Being a female leader: the path prepared by Margaret Thatcher

I am really curious to see The Iron Lady – although, as with most films, I will have to wait until it comes out on DVD and I can squeeze in the time to watch it between other commitments. I am sure it will be worth the wait – since its premiere it has elicited the sort of reactions that only a great film does. Besides, Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister coincided with a very formative time of my early years; she was part of the backdrop of my life, and I want to see how other people have interpreted her legacy. When I look back on my memories of that time, I remember the anger and antagonism that Margaret Thatcher provoked, but I remember too my early sense that she was unusual in breaking a mould and that she was an impressive woman. I was also struck then, as I have been since, by how there was a focus on her as a female leader that simply did not happen to male leaders. No-one seemed to feel comfortable – at that time particularly – with the concept of a strong woman in charge – and I wonder now how much of the antagonism around her was down to that, rather than to her politics and her actions.

Interestingly, a number of female commentators in the Press last week expressed feelings of regret that there is no-one like Margaret Thatcher operating in public life now. Allison Pearson in Thursday’s Telegraph, reflecting on The Iron Lady, wrote that ‘Watching [the film] made me realise that leaders and leadership are thin on the ground – How many people will come out of cinemas this week wondering if we shall ever see a leader like Margaret Thatcher again?’ Sandra Parsons in Wednesday’s Daily Mail wrote ‘I don’t know how anyone – Left or Right – could fail to be impressed with her achievements – Will a female politician to rival Mrs Thatcher emerge from these years of austerity? I very much doubt it – a mark not only of her greatness but of our political impoverishment.’ Elsewhere in the Daily Mail, Amanda Foreman, Mrs Thatcher’s biographer, reminded us of the times in which she lived and worked: ‘She was patronised and condescended to at every turn – The idea of a woman leader […] was preposterous.’

And yet become a leader she did, making a strong mark as she did so – even though the country struggled as much with the concept of her as a woman as it did with her politics. She was a ‘woman in a man’s world’ – and still would be, as we should not overlook the fact that only 22% of MPs in our current UK parliament are women. The 1980’s were a different time in our history – we have moved on, but we have not left all the vestiges behind. Our female MPs are far more subject to comments about their appearance than are their male counterparts; it is commonplace for people to be ambivalent about the capacity of women to be powerful in leading roles. This should be no surprise – it is harder for people to grasp concepts if they do not have strong and multiple precedents, and Margaret Thatcher was a ‘one-off’ – so far, at least.

We need these precedents in this country, not just abroad, where the number of female political leaders is growing. We need to treat our female politicians and other leaders fairly and equally. We need to focus on substance not appearance in what our leaders do. We want both men and women to represent us in the decisions which impact on our lives. We must make it possible.

Margaret Thatcher’s biographer described an outing to the ballet last Christmas when she was approached by a line of girls wanting her autograph. She asked one of them what she wanted to be when she grew up; the reply was ‘I want to be like you. I want to be Prime Minister.’ Margaret Thatcher has left us an amazing gift – the sense of possibility that women can lead. It is up to us not to waste this legacy.

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