How women perform power
Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 1972. At the time she was the Secretary of State for Education and Science (Photo by Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images)
Is this something Thatcher would do? This is the question Bronwyn Bishop raised of Julia Gillard’s Man-In-the-Mirror speech last week.
Thatcher has been a thorn in the side of feminists for decades, and seems to appear as a sort of fallback archetype every time people become confused about how women in power should look and act.
Gillard had failed to measure up to the Iron Lady’s gold standard of feminine power, Bishop said. Therefore her speech was ‘pathetic’.
But what are we saying when we use Thatcher as a yardstick to measure the performance of women leaders? Margaret Thatcher is a polarising figure for feminists. She earned a reputation through 80s as a fearsome reformer, lighting a well needed bomb under the entitlement culture and unionism gone rotten of late 70s Britain, which saw rubbish pile up on the streets and the country held to ransom by its unprofitable state-owned coal mines. Later, she managed to alienate the entire Scottish vote for a generation by foisting a poll tax exclusively on residents north of the Tweed (the equivalent of Howard charging a GST only on Tasmanian residents), spent an awful lot of money and lives defending some unproven oil reserves off the coast of Argentina, and aggravated the dispute over Northern Ireland to the point where every pub in London had a target painted on it.
In fact, her legacy is now so dubious in her home country that Meryl Streep’s hagiography last year raised hackles because, even though it showed her as a lonely and guilt ridden dementia patient, many considered she got off too lightly.
In fact, the only place she seems to be universally revered is in Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Her reputation as the Iron Lady stems not from admiring British voters but rather an article from the 70s written by Captain Yuri Gavrilov in the Soviet newspaper Red Star. Her iconic status in the East has seen politicians like former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko travel to London to receive her endorsement. The former Soviet countries, many commentators argue, love Thatcher because she is a paragon of vlast – a kind of brutal and absolute ‘natural’ power common to Tsars, dictators and X-Men. Vlast is what Putin manifests when he rides horses shirtless and shoots tigers. It’s what Tymoshenko herself had in mind when she dressed up as the sword wielding hero of Russian action flick Nightwatch in campaign poster. And what Thatcher was aiming for when she emulated the mannerisms and appearance of the most recognizable modern symbol of feminine vlast - Queen Elizabeth.
This form of plastic, staccato femininity fits to a tee the image projected by Bronwyn Bishop, almost fits Gillard, begins to wane through Nicola Roxon and Anna Burke, and has thankfully all but been abandoned by the insouciant Penny Wong. It’s a performance of power rather than anything natural or essential, and whether or not you think it’s prime-ministerial depends on who you want to lead you.
Thatcher certainly faced her share of sexism across her career, and Bishop in using her as a yardstick seems to be saying that Thatcher employed a dignity and maturity in not responding as Gillard has. Journalist Jill Mountford notes that during miners’ marches against the closure of state owned coal pits, a common war cry included: “Maggie Thatcher’s got one, Ian MacGregor is one! Nah, nah, nah!” She was routinely referred to as a cow, bitch, and painted variously as a hectoring schoolmarm or dominatrix by the satirical press. In her memoirs she witheringly describes her role in the Tory shadow cabinet of the 70s as ‘the statutory woman whose main task was to explain what “women” – Kiri Te Kanawa, Barbara Cartland, Esther Rantzen, Stella Rimington and all the rest of our uniform, undifferentiated sex – were likely to think and want on troublesome issues.’
And yet this icon of absolute power kept her anger bottled up, we are led to believe. But then, did Thatcher ever advocate for women’s issues? As feminist writer Natasha Walter has written: ‘Thatcher was no feminist: she had no interest in social equality, she knew nothing of female solidarity.’ Indeed, during 11 years as leader of the Conservative party she appointed only one woman to cabinet – Janet Young, a rugby and cricket playing tom boy who campaigned furiously against gay rights in later life. But Walter also concedes that Thatcher ‘normalised female success. She showed that although female power and masculine power may have different languages, different metaphors, different gestures, different traditions, different ways of being glamorous or nasty, they are equally strong, equally valid.’
Author Linda Grant is less sympathetic in her appraisal. Thatcher demonstrates starkly that being a lady is not the same as being a woman. ‘She was the middle-aged woman with the hats, the pearls, the teeth, the strangled high-pitched voice, and the policies which had nothing to do with equal pay for work of equal value, free abortion on demand or take back the night marches… Thatcher's premiership was a wrong, contradictory note for feminism.’
Thatcher appeared to consider the idea of a modern woman (or for that matter a modern man) as repulsive. Her refusal to ‘play the gender card’ seemingly had less to do with being a woman who knew how to wield power well, and more to do with being a conservative who didn’t believe in feminism to begin with.
Likewise, German conservative leader Angela Merkel, also held up by Bishop as an example of a powerful women who is not ‘pathetic’, has a record on women’s issues described by Der Speigel as ‘meager’.
Hillary Clinton is a powerful woman who has advocated for women’s rights across her career. And she speaks freely on sexism and misogyny, recently comparing the men in her own country to ‘extremists’ during a speech at the Women in the World Summit. ‘Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,’ she said. ‘But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress. They want to control how we act. They even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies.’ Did anyone call this speech pathetic? And what about her 2008 concession speech in the presidential nomination race, which was almost entirely themed around her commitment to women’s rights? ‘As we gather here today in this historic, magnificent building, the 50th woman to leave this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House,’ she said, with perhaps a touch of bitterness, noting that she and her supporters had managed to pound ‘18 million cracks’ into the glass ceiling, but that like some bullet-proof hothouse built from Kevlar and polycarbonate, the glass ceiling nevertheless remained intact.
Gillard’s speech was by no means perfect, coming during a game of jiggery-pokery as each party tried to maneuver to steal an extra two votes on the floor. And her stance on marriage equality presents a stark contrast to her stance on gender equality. Still, Bishop’s criticism of her is more about the idea of powerful women daring to broach issues of sexism and misogyny in public life generally. Whether it is appropriate for a leader to talk about these issues with the same passion they might advocate for industrial relations reforms or the rights of children or refugees.
I think we might have moved on from the period in history where a powerful woman speaking publicly about sexism and misogyny was a sign of weakness rather than a statement of political belief. It might be time to leave the Gordian knot of Thatcher’s legacy behind.