little to dismantle the social structure that oppresses women.

In today's age, they are happy to revel in feminism's benefits even as they give the movement nothing in return (think Sarah Palin).

Thatcher, exceptional as she was, was not a feminist. But don't take my word for it. Take it from the Iron Lady herself. 'I owe nothing to women's lib.' she proudly declared.

Ruby Hamad headshotRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.  

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Margaret Thatcher, feminism



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Existing comments

Gee, talk about 'belligerent'. No evidence at all is presented to show that Thatcher was like the blokes. In fact, she wasn't. That gave her an advantage, and she knew it and exploited it. She always thought she was tougher than the men. She was exceptional all right, which is why she didn't see barriers as gendered in the way you do. For her (correctly) it was class and old boy's clubs and she knew how to get around that, not by being like a bloke but by being like a toff. This was a front in any case, because she could not have been more different from the old Conservatives - chaps like MacMillan, Heath and Howe. Finally, who gets to define feminism? Why can't an American - or any - writer have a different definition from yours? Why should you take Thatcher's denial as conclusive?

Pollyanna | 12 April 2013  

Another tedious piece about which women are entitled to call themselves feminists. Who cares? No wonder feminism is losing its relevance as an ideology. There's lots of different types of women. Great over it. Yawn.

boring | 12 April 2013  

Thanks Ruby for a thoughtful and well-written piece. I found it refreshingly assertive. Sadly, though, assertiveness in women is still a no-no to some. Unless, of course, like Thatcher, they are busy bringing in the New World Order.

Lee hill | 12 April 2013  

Oh, Pollyanna! Just listen to yourself: "who gets to define feminism?" If we go down the path you propose, nothing would mean anything because it would be simply whatever anyone says they think it is! Let's be clear: feminism, like all -isms, is a movement towards; a fundamental reconfiguration. In this case, from masculinism, from a system in which male values are supreme, in which the female is measured solely by reference to the male, and which views and understands reality in terms of structural gender inequality. Don't confuse gender difference and gender manipulation with gender justice. It doesn't matter one wit that male conservatives would have disliked Thatcher or not seen her as one of them or that she happened to be more ruthless than the men of her time: Thatcher fundamentally wanted a society in which the powerful ran roughshod over the weak. Feminism, by contrast, is based on the premise that females are weak by the oppression of patriarchal society. Feminism is therefore essentially revolutionary and anti-establishmentarian; Thatcher's entire political and economic agenda revoleved around the re-assertion of a traditional establishment. It is not her own denial that is determinative but her deeds.

smk | 12 April 2013  

Ruby, Moses said to the Pharaoh, "let my people go". In your piece you mention Queen Hatshepsut alluding to her 'power' and exclude the mention of the Virgin. And yet, God’s design that the 'new woman' in Christ Jesus, shall lead man out of the wilderness of the inefficiency of egotism into the glorious liberty of the children of God. None of God’s promises are the mere reading of fate. That which God promises will never be fulfilled excepting to those who seize the promise. God overrides no human will. But as woman has passed through a long night of travail to bring forth the sons of men on earth, so shall God render to her double for all she has undeservedly suffered through the cruelty and slight and disrespect of man, by giving her a very large share in the work of saving the world through preaching Jesus, the Word of God, who was in the beginning, who was with God, who was God, and in the fullness of time became flesh, became incarnated by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin.

Bernstein | 13 April 2013  

I'd agree that Margaret Thatcher was an "exceptional" woman. She was an astute and skilled politician, not an astute and skilled feminist politician. As much as feminism works for equality for women in various aspects of their lives, this was not what Thatcher was about. Her party would have elected her as its leader because of her political acumen and because they felt she had the qualities to lead - no small achievement. Whatever one thinks of her political legacy, she should be remembered as a trailblazer and as a tough politician.

