On Margaret Thatcher, Feminism, and Conflicting Feelings

The death of England’s first, only, and longest-serving woman Prime Minister has thrown Margaret Thatcher back into the spotlight where her possible position as a feminist role model takes on new relevance.

Was Margaret Thatcher a feminist? Almost certainly not, among the long list of harsh quotes she left behind is this gem:

“The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. I hate those strident tones we hear from some women’s libbers.”

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Ouch.

So she wasn’t a feminist. But because she holds such a prominent place in history as one of the most notable woman leaders, is she a role model?

In other words, is a woman who does little to nothing for woman, who in fact believes that women’s issues are non-issues, yet is widely successful, be a feminist role model? Can someone like Margaret Thatcher or Yahoo’s Marissa “I’m not a feminist… they are militant and have a chip their shoulders” Mayer be role models for young women even if they believe that the fact that they are women is a non-issue?

I want to say no. I wouldn’t want my hypothetical  daughter looking up to anyone–man or woman who wouldn’t count themselves as a feminist. But on the other hand, part of me sees the desire to change the subject.

Women are still so rare in these big positions of power that they are still like unicorns. And rather than focus on the work that they are doing, everyone just kind of stops and stares and prattles on about how a unicorn can hold down an important job and what about her unicorn babies and what kind of shoes is she wearing?

So while I sympathize with wishing to will the subject away, to quote Voltaire/Stan Lee: “With great power come great responsibility.” When you put yourself in the public eye, and are you are part of a group who has faces obstacles to reach a similar position you can’t just ignore that group, or pretend that others haven’t succeed because they just aren’t as great as you are. Sure, Barack Obama doesn’t (and shouldn’t) only focus on African American issues, but he also can’t (and hasn’t) ignored the fact that he’s black and how that affects his (and all other African American’s) path in life.

As Michelle Obama said, “When you’ve worked hard and you’ve done well, and you’ve finally walked through that doorway of opportunity… you don’t slam that door shut behind you.  You reach back and you give other folks the exact same chances that helped you succeed.”

In other words, Margaret Thatcher, Marissa Mayer, et al. needed not make women’s issues the only conversation, but it should be part of the conversation. It should be on the agenda.

But I digress. So back to the central question of this post: Can someone like Margaret Thatcher be a role model for young women, even if she didn’t give a damn about the plight of other women. Considering the fact that I completely disagree with her overall politics (and many would argue that she also didn’t give a damn about the plight of poor as well), I personally would say no.

But that’s my choice. And maybe that’s partly of the point. We can choose our role models. Just because a woman manages against the odds to become a CEO or a Prime Minister, doesn’t mean that other women by default have to admire her. It’s not a betrayal to the cause to think critically about who you respect. In fact, judging people on the content of their character is the whole point of equality.

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