Q: When is a trailblazing female pioneer not a trailblazing female pioneer?
A: When she’s Margaret Thatcher, of course.
When is a trailblazer not celebrated in slide shows and lists and placed on posters during the months when these things are celebrated?
When she’s a conservative.
Look at your average list of Female Trailblazers and Great Women in History and Women Leaders — Ashley Judd’s there, Chelsea Clinton, even Princess Diana — but there’s a giant hole shaped like the Iron Lady. The Guardian’s list of 10 Best Female Pioneers includes Coco Chanel and Kathryn Bigelow, but Margaret Thatcher? Go fish. Go so far as to include her name on a list of Feminist Baby Names, with the admittedly tepid endorsement that “Look, whatever your politics, you gotta give the Iron Butterfly her due. This broad strong armed a nation whilst wearing pearls,” and people will write whole essays explaining why this is Not Okay.
“Well,” people say, in total earnestness, “she was a woman… in history… but I didn’t like the history that she made.”
Feminism does not much like Margaret Thatcher. And by some well-publicized accounts, the feeling was mutual. “I hate feminism. It is poison,” she reportedly told adviser Paul Johnson. Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in Women. She believed in Margaret Thatcher. Assisting the Sisterhood did not rank on her list of priorities. She wasn’t about rhetoric. She even reportedly tried to change a line in a speech telling a Moses figure to take his “pills,” not understanding that “tablets” and Moses was a joke.
If you want proof that there is no Women’s Bloc of voters, just look at Twitter’s conversation about Margaret Thatcher today.
But in a strange way, that was the biggest feminist triumph of all.
A great deal of feminism is the insistence that you be taken on your own merits. Thatcher certainly was. It’s why she’s not on these lists. In a 2011 poll, she ranked low on likeability, as Lionel Shriver notes over at Slate, but topped the charts on capability. “Being powerful is like being a lady,” she famously said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
In the days and weeks to come, the question of exactly what Thatcher’s legacy was is going to occupy many pages. (Here’s a pie chart of Twitter sentiment on the subject that seems fairly accurate.) She was a fighter, undoubtedly, who picked her battles and believed fervently in individual responsibility, taking on the unions and dismantling much of the elaborate apparatus of British social welfare. She told Woman’s Own in 1987:
“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation…
Conservative icon? No question. Feminist icon? She’s the hole in the list.
The Guardian’s list of the Ten Best Female Pioneers includes Eva Peron, but Thatcher’s nowhere to be seen. She does make About.com’s list of Top 100 Women of History, but then again, so does Rosie the Riveter, who is literally a fictional character.
Possibly this is what she would have wanted. Take individuals on their merits, not as they are associated in groups. Maybe that doesn’t mean that you like her. But even then it’s difficult to deny that she made it more possible to judge people on their merits, not feel compelled to reverence simply because someone was the First Lady or the Only Lady. And for 11 years, she was there on the television, a simple, assumed fact. But it was much harder than she made it look. As Matt Gutman of ABC wrote on Twitter, “Many of us grew up watching Margaret Thatcher on TV, thinking it was perfectly normal for a woman to lead a great power. It wasn’t.”
Not just any woman — nor just any person — but Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, a world figure still capable of stirring immense passions. Even the vitriol is a testimony: She is being judged on her own merits. You know you’ve done something right when instead of pausing to congratulate you for being female and first, everyone leaps straight to hating what you are doing. You know you’ve made an impact when the people who most detest you skip “Lady Caligula” and head directly to “Caligula.” No wonder she retains such power. (No wonder Sarah Palin always tries to evoke the comparison, although with Palin the comparison only goes so far; she seems to lack Thatcher’s drive to amass any accomplishments more tangible than a reality show.)
Maybe, as Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin wrote on Twitter, a better answer to the question is
“Q: When is a trailblazing female leader not a trailblazing female leader? A: Never.”
RIP, Baroness Thatcher.