Pam | 14 April 2013  

Lovely thought Bernstein. Unfortunately, what women -- particularly those perceived to have broken the rules -- still have to deal with in everyday life is a philosophico-social system tacitly based on updated versions of Tertullian, so-called founder of Western theology. As you may know, Tertullian, in a letter to his 'best beloved sisters', bids each woman dress so as to atone for the 'odium' as the 'cause of human perdition'. 'Toward your husband is your inclination (woman) and he lords it over you,' Tertullian tells his 'sisters'. 'And do you not know,' he goes on, 'that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. YOU are the devil's gateway: YOU are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: YOU are the first deserter of the divine law: YOU are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. YOU destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of YOUR desert -- that is, death -- even the Son of God had to die'. Ref: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0402.htm

Lee | 14 April 2013  

Indeed, Thatcher wasn't a feminist ... thank God. She was just a great woman.

HH | 14 April 2013  

Well said Ruby. Thatcher was neither a feminist..nor a humanist.

Vacy | 15 April 2013  

Amongst other things Thatcher was a disfiguring scar on the face of humanity, a bit like Howard and Bush; but worse, because she did what she did deliberately and the others were simply ignorant simpletons.

john frawley | 15 April 2013  

Well articulated SMK. Feminism has achieved change for women however those gains can easily be lost when conservative politics dominates the stage. Power should always promote the good of the whole and not protect the powerful as Thatcher did

GAJ | 15 April 2013  

Lee, Go Figure's comment on Francis right to break the rules April 10 2013: PS: What is even more extraordinary, when you think about it, is that the people who wash the feet of Jesus in the Gospels are women. What is going on there? I mean, Jesus commands that we ‘wash one another's feet’, but in the accounts themselves, who washes his feet? Perhaps the following is worthy of some thought: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring (seed)] and her offspring (seed) he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”God was speaking to Satan in the garden after he had tempted Adam and Eve and through 'them' brought chaos to the established order. The spoken line `I will put enmity between your seed` refers to all those who choose to dwell in sin (chaos) and disobedience to God and so are referred to as the seed of Satan. Jesus, the fruit of the WOMB of the Virgin Mary defeated this chaotic kingdom with every single gesture of His. By also allowing His feet be washed by the WOMEN sinner, SHE as all who come to follow Jesus and recognise Him as the Christ, are called His seed. What is born of the spirit is spirit- what is born of the flesh is flesh : Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s WOMB and be born a second time, can he?

Game Theory | 15 April 2013  

Further to Bernstein's and Lee's comments, any feminist reading 1 Timothy 5 would have some serious issues to raise. Older women are 'mothers' to be cared for only if they have reached a certain age and shown 'admirable qualities', younger women are 'sisters' and defined in just as sexist a way. Churches are still struggling with issues of gender equality (in a different context). It's still a man's world, specially if one is a church-goer.

Pam | 15 April 2013  

"Women are still SYSTEMATICALLY marginalised". Petri and Shriver amaze me. How long will it be before the realisation that it is primarily systems that exclude and marginalise. The nonsense that the successful succeed only because of their own efforts and that the unsuccessful have only themselves to blame still has wide currency - even with people gifted enough to know better, like Thatcher herself. There IS such a thing as 'society', and the way it works either to exclude or to benefit individuals is essential knowledge for all of us.

Joe Castley | 15 April 2013  

Thanks for this very good article, Ruby. It needed to be written because, amazingly, there are people out there being confused about the difference between being a woman and being committed to rights for women. It shows we've still got a long way to go, especially in the light of a few comments here that have a go at feminism. But I celebrate the things feminists have achieved for all women, including those who then denounce us.

WicketWatcher | 15 April 2013  

Mrs Thatcher was an exceptional woman but she hurt many people particularly underpriveleged ones, as for making the UK great again even that is debatable. Let us hope she has a peaceful funeral.

clem schaper | 15 April 2013  

There is a vast difference between working towards equality in gender, race, social health and class systems and what Thatcher did; promoting sytems that actively work against this. Feminism served no purpose for Thatcher's ideology of independent wealth and gain.She didn't open the door for women in politics in Britain, she ironically closed it.

