By Siobhan Silas
Feminism is a widely popularised term that has been used in countless ways. It isn’t a single monolithic movement, but an umbrella that compromises all of the narratives, ideologies and historic movements that stem from the centralised aim to rid our word of domination, that movements against classism, racism, imperialism all seek to do- through the lens of tackling the systematic injustices against women.
As the feminist academic Linda Nicholson puts it, ‘feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’.
Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party at the height of the women’s movement, serving from 1979 to 1990. Her brand of politics, marked by privatisation and austerity has earned itself its own title, Thatcherism, but was it feminist?
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The New Feminism referred to Thatcher as the ‘great unsung heroine of British feminism’. There’s no denying it, Thatcher represented and normalised female success, she broke through invincible barriers imposed by a male dominated society and made it to the top.
For women to see other women in positions of power is significant — no matter where on the political spectrum you sit – and Margaret Thatcher arguably, as outlined by Linda Grant, sent out a straightforward message to women that anything was possible. But did she even do this? How many of us really saw ourselves in Thatcher. She was a self-proclaimed man-worshipper who saw feminism as poison and couldn’t bear the stink of even one woman poisoning her cabinet.
Beyond representing narrow female success, feminism is about achieving the systematic equality through defining and establishing the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.
Thatcher didn’t achieve this systematic liberation – she broke through barriers as an exception, pushing herself as far away from women as possible and on men’s terms – and she did it while reinforcing them for the rest of us, cementing structural oppression. Liberation for all women isn’t achieved through economic policies that increase social inequality, poverty and unemployment, and decimate entire communities.
But she is still a figure feminism would be unwise to dismiss. Precisely because Margaret Thatcher is a perfect illustration of how important it is for feminists to focus on liberation, rather than on reflection of equality.
Thatcher’s politics have been reborn through her successors, and at first glance, it seems like these criticisms cannot be passed to them.
Our second female prime minister Theresa May, seems to be a much more readily acceptable win for feminism, and even a clear ‘feminist champion’ some describe her as.
May talked passionately about female advancement throughout her political career. Beyond this she made active strides to improve women’s equality within the UK. An as MP she was known to support women in her party and lobbied the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, to make maternity leave better paid and more flexible.
As Home Secretary and Equality Ministers she fought to crack down on FGM and domestic abuse, and expand parental leave, equal pay, all acts to essentially remove these systematic barriers against women. May’s apparent legal liberation of women continued within her 2016 government, which introduced laws to tackle modern slavery and the self-titled ‘landmark’ Domestic Abuse Act, that widened the scope of what counts as domestic violence and expanded the legal powers available to protect victims
But underneath these outward facing advances for women, May’s government sought to erode true liberation. It continued the program of austerity, which disseminated support services that are required to underpin her laws, impoverishing and subsequently trapping women disproportionately in abusive situations. It created a hostile environment which endangered migrant women, raised the state pension age for women and was comfortable in supporting parties, like the DUP, who are active in restricting women’s medical freedoms of abortion.
May’s power wasn’t truly consequential for liberation, she didn’t wield it with an understanding regarding how it will impact the lives of women- instead she made headlining strides that would improve the women at the top, whilst eroding support for the women at the bottom.
This leaves us with Liz Truss, who, while a Thatcher fanatic, is also a self- proclaimed ‘Destiny’s Child’ feminist, who tells the story of seeking to defeat the patriarchal attitude [citing being given junior air hostess badge over the junior pilot badge her brother received], and who importantly employed the most diverse cabinet in UK history.
However, in just 45 days of her premiership, this girl boss managed to erode women’s social and economic equality. She may want women to be independent, she just also wants to make it impossible for the majority of us to do it- and that isn’t feminism.
Her atrocious ‘mini-budget’ focused around tax cuts for the rich, not only tanked the economy, but disproportionately hit women, who are five times less likely to be the highest earners and in the minority of homeowners. Her revival of austerity exasperated the cost of living crisis and will push estimated millions into poverty, disproportionately again, hitting women.
Liz’s same cabinet is also one of the most socially exclusive, having the highest proportion attending private school in more than 25 years.
Liz’s exclusionary policies continued past eroding women’s economic standing, Liz appointed a health secretary that has continuously voted against abortion and LBTQ+ rights, and utilised her position to demonise and isolate transgender women, promising policies to restrict gender recognition and utilising trans rights as a tool to exploit a hatred for wokeness. Equality isn’t exclusionary and Liz Truss’ premiership sought to weaken liberation of women.
If we look across to Europe, it is clear that the reality of female leadership eroding gender equality isn’t a UK specific problem. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has raised concern of her appointment on women’s right due to her favouring of curbs on abortions and opposition to pink quotas.
However, I can already hear some disgruntled cries, of an wholly selfish entitled ‘generation’- who don’t appreciate the power of female leadership. It’s not that female leadership isn’t crucial to feminism, it is, and it is importantly growing with every other UK party and countless countries following suit.
But liberation for all women isn’t achieved simply when a wealthy, privileged woman takes a position of power. We need leaders that represent us, but this doesn’t solve the problem – they also need to actively fight for those they represent.
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