Traditionally we see women as caregivers; maternal and loving, gentle and delicate, weaker, and inferior. But women around the world are taking their place on the forefront of the global stage as Prime Ministers, Queens, Chancellors, and (almost in the cases of the USA and France) Presidents. So do we expect to see these ingrained feminine stereotypes in their policies, and what’s more, do we want to? Thatcher is a subject who prompts all this queries.
“I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime”, Margaret Thatcher, First Female Prime Minister
Looking at traditional Government Cabinet formations, we may be inclined to say yes, we want women in “female” roles: out of the last 10 Education Secretaries, the department most associated with children, half have been women. Naturally this does not sound like an enormous disparity, but compare this to the Health Secretary (2/10), the Foreign Office (1/10), and Chancellors of the Exchequer (0/10).
So what does this say about our Government? Is it that we do not believe a woman capable or do not value their abilities? I cannot (or perhaps I choose not) to imagine that is true, so is it that we don’t think a woman is as able to make the tough judgements demanded of a Minister? Again, I’m inclined to disregard this as untrue- the Iron Lady. Margaret Thatcher was indeed Education Secretary 1970-74, but she was anything but a tender mother, instead ruling with an infamous iron fist. Thrice elected to this office, surely this is proof of an unprejudiced electorate, who did not see a woman as less equal when it came to difficult decisions; she was re-elected in 1983 with a gain of 38 seats, riding on the back of a controversial but committed war (the Falklands, which Simon Jenkins regards as “the turning point in Mrs Thatcher’s premiership” in a brilliant article here: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/09/margaret-thatcher-falklands-gamble).
From this, can we conclude that the electorate does not then seek maternalism from women in politics? This isn’t to say that we do not approve of the benevolence and kindness associated with mothering: social reform in liberalism, (the ironically named) paternalism of one-nation conservatism, and social-democrat’s Keynesian economics; they are all easily associated with this feminine connotation. It could instead be evidence of a positive stance in politics, that we do not limit inherently “female traits” to solely women, and neither do we expect all women to embody these pursuits.
“My god! The bitch has won”
Alas, all is not that rosy, and politics, like most aspects of our world, was (and still is) marred by sexism. “What does she want, this housewife?” asked then-French President Jacques Chirac, such respect for a fellow world leader. Great Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell told the House of Commons that it had been “a touching spectacle: the brave little woman getting on with the woman’s work of trying to dominate the world”, with a patronising tone of truly astounding proportions. What did they want from Thatcher? A man in a skirt? Because plenty of people used a supposed lack of femininity against her, “She doesn’t strike me as a very female type”, was the reaction of Zigniew Brzezinski.
Politicians using a woman’s sex against her, “sacrificing their acceptance of women as equals to get at her” (Conservative MP Emma Nicholson, 1989), is not merely politicking: it is a derogatory attempt to put down an opponent based on their representation of 50.7% of the country. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of Thatcher, she must be admired for overcoming the boundaries forced upon her by ingrained sexism.
I don’t know what it is, if anything, we want from a woman in politics. Benevolent policies are not the sole attributions are women, and being ruthless is not exclusive to men. When we look at Marine Le Pen, Theresa May, Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and the many other women rising to the forefront of politics, we should not define them by their gender; it ought to be respected, and admired. We should instead define them by their words, their proposals, their policies, their actions, and their legacies. Define female politicians as politicians, not as females.