Jenny Esots | 15 April 2013  

Lee, Jesus said: If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace ( not in Tertullian's words ) In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. John

Bernstein | 15 April 2013  

Thank you. A great article.

Sara Dowse | 15 April 2013  

Well said Ruby. According to Pollyanna, who is very well named, anyone at all can be a feminist presumably even Thatcher or the Talliban.

Bernadette | 15 April 2013  

Thanks for this corrective to some of the nonsense being said of Margaret Thatcher who did nothing to aid women or promote their interests. Her legacy includes much to deplore: a needless war in the Falklands; the unemployment of thousands; the privatisation of state housing, leading to growth in homelessness that persists; the shielding of the brutal dictator, Pinochet; and so many more egregious policies and actions. One can say that she had the courage of her convictions, but those convictions inspire no admiration in me, or in many who observed her from afar, not to mention those who endured their consequences.

Myrna | 15 April 2013  

An incisive article. I have two comments to offer. Firstly, I agree that Thatcher was not a feminist. The evidence for Thatcher's anti-feminism (indeed, anti-humanism) is in her unwillingness to identify as feminist, and her unwillingness to challenge existing power structures for the benefit of all. I am glad you clarified these facts, because I personally take issue with those who tell me or others that we are not feminist on the basis of certain criteria - for example, because I practice as Catholic. Secondly, while Hermoine Granger was an exceptional woman, I don't think she is an Exceptional Woman. She was friends with other women as well (Ginny Weasly, for one). Thanks for the article. :)

Moira Byrne | 15 April 2013  

Your argument of course is not as simple as you make out. Thatcher one supposes would have agreed with certain portions of feminism when it suggests that women ought to receive recognition when they work for their achievements, and not expect the state to provide them with a status they had not rightfully earned nor to favor them simply on basis of their gender - unlike the ALP. As for Gillard's feminist credentials in contrast with Thatcher, are we talking about the same dyed-in-the-wool feminist PM who appointed six women to the outer ministry and three to the Cabinet which resulted in moving vulnerable single mothers onto the below the poverty-line dole?

DavidSt | 16 April 2013  

Hermione Granger not a feminist? Well then, I suspect feminism has just been diminished.

Tom Cranitch | 17 April 2013  

IHS.I totally agree with Bernstein. Women should proclaim the Word of God. The forgiveness of sins through the shedding of our Lord's Most Precious Blood. And preach, especially to their children, the meaning of Holiness, as the Lord said," be Holy because I am Holy". And where does the Word of God speak about those ordained men ( priests? ) who publicly preach, approve and support the ordination of women, abortion or other such lies and falsehoods in their churches and parish communities?In the book of Revelation. "Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don't repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches.

Grace | 21 April 2013  

Grace, simultaneously, true Christian reform is never an introduction of something new. True Christian reform is always a rediscovering of something true - there's a difference. Something old that was lost, rather than something new - exempli gratia: the ordination of women - that was never heard of. Here's the mark of Christian reform: it always goes back to the Bible. That's what the reformers did. They didn't apply their new intellectual aptitude to God's Word to interpret it according to the philosophies, the intellectual trends of the day, false dotrines - no. They went back to the book, back to the Greek, back to the Hebrew to see 'What saith the Scriptures'. Truth does not evolve, the truth of the Bible does not need enlightenment from science, from philosophy, from ideologies - but all we need is what is from the beginning: Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. 2 John 1 verse 9 says, now look: anyone who goes too far, anyone who runs ahead and abides not in the doctrine of Christ - that literally means, 'the teaching about Christ', or it can also mean 'the teaching of Christ' - does not have God. A progressive theology is regressive, do you know why? It goes back to Genesis 3 and verse 1, where Satan said:'Yea, hath God said...?', it casts doubt on God's Word.

Game Theory | 24 April 2013  

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