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Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who transformed Britain during her 11-year tenure, died April 8, 2013 at the age of 87. Her funeral is Wednesday, April 17, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She is pictured here at a news conference at the UN in 1982. (Suzanne Vlamis/AP)

Thirty years ago, I was a young woman living and working in London. In those days, Britain was a class-bound and male-dominated society, where over half of the working population belonged to powerful trade unions. Fewer than 15 percent of high school graduates went on to college. Given a choice, married women with children simply didn’t work outside the home.

A grocer’s daughter named Margaret Thatcher shattered the glass ceiling in multiple ways. She studied chemistry at Oxford; after graduation she was rejected for a job after the company’s personnel department assessed her as “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.” She entered parliament as an MP after two unsuccessful attempts and eventually rose to become the first woman to lead a British political party before becoming Prime Minister. She broke the trade unions, won two more elections, and was the hailed as the most remarkable British leader since Winston Churchill.

The message to young women was that Thatcher was unfeminine, aggressive and a bad mother — in short, not a role model we ought to embrace. What a difference 30 years makes.

Despite these achievements, my female friends and I did not see Maggie as a role model. Quite the opposite: she practically made us cringe. Thatcher was parodied relentlessly in the British media — portrayed day after day in cartoons amid a swarm of male cabinet ministers, whacking them with a giant handbag or boxing their ears. The tabloids called her a witch, a bitch, “Attila the Hen,” and much worse. Rowan Atkinson, of Mr. Bean fame, did an infamous skit where Maggie kneed a man in the groin at the same time she was smiling and shaking his hand. The ups and down in her children’s lives were depicted as evidence of an appalling lack of motherly instinct, with serious articles tut-tutting about how difficult it must have been for poor Carol and Mark growing up with her for a mother. Husband Denis Thatcher, a self-made businessman, was ridiculed as a gin-swilling buffoon. But the public took pity on him. After all, being married to Maggie would drive any man to drink.

Another female figure loomed large in our lives: Princess Diana. Thatcher came to power in 1979, two years before Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles. We all watched the fairy tale “wedding of the century.” Princess Di was the woman we envied. We were fascinated by her glamorous and emotional life — continually caught up in the drama of her romances, or eating disorders, or struggles with her mother-in-law. She was pictured in the media happily skiing with her adorable boys and hugging AIDS patients and wearing beautiful clothes. Diana was seen as all feminine heart. Maggie, on the other hand, was heartless. She couldn’t care less about all those starving coal mine workers! The message to young women was that Thatcher was unfeminine, aggressive and a bad mother — in short, not a role model we ought to embrace.

What a difference 30 years makes.

Britain’s Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher, photographed in March 1979 with her husband Denis, their twins Mark and Carol. (AP)

Britain’s Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher, photographed in March 1979 with her husband Denis, their twins Mark and Carol. (AP)

Three decades later, the feminist social movement du jour, pioneered by 43-year-old Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, is that young women should “lean in” to their careers. They should be more assertive in the workplace, speak up more forcefully in meetings, instead of sitting on the sidelines. Thatcher epitomized this philosophy. She not only leaned in to the table, she grew the wood, chopped down the tree, built the table and banged her fist on it. She did not try to be liked. In fact a lot of women (and men) detested her precisely because she was emphatically not the gentler, sweeter, self-doubting Diana-kind-of-woman. She was the ‘Iron Lady’ who was “not for turning.”

Yet, just like Diana, Thatcher used enormous charm and feminine wiles to get her way. Compared to Diana, she seemed old and matronly, but she was an attractive woman in her own right, one who took great care with her appearance and diet. Looking back at the photos, I see her differently. I notice her dazzling smile and smooth skin. I see that she was always well groomed and impeccably dressed, often wearing clothes designed to show off her figure.

She had an extraordinary career, enjoyed real power and influence, and secured a place in history. At the same time, she managed to balance a happy and successful marriage and raise two children… She was “leaning in” long before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase.

