'That woman' Thatcher let women down

Story highlights

  • Lesley Abdela: Besides being prime minister, Thatcher did little to promote women in politics
  • Abdela says a generation in Britain grew up knowing only a female prime minister
  • She says like many, she feels ambivalence toward Thatcher, a divisive but influential leader
  • Abdela: So powerful, she could have advanced women in politics but chose not to do so

When it came to promoting other women in politics, Margaret Thatcher was a disappointment. In fact, her main legacy for women was merely that she was a woman holding the position of prime minister for 11½ years.

My son was 5 years old when Thatcher first won election as prime minister, the first woman to do so. By the time she left office, he was a young man of 17. He didn't remember a country with a male prime minister.

As a feminist and women's rights campaigner who opposed many of Thatcher's policies, I am still trying to work out how I feel about her. As prime minister, Thatcher did almost nothing to promote women's rights actively, but at the same time, an entire generation grew up assuming it was normal to have a woman as prime minister.

Lesley Abdela

During Thatcher's tenure, I interviewed Sir Bernard Weatherill, speaker of the House of Commons, for a documentary I was working on. Weatherill told me an anecdote about his grandchildren, a boy and girl of around 8 and 11. The children were dressing up in the speaker's robes, "playing Parliaments." The speaker said he overheard his grandson say, "I'll pretend to be prime minister." His granddaughter retorted, "Don't be silly, I'm going to be the prime minister -- only women can be prime ministers!"

A woman prime minister had become so much part of the British way of life that for two or three weeks after Thatcher left office the media had become so accustomed to referring to the prime minister as "she" and "her" that several times TV and radio journalists slipped up on air and had to correct themselves and refer to the incoming prime minister John Major as "he" and "him."

In the early 1980s, I founded and led the all-party 300 GROUP campaign to get more women elected -- we had 43 branches in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Thatcher attended a couple of 300 GROUP functions and spoke in support of the campaign for more women in Parliament.

At an event to unveil a plaque to Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, I heard Thatcher refer in her speech to the House of Commons as "a dreadfully male-dominated place." Such sentiments were the exception rather than the rule for her. I don't think she understood women's rights, and her record of appointing only one other woman to her Cabinet for a brief period was desperately disappointing.

Thatcher had such command over her Conservative Party that if she had chosen to do so she could have advanced large numbers of qualified women into public and political posts. She chose not to do so. It was a missed opportunity.

Once I was invited to lunch by former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Thatcher had defeated Heath to become head of the Conservative Party in 1975. Heath hated Thatcher. He never referred to her by name during lunch. Instead he referred to her as "that woman." He had invited seven of us as guests, including pop singer Bob Geldof. It was a sunny summer afternoon. We ate lunch out on the terrace of Heath's garden at his beautiful Georgian house in the country town of Salisbury, Wiltshire. Conversation ranged over Northern Ireland, European politics and music.

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Knowing about my work with the 300 GROUP campaign, he suddenly turned to me and bristling with anger said: "I tell you one thing Lesley, you'll never see another woman prime minister in this country in your lifetime after 'that woman.' "

Margaret Thatcher triggered strong emotions for and against her. She presided over a ruthless era in British politics. The reactions on social media at the news of her death are a Molotov cocktail of people's views -- not just vitriol, but vicious, misogynist vocabulary from people who are quite reasonable and rational in other circumstances.

Thatcher is well-known for her quotation of the Prayer of St Francis after her 1979 election victory. The prayer includes the lines, "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony." What she achieved was the precise opposite of this.

So what will be the Thatcher legacy? I once asked the then-Chinese ambassador to London what legacy he thought Confucius left to modern China. He smiled. His reply? "Too soon to tell."

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