Is Margaret Thatcher really worth redeeming?

Thatcher was the victim of sexism: denigrated and eventually abandoned by her colleagues, notes author.

Margaret Thatcher was herself a profoundly anti-feminist woman, rejecting feminism as "poison" - her tenure did not translate into increased opportunities for women [Reuters]

Margaret Thatcher is dead, and there has been some rejoicing. 

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that her legacy is debated. In leftist circles, it is hard to remember that she is loved and admired, just as it is hard to remember that tens of millions of Americans love and admire Ronald Reagan – himself an admirer of Thatcher. They still describe him as a wise leader and noble man, hope to name schools after him and choke off public school funding streams in his name. Whatever I think of these people, they mourn. 

The BBC wanted to play “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead”, to celebrate the Iron Lady’s passing, but the outcry was so loud that they have backed off all but five seconds of the song. She has, and always had, her partisans: people who are truly grateful for her life and work. They believe that she rescued the country from stagnation, and that her ideas were shrewd and sustainable.  

Glenn Greenwald wrote a cogent piece for the Guardian about the importance of combating hagiography in the wake of her death. He argued that the death of a public figure cannot be a private affair. It signals the end of an era, or more properly the start of an inquest. It is an invitation to remember in full, and a catalyst for re-examination. 

When someone like Thatcher dies, a decade of policy and a generation of consequence are thrown into high relief. There is no better opportunity to speak ill, and no better time to ensure that criticism will be politically relevant. 

Greenwald also pointed out that supporters never reject this opportunity to use the death of a beloved leader to cement their reputation. To allow their memorial to go unchallenged is to effectively permit someone like Thatcher to enjoy unqualified praise. There can be no difference between using someone’s death to cement their legacy and using that death to attack it, and no politician gets a truly apolitical farewell. 

Another op-ed by Deborah Orr appeared in the Guardian a few days later, “saluting” Margaret Thatcher as a woman while acknowledging the flaws in her political vision. Orr argued that Thatcher should be seen as a tenacious, skillful politician. 

When Thatcher took the candidacy, there was no expectation that she would succeed, let alone bring about a conservative renaissance. Prime minister was a dirty job just then; as the woman, she was given a chance to slog and fail. She succeeded beyond anyone’s plans. For all those qualities, according to Orr, she should be celebrated even if her political agenda was loathsome. 

 Hundreds ‘celebrate’ Thatcher’s death

She should also be understood as the victim of sexism: denigrated and eventually abandoned by her colleagues, because she was a disposable, inferior woman. 

Another commentator, Melissa McEwan at Shakesville, complained about misogynist language. She pointed that the words used to disparage her were not only unprintable, but profoundly sexist. She was attacked for being an ugly old cow, not just for being a fascist.

I agree with McEwan that there is no excuse for sexist language – and that Thatcher inspired a wealth of it – even though I do not think “Margaret on the Guillotine” is offensive to women. If Thatcher’s policies were reprehensible, then she should not be attacked for her gender. That strategy gives women like Thatcher a chance to call their opponents the real woman-haters. They hardly ever pass up that kind of opportunity, and can hardly be blamed. 

Melissa ended her post by arguing on behalf of Thatcher’s political skill, her toughness. She was a strong woman, even if she was evil: 

“I feel a kinship with her nonetheless, because of the world in which we live, which judges us both by the same measure despite our vast differences.”

Strong women, faint praise

I dislike the whole concept of the strong woman. Strength is not enough. I do not feel that there is a real paucity of adept, tenacious good women such that we need to welcome Margaret Thatcher, even partially. 

Thatcher was herself a profoundly anti-feminist woman, rejecting feminism as “poison”. She was selfish: her tenure did not translate into increased opportunities for women. She does not seem to have had a clear positive effect on the ability of women to assume leadership roles in politics, and she definitely did not concern herself with equality. As Orr and McEwan both point out, she was the first and remains the only female British prime minister. 

The “strong woman” standard gives the game away. It concedes that we as women are so deprived of good examples that we need to take our inspiration where we can get it. Thatcher may not be perfect, what with her staunch support for apartheid and her willingness to overlook the occasional murdered dissident – or several thousand of them – but she was good at her job on her terms, and for that we celebrate her. 

What is the advantage in that? Why should we want Thatcher as a standard-bearer, even of the ability of women to get what they want? Why would we ever want to triangulate towards her model? 