Although she despised the word, in many ways Thatcher was the ultimate feminist. She did not come from a privileged family. She was not part of a political marriage (unlike Hilary Clinton). Unlike the Queen, whose reign had been forced upon her by the abdication of her uncle, Thatcher chose to pursue power and status. She was remarkably frank about her life, her ambition, her marriage, and her attitude about men. She outfoxed the lads, most of whom she viewed with contempt. “One thing that politics has taught me,” she said, “is that men are not a reasoned or reasonable sex.” She believed a lot of men were all talk and no action. She was also famous for saying, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want it done, ask a woman.”

She had an extraordinary career, enjoyed real power and influence, and secured a place in history. At the same time, she managed to balance a happy and successful marriage (Denis adored his wife and took great pride in her accomplishments) and raise two children. She was remarkable. She had it all, and she earned it.

And yet we took her for granted. She was emancipated long before my contemporaries and I were. She was “leaning in” long before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase. She was the woman we all now strive to be. She ought to be the ultimate feminist icon, and today, 30 years into my career, for me, she is.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Owen Hakim

    Thanks!

  • Kitty Lynn

    Brilliant and true. Thatcher was an iconic figure and trailblazer but for some reasons the feminists don’t seem to be embracing her? Curious why not and this offers some clues.

    • Pointpanic

      let’s not be misled by words like “iconic” and “trailblazer”. To what end was she working? Not for the empowerment of women or anybody ,she percieved as beneath her. She was a political operative for the elites and promoted policies that favored them at the expense of working and poor people world wide. I humbly suggest reading Naomi Klein’s book “Shock Doctrine” to understand why feminists do not embrace Thatcher.

      • Laura

        You have missed the point. The author does not state that Tatcher was working towards the empowerment of women just that she is a prime example of an empowered women and therefore may serves as a role modelto professional women.

        • Pointpanic

          She is a less than honorable role model. She was “empowered” beecause she played by the elite rules.

  • Em

    Oh my my. I have rarely read such a piece of unmitigated nonsense in my life. I was a young woman in Britain working in the NHS during Thatcher’s years, so obviously I have a very different take on her legacy, and certainly a more informed one. She was NOT in any way a feminist, neither did she “emancipate” anyone, especially women. She was a willing tool, from her carefully crafted Saatchi & Saatchi image, to her NeoCon globalization policies inspired by her husband, one of the cleverest “hiding in plain sight” policy-maker/businessmen of his generation. This blinkered revisionism of both Thatcher and Britain reveals only the mind of another willing tool.

    Regarding women’s rights in Britain, perhaps superficially some things have changed, but for a reality check, just study the figures. I suggest you read the last Women in Journalism report to get some idea of what I mean, not to mention studying any stats on women in the professions, for example last year’s report on women in architecture, which serves as a good indication of more general trends, particularly in the sciences. Don’t get me started on the number of women who make up the ever growing “working poor” in Britain, thanks to the ever shrinking safety net, which we can thank Thatcher for. At the other end of the scale, JUST LAST WEEK a government report showed women make up a pathetic 17% of company board members. Hurrah for Thatcher’s feminist revolution!! For god’s sake, forget Thatcher’s friends at The Sun, all you need to do is look at the schedule of the BBC on any given day to see how women are employed and viewed by the media in Britain. The UK is one of the most misogynist countries you’ll find in the
    so-called Industrialised Nations, so to suggest that thanks to Thatcher,
    women have been “emancipated” would be laughable if it were not so
    profoundly offensive and plainly untruthful.

    And in terms of the statement on how she changed the class system, it shows the writer knows nothing about Britain, past or present. Britain had TWO *WORKING CLASS* PMs preceding her; did that change Britain??? To assess if Britain is moving forward or backward, I suggest you look at the backgrounds of the current PM and deputy PM, not to mention the current Mayor of London. Perhaps the BBC Board of Commissioners? And I believe Eton and Harrow still have “charitable” status!! And did the writer miss the recent Golden Jubilee celebrations and Royal Wedding???? Yes, Britain is just a big old meritocratic, egalitarian paradise, thanks to the Baroness.

