April 24 2013

Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Lady Margaret Thatcher

Charlotte Hays

By Charlotte Hays

Lady Margaret Thatcher, who with Sir Winston Churchill is one of the great British Prime Ministers of the last few centuries, and who died April 8, left instructions that the rugged Protestant hymn “To Be a Pilgrim,” by the Puritan author John Bunyan, be sung at her funeral.

Here is how the slightly modified version of the hymn in The English Hymnal begins:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound—his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

That suits Baroness Thatcher to a T, doesn’t it?

When Mrs. Thatcher, as she then was, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, there were many disasters ‘gainst which she had to contend, if change for the better was to come. She was undiscouraged by the dismal state of the economic woes she faced, and as a result, bravely pursued policies that were not, to say the least, always popular, and thus brought prosperity to her country and attained greatness.

She became Prime Minister in 1979. The policies of her predecessor, Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan, had brought the United Kingdom to its knees and created what was known as the Winter of Discontent, a time of inflation, strikes, and labor unions demanding pay raises that the economy could not afford. Thatcher reversed the downward economic trajectory of the United Kingdom with sound money, free-market policies, and by, in 1984 and 1985, valiantly standing up to the miners’ strike that threatened to cripple the country. She teamed with President Ronald Reagan to bring an end to the Soviet threat. No foes stayed her might.

Thatcher was deeply influenced by Friedrich Hayek and, according to the bishop who preached at her funeral, regarded reading Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom as an important moment in shaping her philosophy. Hayek believed that countries got on that road when government usurped too much control through central planning.

"Privatisation shrinks the power of the state and free enterprise enlarges the power of the people," wrote Thatcher, who privatized the coal, iron, and gas and electric industries that had been nationalized under her predecessors, releasing great economic activity. Thatcher believed in Victorian virtues and in the greatness of the country she led.  The scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb, who participated in a conference on Victorian values chaired by Mrs. Thatcher, wrote this:

Victorian values were a prominent and much disputed theme in her campaign. Replying to a television interviewer who observed, rather derisively, that she seemed to be approving of Victorian values, she enthusiastically agreed. “Oh, exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great.” In another interview, again responding to a critic, she said that she was pleased to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother who taught her those values. She went on to enumerate them: hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, living within one’s income, cleanliness next to godliness, helping one’s neighbor, and pride in one’s country. “All of these things are Victorian values,” she assured him. “They are also perennial values.”

A conviction politician, Thatcher cared more about getting her country on the right track than being popular. In this, as in her philosophy and actions in office, she was the Un-Obama. Unlike our president, she was great rather than cool. (See the video “The Lady’s Not for Jumping,” on which Mrs. Thatcher is not amused when an interviewer asks her to jump at the end of an interview, to contrast their styles.)

When called upon to issue a statement about Margaret Thatcher’s death, President Barack Obama fell back on what the columnist Mona Charen called “the least interesting thing about Margaret Thatcher”—namely that she was a woman. The president patronizingly hailed Mrs. Thatcher as somebody who "stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can't be shattered."

It was odd of our president to portray Mrs. Thatcher, a hate object to feminists, in those terms. But that was probably easier than talking about how she used free-market principles and privatization to rescue the United Kingdom from its economic ills. But the president was onto something: comparing the Iron Lady, as she was known, to our American feminist politicians is an interesting exercise.    

Unlike such politicians as Hillary Clinton, who benefited in no small way from her husband’s political status and who hopes to ride the issue of “women and girls” to the White House, Mrs. Thatcher didn’t think in terms of the glass ceiling. As Charen points out, she thought in larger terms: e.g., saving her country from the disastrous policies of decades. She was not a great female Prime Minister. She was a great Prime Minister. She was also, by the way, a great lady.

John O’Sullivan, a former Thatcher speechwriter, captured the mix of great lady and great politician. "Mrs. Thatcher – and it seems more appropriate on her death to forget her title and refer to her by the name she wore during her years of power,” O’Sullivan wrote in the Globe and Mail, “was a blend of two very different personalities. She was both a towering world-historical figure, like Bismarck, and an ordinary middle-class English housewife like Mrs. Miniver. She took bold and difficult strategic decisions, such as sinking the Belgrano in the Falklands War, but she also surprised world leaders by plumping up cushions, opening windows and generally seeing personally to their comfort. She was great, but she was not grand.”

When a waitress in the House of Commons dining room spilled soup into the lap of a minister, Thatcher jumped up and comforted the waitress. But she reportedly did not spare the feelings of the high and mighty. A famous English comedy skit had Thatcher going to dinner with her Cabinet and ordering steak. Asked by the waitress about the vegetables, “Thatcher” replies, “Oh, they’ll have the same as me.” Francois Mitterand, the Socialist President of France, said she had "the eyes of Caligula (and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe)."

Still, it is interesting—and inevitable, since IWF is a women’s organization—to ponder Thatcher as a female politician. Fortunately, this can be done without falling into the Obama trap of seeing her as merely an inspiration to our daughters. Mary Kenny, the English journalist, who said that every woman who advances in politics today “owes something to Maggie,” (do I hear squawks from NOW headquarters?), wrote this in the Independent:

She also showed that feminism could come in all shapes and sizes, not just an ideology of the collectivist left. She was, and remains, admired and loathed; and, unfairly, our recent economic troubles have sometimes been blamed on the influence of 'Thatcherism'. Greed and rampant capitalism are ascribed to her legacy.

Yet, although she believed in free enterprise and the market system, Maggie was never of the 'loadsamoney' bonus culture. The strict Methodism in which she grew up spurned greed as avidly as it damned sloth or squalor. Work was the ethic most admired.

Christina Hoff Sommers--who was reviled by feminists when Who Stole Feminism? came out in 1994—has written on Thatcher’s genuine femininity. Hoff Sommers described Thatcher as somebody who was inspired not only by Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek but by the homespun wisdom of a woman running a household. She always prepared breakfast for her husband, Denis, even when she was scaling the political heights. Somehow I don't see them taking fabulous vacations during a recession.

It is an embarrassment that President Barack Obama chose to send a relatively low-level delegation to her funeral. But this valiant pilgrim stood as a refutation to all that he believes and his small achievements.

When we at IWF are asked about the role of women and what women should do, we always say that they should do what they want to do, only circumscribed by their abilities. Thatcher’s choice was to be one of the greatest Prime Ministers in English history. Nothing wrong with that.  

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