International Women

The Complicated Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Hours after she died, the fighting began on the comment threads between her supporters and her enemies. It’s exactly what she would have wanted.

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Some cry and some cheer when a figure like Mrs. T dies. It’s like the O.J. verdict. But in her long and stormy reign, she left no fence to sit on. You either fought with her or against her – it was love or hate, like knuckle tattoos – but either way, you fought. And today – despite the supposed interval in which we’re not to speak ill of the deceased – the fights over her legacy continue on comment threads and editorial pages.

It’s exactly as she would have wanted it.

For women, Thatcher’s legacy is complicated. She broke through class and gender barriers to not only achieve but dominate the highest elected office in England for an astonishing 11 ½ years. She normalized the idea of a female head of state. And she said things like, “If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” So of course when President Obama states the obvious about glass ceilings and such, he’s right.

But Thatcher didn’t see herself in those terms. “I hate feminism,” she once told an adviser. “It is poison.” In 1982 she announced that “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won.” She appointed only one female Cabinet minister during her tenure, and her policies did little to help women – she froze child benefits and refused to invest in childcare.

She was an individualist at heart. The kind of leader who said, “What is society? There is no such thing!” Her ideology wasn’t women’s equality but free markets and deregulation. She was a Milton Friedman disciple, a supply-side wonk. Her only collectivist passion was her country and flag.


And she put to rest any nonsense about women leaders being less aggressive than men. Reagan called her “the best man in England.” She was always more Iron than Lady. Unflinching in war, and a good friend of General Pinochet, she was a reminder of Britain at its most imperious, its most Churchillian. But she fought battles at home, too. England was never more violent than under Thatcher. She attacked the miners as viciously as she did the Argentines. When she crushed the unions and sent unemployment soaring, the whole country erupted in riots, north to south. But she wasn’t phased. In 1990, the year before she left office, she tried to impose a poll tax on Londoners and the cities burned once again.

Those of us who grew up in Thatcher’s Britain remember her strident, uncompromising reign – the riots, the war, the speeches, the strikes, her overwhelming presence in public life. And it’s a shame that senility has robbed her of her own memories of that time, the way it did with Reagan.

Perhaps this is something that both sides can agree on. Her admirers can bemoan the tragic decline of a great leader, while her enemies can only wish she could recall her sins in her old age, so as to be plagued by her conscience if nothing else.

This much is certain: If Hillary’s running in 2016, she has a hell of an act to follow. 

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