    That this piece starts off challenging the way Thatcher was viewed solely on her appearance, but then “analyses” her primarily on a revised picture of that appearance, ignoring her actual policies, only shows how damaged this particular writer is herself, because at the very least, her irony meter needs calibrating. Even using the term “feminine wiles” illustrates perfectly that this writer understands nothing about feminism or irony. And to top it all, comparing Thatcher to Lady Di bordered surreal, especially in a piece which ostensibly claims to take Thatcher seriously as a politician. It sums up the analytical vacuum this piece represents.

    The true comparison would have been with Barbara Castle, a great and wonderful politician of courage and conviction, and a TRUE, ardent feminist, who, if she had been a man undoubtedly would have led the Labour Party and the nation. She was constantly attacked even and especially within her party with more vicious slurs than Thatcher ever had to endure, simply because she was a woman who aspired to power, and unlike Thatcher she was her own woman and NOT the product of image consultants. And of course, not surprisingly, Barbara Castle didn’t have Murdoch in her camp, although judging from this revisionist piece of dross, he too could be called a “feminist” and an “egalitarian” nowadays.

    I agree that much of the criticism of Thatcher this past week has been mired in misogyny, but that hardly makes her a martyr to the sisterly cause. You only have to analyse her policies to understand that she WAS callous and she WAS heartless; observations which are not reserved for women politicians, but any ideologue who puts policies before people. And since the writer brought it up, if you look at Mark Thatcher’s “career”, and listen to her Carol’s statements, you’ll get why it’s not a particularly good idea to cite Thatcher’s parenting skills in defence of her more human qualities. For the writer to glibly throw off the suffering of the miners, and not even mention the actual starving to death of hunger striker Bobby Sands, (and Thatcher’s statement regarding his protest) starkly shows that Ms Bilmes is suffering from more than a little “compassion fatigue” herself.

    The Thatcher government used Britain as a petri dish for US NeoCon policies, from union busting, to the deregulation of banks, to the poll tax, to the corporatization of scientific research and so much more. Don’t forget we have Britain to thank for Enron, which got it’s start thanks to her policies. So please, do not use her as a role model, or an icon for anything without expecting a rebuttal from those that actually lived it and can read. Her figurehead set back feminism in Britain about 20 years, and I suggest you look at the pitiful numbers of women in parliament and the way women politicians are discussed in the press to see what I mean. Cameron’s “calm down dear” comment to Shadow Treasury Secretary Angela Eagle last year shows the amount of respect women have gained since Thatcher was knifed in the back by her colleagues. This is a ridiculous, ignorant piece of commentary which deserves the kind of contempt I usually reserve only for Thatcher.

    • samuelpepys

      Thank you so much for the energy and work that went into this well-informed, intelligent, and beautifully written corrective to the blather of Ms. Blimes. I might have fallen into despair without it–I haven’t read anything as ignorant about civil rights, class privilege or (especially) feminism in 40 years as Ms. Blimes’ weird article. Neither WBUR nor the Globe seemed to feel that the destruction and death this Iron Lady made fashionable deserved a mention or a tear on the day of her funeral. “Maggie, on the other hand, was heartless. She couldn’t care less about all those starving coal mine workers!” That’s true. I fervently hope that this is not true: “She was the woman we all now strive to be. She ought to be the ultimate
      feminist icon, and today, 30 years into my career, for me, she is.”

  • Em

    By the way, I forgot to add, insulting men and their abilities does not make you a feminist, it makes you a hypocrite.

  • Pointpanic

    THis nonsense is a prime example of how the rhetoric of “feminism” is co-opted by elites and turned against us. Maragret Thatcher was no more a feminist than I am the Pope. She embodied neo-liberal ideas that spelled suffering for people all over the world including her own nation. If this is what passes for “cognoscenti” how do I get to submit something?

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