We lose our ability to attack politicians like her, we lose our right to demand that feminist role models embody feminist principles, and more importantly we trade integrity for strength. What viable political movement is that desperate for heroes among its people? 

Feminism is not about strength; it is not about racking up points on an apolitical scorecard. It is about making a better world for women. A woman whose policies harmed women – a woman who supported some of the most oppressive and rapine regimes of the modern era and who also happened to explicitly loathe feminists – should not be viewed as a feminist role model no matter how tough she was. She counted Pinochet as a dear friend, long past the point when the rest of the world saw him as a monster. Should we praise her for her unswerving loyalty? Are we obligated to? 

In fact, Thatcher the Unsung Feminist Icon holds a lot of apparent appeal for conservative commentators, who are eager to use Maggie’s success to take swipes at feminist hypocrisy, as though it were unreasonable for a political movement to impose ideological litmus tests on its leaders. I think it is no coincidence that this vision of feminism is so obvious to them.    

I do not think we lose anything by losing her; I do not think we are obligated to show respect to Thatcher for her ability, or to admit that she was a canny politician.  

Kind people 

I also think there is honour in hating the hateful. 

I rejoiced when Jerry Falwell died. Rejoicing might be the wrong word. I felt that rejoicing was called for. I was cheered. I thought of him as a thoroughly evil man, a blowhard and a hypocrite, who professed a religious calling but felt no charity. I would not go so far as to say that he deserved death, but I believed the world deserved to go on without him. 

There were people who felt glory welling up in their souls when they heard that Falwell had finally gone away for good, people who poured out the champagne. Some of them had come through the worst days of the AIDS crisis; some of them had reason to take his life personally. I should not merely say that I do not judge them. I respect their judgment. I value their condemnation as I value the firsthand knowledge that led them to condemn. They hated him because they survived him. 

 Britain bids farewell to Iron Lady Thatcher

I believe Thatcher’s sworn enemies deserve the same respect. It is not our right to pick over her legacy in search of virtues we can pawn for political capital. It is not our privilege to insist on balance or nuance, or to act as though fury and bitterness are not valid political judgments in their own right. The leader of a nation has enough power to inspire powerful anger. Margaret Thatcher’s strength damaged a great many lives. 

Thatcher death cake

Her legacy has a rhetorical aspect as well, one other reason I hesitate to commute the vitriol. She and Reagan not only shared a policy profile, but they built an image. 

Their success – and their enduring legacy – rested on their ability to redefine their own stance. They branded and promulgated a new definition of conservatism, and lived to watch it supplant more traditional conservative principles. They were in the vanguard of austerity and family values; they created a new public understanding of the proper function of the state. In order to make these changes, they claimed the moral high ground – more than that, they claimed to be more rational and more honest. Julian Barnes is right that her political accomplishments were “remarkable”, none more so than her assurance, what he describes as “granitic certainty”. 

It was crucial for their opponents to be able to dismantle that certainty. It was necessary for them to be able to say that their foreign policy was not brave or astute but thuggish and reckless, that their response to the gay community – and the AIDS crisis – was not Christian but cruel, that their stewardship was not prudent but wasteful, lethal. The crude language was articulate rage, a way to strip away pretensions. Barnes’ take on her autobiography is witty – you could not call it crass, it appeared in The New Yorker – but it is brutal. His thesis is that Maggie, bless her, did not do herself justice.  

Ridicule is part of the reconciliation process. Maggie Thatcher death cake – another creative memorial – is a way to disrupt solemnity when it is unearned. Riot police, dirty wars, blighted communities, invisible plagues: Ding, dong, the [witch] is dead! 

Elizabeth Browning wrote:

“Weep and write.
A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt, and bitter, and good.”  

She was talking about slavery, as a legacy and a crime. She went on to draw up a manifesto for eloquent emotion, and she was right. These curses are the common language of witness and conscience. That includes all the curses I am not allowed to use here, even for Mags. 

If Thatcher’s policies were evil, then Thatcher the politician deserves a scathing eulogy, deserves to become a nasty joke. It is the genius of thugs to deny any taint of thuggery, and the duty of their opponents to hold them to terms they cannot themselves design. Curse and write and have some cake: she is dead. 

Jessica White is a journalist, translator and playwright who has lived and worked in Asia, South America and the US. She currently makes her home in Chicago.