For many, Margaret Thatcher is an easy figure to hate, and rightly so.
The world economic crisis today has its roots in the neo-conservatism of Thatcher and her American counterpart, Ronald Regan, back in the 1980s. Thatcher inflicted significant and lasting damage on the working class and our movement. She was a strong leader who knew exactly which side she was on. She never flinched from her duty of acting on behalf of the ruling class.
As a minister of the 1975 Tory Government and as Prime Minister for 11 years, Thatcher inflicted misery on working class women. She once said she did not identify with feminism. No kidding, sister!
Regardless of this, she had to fight sexism within her own party and the establishment to get to the top. And once at the top sexism took on different guises. She became the powerfully seductive “governess” for the sexually stymied boarding school educated men in her cabinet and wider milieu.
The mainstream media did not know how to portray Thatcher but the fact of her femaleness, her womanliness usually influenced how she was depicted. She “hectored” rather than argued, she “waved her handbag” when driving points home, and so on.
The satirical puppet show “Spitting Image” was unable to come up with anything more imaginative than making Thatcher wear a suit, more male than any man in her cabinet, playing the dominatrix with highly sexual undertones to the pathetic drooling men around her. Perhaps this is all that can be expected from mainstream society where sexism and misogyny go unchallenged. But surely the labour movement and, the left in particular, fared better? Not so.
The broad labour movement used slogans such as “Ditch the Bitch” as comfortably as “Coal not Dole”. A leading Labour Party woman made a “mad cow disease” joke about Thatcher at a Labour Party Women’s conference and expected and got laughs and applause.
“Evil cow” was another often used description for Thatcher, usually followed by a rhetorical question such as “what sort of woman could do…”, followed by quips such as “If Denis (Thatcher) was a real man...”
On the revolutionary left, things were no better, maybe even worse. The Militant tendency (forerunner to the Socialist Party) was notoriously bad on the question of fighting women’s oppression and sexism. Leading Militant local organisers in Stoke introduced a song to a miners’ support march: “Maggie Thatcher’s got one, Ian MacGregor is one! Nah, nah, nah!” When challenged by women on the march, they laughed dismissively, playing to the more backward ideas of some striking miners present.
Socialist Organiser (forerunner to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) and Women’s Fightback were lone voices at the time arguing Thatcher should be taken on as a politician, as serious ruling class fighter, and not reduced to sexist abuse and caricatures.
Thatcher wasn’t evil. She wasn’t mad. She wasn’t a cow. She was a woman who fought hard for her class. If the likes of Neil Kinnock, then Labour Party leader, and Norman Willis, then General Secretary of the TUC, had fought with just a fraction of her commitment and vigour for the class they were chosen to represent, then history might have been different.
Socialist women have nothing in common with the likes of Margaret Thatcher. We should feel no sense of feminist solidarity with her and women like her. But we have to be concerned that women who take part in politics, whether we agree with them or not, cannot and should not be reduced to sexist and misogynist ridicule. Hate Thatcher and all she represents, but when Thatcher’s dead her ideas and what she stood for will remain.
Her policies and legacy, which set working class women back decades, will still need to be fought, as will the sexism that undermines women’s confidence and erodes our abilities in all spheres of life, not just politics.