Belinda Brown is a fellow at the Young Foundation and honorary research associate at University College London.
Mrs Thatcher has often come under the spotlight for her relationship to feminism and other women. She has been described as “a man in skirts” who would not appoint another woman to cabinet, for getting through and pulling up the ladder after her, for idolising her father and son while paying little attention to her mother and daughter. Perhaps this is all in some way true, but it was also key to her success.
Some of Mrs Thatcher’s policy preoccupations were more typically feminine. She was concerned about choice in education and did what she could (which wasn’t much in 1970) to stop comprehensivisation proceeding apace. According to the biographer of the welfare state, Timmins, spending on the NHS and education actually increased under her watch. Some of her priorities also reflect a more feminine side. While she didn’t believe in society she did believe in “individual men and women and families”, and these lay at the heart of her understanding of the way the world went round. Her foremost charity was the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Women’s National Commission was a quango for which she appears to have reserved special respect.
She was not masculine in her motives; she was far too ideological to pursue anything as humdrum as status, power or wealth (unlike for example Tony Blair). However she appears to have been masculine in her behaviour and the methods she used to get what she wanted. She revelled in conflict and took delight in different points of view. Although she was mindful of public opinion she had no qualms about making herself thoroughly unpopular if she believed that what she was doing was right. If she had an issue she wanted to push she would bully and boss; she could take on not just her cabinet but a room full of officials and politicians, the bulk of whom were undoubtedly men.
This made her very different from other successful women whose value lies in their more conciliatory and co-operative approach. We learn from the de Groote School of Business that “…women corporate directors are significantly more inclined to make decisions by taking the interests of multiple stakeholders into account in order to arrive at a fair and moral decision. They will also tend to use co-operation, collaboration and consensus-building more often – and more effectively in order to make sound decisions”. This seems to be part of a more general tendency among women to be more mindful of the opinions of others, avoid conflict, seek consensus and appease. This could be partly because, as Demos reports, for girls much more than for boys, good relationships are essential to self-esteem.
Some claim that these gendered behaviours are a product of socialisation; however evidence challenges this point of view. Simon Baron Cohen (Sacha’s cousin) in his book “The Essential Difference” shows they are a product of our evolutionary baggage, inherited from the time when women were dependent on each other in order to bring up their children, for millennia before the benefits of the welfare state. This interdependence meant that females developed the capacity to empathise as this facilitated childcare, and the building of friendships and community. It enabled them to build the relationships which supported them and their children, which turned enemies into allies and by doing so allowed for the betterment of the human race.
Recognising these female tendencies is a crucial step for those who want to overcome them however this is something feminism has been very reluctant to do. This may be because feminism, despite its appellation, itself has very masculine motives - achieving power and status in the public realm. There appears to be a belief that if female difference were real then it might undermine our capacity to achieve these essentially masculine goals.
While not acknowledging these tendencies feminism does actually depend on and even encourage them for its own ends. So for example when feminism got going in the 1960s it had a consciousness raising movement which, by helping to enlighten women about the injustices they were suffering, brought female thinking into line. And while being a diverse movement in theory, it can be very disparaging in practice of women who have different points of view.
In our evolutionary past, women, by cultivating interdependence with other women in the pursuit of childcare, built up a safety net, a supportive fall back group. Feminism, by fighting for our rights and struggling for our equality, has helped to secure us jobs, decent wages and childcare and whether it is because we feel indebted to them or want to avoid conflict with the powerful, many women feel a certain allegiance to them, with sisterhood mimicking this supportive fall back group.
While belonging to a group provides security, it also involves compromise, we must put the interests and feelings of those in the group before the whole. So for example feminists, while pursuing the interests of women, and challenging stereotypes which portrayed them as self-sacrificing, neglected another crucial group - men. Their higher suicide rates, rates of homelessness, performance in education, longer prison sentences etc, these are the other side of the coin.
For Mrs Thatcher, the behaviours required to belong to a group of women, and the partiality required to be a feminist would have been totally incompatible with being Prime Minister. This raises questions about how we can reconcile being a feminist with being great. There have been some great Women’s Rights activists, for example Sojourner Truth, although her defence of women was tempered by her universalist faith. If we look at other great people like Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela or Florence Nightingale what has characterised their greatness is their lack of self interest and concern for others. These values are particularly incompatible with feminism which has spent decades fighting precisely these characteristics in women. However if women were prepared to forgo their sister’s approval they would find they were uniquely well suited to being great.