Margaret Thatcher: A Feminist Icon?

Emma Freeman says that Lady Thatcher is a greater inspiration to women than many acknowledge.

The daughter of a greengrocer, Lady Thatcher was the first (and so far only) female British Prime Minister. Yet Mrs Thatcher never saw herself as a feminist. There was only one other female Cabinet minister during her premiership, with talented figures such as Lynda Chalker going unrewarded in lesser posts.

It is a highly contested topic as to whether or not she was good for the feminist movement. Barack Obama commented that Lady Thatcher: ‘stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.’ On the other hand, it is argued that she did nothing for feminism – and some go as far to say that she was detrimental to it. Critics point to Thatcherite policies that damaged women’s standing in the workplace, undermined families and communities, and did little for women in public life.

I believe that Lady Thatcher may be heralded as an idol or an icon for many women. I admire the fact that she surpassed the barriers associated with her gender. She rose to not only the top of the Conservative Party, but also of the country – and not just for one term, but for eleven years! Surely, this is something that all women, myself included, must admire. It is also something that true feminists, who believe in achieving full equality with men, must respect.

Baroness Thatcher became an icon by example. Her premiership brought sweeping changes to Britain, both socially and Thatcher_reviews_troops_(cropped)economically. Indeed, she arguably had a greater impact than anyone else in the history of British politics. It is right that she should be called the ‘greatest peacetime Prime Minister’. Mrs Thatcher may not have seen it as her mission to fight for women’s rights, but the fact that she is being remembered as such represents a shift in national mind set in relation to sexism and women’s ‘place’ in society. Margaret Thatcher was a strong leader, this is an undisputed fact. This further helps to break down the gender stereotypes as women are more often portrayed to be weaker than men.

However, Lady Thatcher was, first and foremost, an individualist. She did not fight actively for feminist ideals, as feminism is a collectivist ideology. Although she was comfortable in standing up to men, she did not do what the feminists wanted, or perhaps expected her to do. For example, she did little to promote other women to high political station. As Shirley Williams noted, Lady Thatcher ‘didn’t see herself as a leader of the women’s movement, but little girls began to think they could be Prime Minister.’

Would it have been right for Mrs Thatcher to have become a feminist once in Downing Street? I think not. After all, Lady Thatcher stood for individualism, and her strength of leadership was astonishing. She did not back down from what she believed in regardless of pressure, hence her nickname the ‘Iron Lady’. She concentrated on sorting out an economy that had been in free-fall during the 1970s. This is what made her such an exceptional leader.

A telling comparison can be made with Barack Obama. Elected as the United States’ first African-American President, many hoped that Mr Obama would use his influence to focus on improving the lot of black Americans. Yet Obama has done very little on this front. Indeed, he has actively distanced himself from notions of him being a great racial leader. As with Lady Thatcher, many will argue that the Obama presidency has been a ‘wasted opportunity’. Yet, why should anyone be defined by who they are? Surely the greatest is test is what a leader believes in, and how true they stay to those beliefs. On this measure, few could deny that Lady Thatcher must score very highly indeed.

Despite her party affiliation, political views and actions, Mrs Thatcher was the first ever female Prime Minister, and for that reason alone she will ever be an icon for feminism. Despite never viewing herself as a feminist, she has proven that in a society which is still dominated by men, women can succeed. Lady Thatcher’s actions – more so than mere words – are the true inspiration. She was always a ‘doer’ rather than a talker.

I will always consider Lady Thatcher to be pathfinder for her strength and ideals.


  1. Symbolically, any woman who ‘shatters’ the glass ceiling in a patriarchal institution, be it parliament (in this case Thatcher), the mass media (one woman and ten men edit the eleven daily national newspapers), business (Hilary Devey, Debra Meaden) etc can be seen as inspirational to women everywhere. But isn’t this, by your own volition, individualism rather than feminism? In her 11 years of office, little to none of her social policy was orientated towards gender equality or giving women more opportunities. As a feminist, I believe that she had a duty to open more doors for women as the first female PM, and she did no such thing, which is quite shameful when she had 11 whole years to make a difference. Furthermore, inspiring feminists isn’t the same as being a feminist. She doesn’t deserve the label ‘feminist icon’ if she did nothing directly for the cause of feminism. In music, we say that the Blues influenced or inspired Heavy Metal to a degree, but we don’t call the Blues ‘Heavy Metal’ do we? Similarly, in sociology, it is said that Durkheim was a profound influence on Functionalism as a school of thought, but it would be a misnomer to label him as a functionalist. Inspiring/influencing isn’t ‘being’. A very thought-provoking and well written article though, good job 🙂

  2. Very good, but what is feminism? What has it really achieved ? I mean, many of us regardless of sex believe in equality of the sexes. Thatcher was a woman, she got elected and trampled over a lot of men to get there.This should excite most feminists, but it doesn’t (well certainly not the stereotypical militant feminist, of which there quite a few) . Why? Because feminism has been hijacked by the left and used as shield against Conservatives, as if to say ” you are either left, feminist and a woman, or you are not one of us” or even, dare I say ” a woman”. These morons cannot bare the fact that the first female PM was a Prime Minister. Thatcher, as we know, was “the only man in her cabinet of men”. If the feminists can’t see what this blue goddess has done for women across the world then frankly, I couldn’t care less. She has in my opinion, done more for women than most.

    • I rather resent your suggestion that all feminists fall into one of two groups: the militant or the ‘moron’. Perhaps you haven’t been able to see past the sensationalised man-hating I-can-open-the-door-myself-thank-you-very-much “feminist” espoused by the tabloid media.

      Hillary Clinton and the people listed by Rob Byrne have done ‘more for women than most’. Thatcher did nothing but dismiss feminism as a poison.

  3. Nice comparison with Obama there. My only caveat on that wold by that Obama is actually mixed raced (mother was white) which I think is a far more positive message.


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