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Fact-checking ‘The Crown’: Did Margaret Thatcher really look down on women?

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with her all-male cabinet in 1983. (PA Wire/Press Association Images)

After Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, then-President Barack Obama released a statement summing up the extraordinary life of Britain’s first female prime minister.

“She stands as an example to our daughters,” said Obama, who has two daughters, “that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”

But Obama’s statement was a bit of revisionist, rose-colored-glasses history.

As binge-watching viewers of “The Crown” around the world are now learning — or relearning — via their television and laptop screens, Thatcher had little interest in advancing women or women’s issues, let alone shattering ceilings.

It is a conundrum that surfaces in the first episode of season four, when Queen Elizabeth II invites Thatcher, played by Gillian Anderson, to form a government as leader of the Conservative Party. The queen, a bit of a gambler, liked to predict cabinet appointments.

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“I’m assuming no women,” the queen, played by Olivia Colman, says.

“Oh certainly, not,” Thatcher replies. “Not just because there aren’t any suitable candidates. But I have found women in general tend not to be suited to high office anyways.”

“Why’s that?” the queen says.

“Well, they become too emotional.”

In her 11-plus years as prime minister, Thatcher appointed just one female cabinet member. Though she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 — the same year as the United Nations’s International Year of the Woman — Thatcher typically punted when asked about the women’s liberation movement.

“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she once said, leaving it to others to point out how marrying a wealthy businessman gave her the means — and household staff — to pursue a political career.

Once Thatcher acquired power, she relished in wielding it over everyone and everything — men, women, all of British society. She had no use for social structures that would uplift women or the working class.

After Thatcher died, British journalist Jenni Murray, the longtime host of the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, wrote in the Guardian about confronting Thatcher over these criticisms in an interview on her show:

We came to family policies and the desperate need for childcare provision. Her response would have been risible had it not been so tragic. The most powerful woman in the country, if not the world at that time, had been free to pursue her political career thanks to the support of a rich husband and an army of help in the house. Her sympathy for other women of ambition, who were not so lucky in the wealthy spouse department, was entirely absent.

Thatcher had just returned from Russia, telling Murray she was “desperately saddened” to see children in nurseries while their mothers were forced to work.

“She did not want to see Britain turned into a creche society,” Murray wrote. “Her patronising advice for those women who wished to keep their hand in while their children were young — and she was all in favour of a little part-time work to keep the brain engaged — was to find an aunt or a granny who might have the children for a few short hours a week.”

Season 4 of "The Crown" draws on events such as Princess Diana's marriage to Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II's relationship with Margaret Thatcher. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Historians and scholars have struggled for years to fully explain Thatcher’s disregard for women, but Beatrix Campbell, an English writer and feminist, said it can likely all be traced back to her childhood.

Thatcher revered her father, a small-town grocer and politician, often telling stories about going to work with him. She never spoke of her mother, a housewife who excelled at baking. Thatcher never even mentioned her in an 800-page autobiography.

“The mass experience of women,” Campbell said in an interview, “will always be an experience of subordination, and she will not have it. She will not have it.”

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“The Crown,” a fictional show based loosely on actual events, more than hints at Campbell’s analysis in episode four, which revolves around the children of the queen and prime minister. In one scene, Thatcher’s daughter Carol complains to her mother that she favors her twin brother, Mark.

“You disregard me, you overlook me,” Carol says, “and you favor Mark.”

“Because he’s stronger, like my father was stronger,” Thatcher replies. “Yes, you’re right. I did struggle with my mother but it had nothing to do with her sex. It had to do with her weakness. I could not bear how she was prepared to just be a housewife.”

Carol interrupts: “Because her husband treated her as such.”

“That is not true,” Thatcher says, perturbed. “Your grandfather, my father was wonderful with women. Wonderful. He encouraged me. He taught me. He made me who I am. He was determined my ambition be limitless. And he tried with your grandmother. But there is a limit to what one can do if people are themselves limited.”

Campbell said British women caught on to Thatcher’s anti-feminism ways early on.

“There was no expectation, either amongst conservatives or indeed anybody else, that she would use her power as the premier to advance the cause of women,” Campbell says. “And she doesn’t. She just never, ever does.”

Campbell compared Thatcher to Obama in an academic journal article following her death, noting how the president employed the glass ceiling metaphor in celebrating her life.

“Coming from him,” Campbell wrote, “the tribute seemed to imply an equivalence between Margaret Thatcher and himself — as the first of their kind to become their country’s prime minister as change-makers, trailblazers, torch-bearers, shape-shifters.”

But this equivalence was a mirage.

Campbell wrote, “While his mantra was inclusive, ‘Yes we can,’ hers was exclusive, ‘Yes, I can.’ She did not create a new womanly public.”

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