Feminist icon or inspirational woman?

Much has been made in the press, in recent days, of the new film about Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady. Boasting an apparently stupendous performance by Meryl Streep (always a winner from my point of view) it has provoked huge debate on Thatcher’s contribution to the lives and continuing welfare of the people of Britain, and especially to its women.

Some have declared her a feminist icon, because her very presence as a woman in the top job in politics made such elevation seem normal to the women who were to follow. (An opinion voiced in the press this weekend by the new Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson. Hmm, exactly how many women did Mrs T have in her cabinet, Ruth?)

She was elected to office in 1979, when I was a young actor working across the UK. (Or more accurately, sometimes working across the UK.) I watched with mounting horror as her policies deregulated the financial institutions, demolished much of the manufacturing base of the country, made the rich richer and swept away a whole political class. This was exemplified by the crushing of the miners in the mid-1980s, an action which wiped out most of the productive coalfields.

Round about the same time a woman called Erin Pizzey was running the first of many refuges for women who suffered from domestic violence. Chiswick Women’s Aid opened in 1971. Providing an escape for women trapped in violent relationships was a new idea in the 1970s and Chiswick attracted enormous publicity and not a few threats aimed at Pizzey herself. The place itself was small, extremely basic and overcrowded but it represented sanctuary to many abused women and their children.

Both the – somewhat ironic – politicisation of the miner’s wives in response to Margaret Thatcher’s actions and the plight of the abused women were brought home to me in a personal way. I was visiting a neighbour of mine in London, the sister of an old friend, and found her packing a boxful of blankets and pillows. When I asked her who they were for, she replied for Chiswick. Great, I thought, why? “Because Erin Pizzey helped me” she replied. I hadn’t known her former husband had been violent, or that this friend had been at her wits end about the safety of herself and her child. She had finally plucked up courage to ring the refuge and speak to Erin. “Don’t wait. Get your daughter now. Get out of the house and into a taxi. You don’t need to bring anything, we’ll pay the taxi this end. Don’t stay there a moment longer. Come here.”

My friend didn’t do so at that moment, but only because the words were enough to galvanise her into action. She suddenly understood that she had an escape route and that she could leave her intolerable situation. She did so shortly afterwards. “And that’s why I send stuff to Chiswick whenever I can.”

Later, when I was touring my theatre show About Face, about the extraordinary flowering of consciousness into action by women involved in the miners strike, I was happy to accept a request to do a special performance in a women’s refuge in North London. Admitted by a coded knock and performing in the children’s playroom, it was a wonderful night. After the show, someone went out for wine and we were there for hours discussing first the play and then every subject under the sun.

So when I saw a letter from Erin Pizzey in the Guardian on Saturday 7th January, commenting on suggestions that Thatcher was really a feminist icon, I read it immediately. When Thatcher became Prime Minister, Pizzey wrote to her. “What, as the first woman prime minister would she do for victims of domestic violence, I asked. I got a letter back to say that Margaret Thatcher was not interested in women’s issues. A feminist icon? I think not.”

Neither do I. Margaret Thatcher was not interested in women and she did nothing to help women, quite the reverse. In my view she is neither admirable nor inspiring and her policies did much to sow the seeds for the economic mess we are in today. On the other hand, Erin Pizzey may not wish to be called a feminist icon, but, whatever the label, she is what I would call a truly inspirational woman.


8 Comments on Feminist icon or inspirational woman?

  1. Thanks, Cordelia – I enjoyed reading your post.
    I agree – Erin Pizzey sounds like a great person and an inspirational woman. I’m not a Thatcher apologist ( I grew up in Liverpool in the 80s, for starters!) but I do think she has a role to play in the long-game-story of feminism. As Rachel Johnson wrote at the weekend, MT may not have been interested in women’s issues per se, but she did make little girls growing up from 1979 onwards think ‘I could be Prime Minister too’ – and I think that has an important place in the history of women’s development. It moved women on, however slightly or slowly (and we all know it’s a slow process). I don’t think we need to like Thatcher or agree with every policy she had to acknowledge that by excelling in her field and with sheer hard work she broke a taboo for women in politics – and public life. She also had children and a long term, stable marriage – so at the very least she’s an interesting part of the discussions we keep having about women ‘having it all’. She may not be a feminist icon, but I don’t she has to be to have played a significant role in the history of women’s changing roles in society – and I guess there’s value in that.

