Margaret Thatcher used her femininity to her advantageby John Campbell / April 11, 2013 / Leave a comment
Whatever view historians eventually take of Margaret Thatcher, one thing can never be taken away from her. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister. She was also one of the first female leaders anywhere in the world to reach the highest office by her own efforts, in competition with male rivals, rather than as the widow or daughter of a former leader. Thatcher was a true pioneer and trail-blazer, not only for women politicians, but for women in all professions who have learned to juggle work and family responsibilities: she won the Tory leadership, appropriately, the year that Shirley Conran published Superwoman.
One has only to look back at those formal cabinet photographs, with the prime minister seated in the centre, flanked by her male colleagues—she only ever had one other woman in her cabinet, Janet Young for less than two years—to be reminded that she was quite simply different. Over 11 years we got so used to her difference that it came to seem quite natural. There were stories of young children asking their parents “Can a man be a prime minister?” and the parents almost having to think twice before replying. Once we had got used to the novelty—which happened very quickly—it made a sort of natural sense for the prime minister to be a woman and all her colleagues men. The way the office has developed in this century, the British prime minister is a different order of being from his colleagues, no longer primus inter pares but much more the spider at the centre of the web, or the queen bee served by her workers.
Once she had attained the premiership her sex was an almost unqualified source of strength to Mrs Thatcher, which she consciously and skilfully exploited. On the way up it was arguably a different story. As an undergraduate politician she was excluded from the Oxford Union. As an aspiring candidate she faced the reluctance of Conservative Associations in the 1950s to adopt a young mother for a winnable seat; and once at Westminster she suffered the patronising gallantry of men who took it for granted that a woman could only hope to rise so far. But none of these held her back for very long. She still became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association; she won adoption for Finchley in time for the 1959 election; and she was the first member of that Tory intake to win promotion. She then benefitted from the perceived need to have a token women in the shadow cabinet, and later the cabinet. On balance such prejudice as she encountered did her more good than harm. If she had to work twice as hard as male rivals to put herself in a position to challenge them, it was precisely that experience which made her so formidable when she did challenge them.