    • Couldn’t agree more with clare Logie. One is bound to ask how anyone with a basic grasp of how equalities issues move on could suggest that MT didn’t do more to raise the possibility bar for women than any other person in the 80’s. Agreeing with what she did is nothing to do with it at all. That’s politics – no more complicated than that. I don’t think MLK or JFK are icons of ideal manhood but they both inspire in the historical moment they speak to. Rejecting MT’s contribution is a cliche – leave that to diversity consultants – making “diversity” real to practitioners is, in part, about acknowledging the difference we make as individuals without retreating into easy politico-cultural stereotypes. Give people hope and ambition – not reasons why, whatever they achieve there will be some non-combatant somewhere who will explain how much better they would have done it if ever they actually had to deliver impact in the world they comment on so easily.

  2. I would have been in Dilly’s camp until seeing the film, which was so startlingly evocative of the 70s. It reminded me just how far we have come. While MT had no other women in her cabinet, we do have them now and we’re not surprised at women standing for Parliament. I’m willing to to give MT some credit for moving opinions on.

  3. Thank you all for your comments. I am looking forward to seeing the film – sort of! – especially to see Meryl Streep’s performance.

    However, whilst I agree that women have come an enormously long way in 20 years, I would argue this is because of the raising in consciousness of women and men in the post-war period: the millions of hours of hard work undertaken within equality committees, trades unions, HR departments, political parties and organisations and all the endless NGOs and others who have worked towards women’s equality. Not simply because one woman has achieved high office.

    History tells us that social change is the result of action by the many. Thatcher may have been an inspiration for some women – certainly not all – but simply being there was not enough. If it were so, the existence of openly gay individuals on television or as senior members of political parties would have dispelled homophobia. The presence of individual black policemen and teachers would have vanquished racism. But this is not the case. It is simply not enough.
    Furthermore, as Erin Pizzey has highlighted, Thatcher was in a position, as Prime Minister, to have driven the cause of equalities during her tenure and she chose not to.

  4. Thanks Dilly,
    I think that last sentence is telling, “Thatcher was in a position, as Prime Minister, to have driven the cause of equalities during her tenure and she chose not to.”

    I fear that we are at risk of making the same mistake with the “let’s get more women on boards” debate. What real difference will a couple of hundred women on the boards of FTSE companies make? It will only make a difference if those women choose to use their influence to further the cause of diversity. After all, Lady Susan Rice is MD at Lloyds Banking Group and despite wanting to be thought of as “one of the good bankers” I see precious little real change.

  5. Very interesting article, Cordelia. I haven’t seen the film and really have no desire to do so. I’ll wait until the wonderful Meryl Streep performs in another role.

    I find it very worrying that any young women hold Margaret Thatcher up as an icon and think that there will be many mothers and grandmothers who would discourage any view of her as a role model; particularly if they support the idea of equality. Her name and any notion of equality just don’t fit well together.

    In my opinion Erin Pizzey is far more deserving of praise and a women who cared deeply for other women, their children, and their plight. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, was responsible for the introduction of policies, such as the Poll Tax, which contributed to homelessness and deprivation.

    She wasn’t a popular woman in Glasgow and as you so eloquently highlight, she wasn’t interested in women’s issues. Ruth Davidson may have been inspired by her but in this neck of the woods I think she’ll be one of a few.

  6. Interesting article; she raises as many hackles now in me as she did in her prime.
    I guess history will judge but those of us who were around at that time didn’t feel that the cause of feminism was being served at all well by her. I think she was a classic example of pulling up the ladder behind her but then research shows that often happens when you are a lone woman in an organisation. Lone women tend to adopt more male types of behaviours, to conform to the norm. It takes more than one to make a change.
    Would I feel differently if I had agreed with what she was doing as a PM? In all honesty, I probably would have.
    Incidentally I am very much in favour of quotas for women on boards as you can see from this post: http://www.changingpeople.co.uk/2012/quotas-for-women-on-boards-yes-yes-yes/
    Thanks, Cordelia, interesting post. I have no wish to see the film at all as expect it will make me huff and puff, but yes, we have come a long way since the 70s!

    • Thank you Pat and Jane for your comments. Thatcher certainly inspires real feeling in us, even if it is not what she would consider positive. And, do you know, I’ve not actually made it to the film!

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