Women in Politics: Margaret Thatcher’s Leadership in Context
Margaret Thatcher’s leadership as a woman is a very relevant and important area for historians to study, as it allows us to consider the continuity and change in women’s leadership over the course of the twentieth-century. As we might expect, much literature has been devoted to Thatcher’s pioneering, yet controversial leadership as Prime Minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990. However, very little research has been undertaken setting her leadership in the context of other female political leaders. No doubt this paucity of research has partly stemmed from the fact that Thatcher was the first female British Prime Minister, which on the surface would make it impossible to make British comparisons (though not international ones). Yet we must not forget that there is a history behind women making progress in developing their own political credibility and influence.
If we cast our minds back to the early work of women within the Labour Party, local councillors in the 1920s such as Hannah Mitchell (elected to Manchester City Council) and Bessie Braddock (local MP for Liverpool) used the ‘separate spheres’ ideology in order to harness their ‘unique selling point’ to influence welfare issues. These included dealing with local issues such as education, maternity and child welfare. Whilst some could interpret this as a glass ceiling over the areas which women could influence in local politics, surely we should interpret this as a pragmatic stance for these women to take in regards to their wider political leadership?
As women had only received the vote in 1918, there seems to have been recognition within the Labour Women’s Section that it would be difficult to break through the overwhelming male dominance in politics. Rather them seeing themselves as a victim of ‘separate spheres’, they used it to pursue an agenda which was perceived to be uniquely understood by women. As Hannah Mitchell commented, ‘just as the housewife has to cook, sew, clean and spend in the best interest of the family, so has the Council to do most of these things in the interests of the citizens.’ Women used their niche of expertise, in order to lay a solid foundation on which to build their own political career.
‘The most powerful housewife’
This description of Thatcher highlights how the housewife vocabulary was as much a source for legitimacy in the earlier twentieth-century as it was later on. Prefixing many of her statements on the economy with the line ‘as every housewife knows’, Thatcher partly framed her public image by invoking the common rationalities of the housewife. By referring to herself as a housewife, she was able to harness a sense of perceived credibility, based on her practical experience of running a household. Yet, contrary to the earlier traditions of leadership of women such as Hannah Mitchell and Bessie Braddock, Thatcher’s actual experience of being the housewife was not the most conventional.
The nature of Thatcher’s position flew in the face of her publically constructed image of the conventional housewife. Yet, referring to her housewife role enabled her to target a significant group of women, who would not have been in the stereotypical ‘feminist’ camp – making her role as Prime Minister more relatable, and acceptable. In a similar way to Mitchell and Braddock in the 1920s and 1930s, Thatcher drew on elements which were unique to her sex in order to present her leadership in a positive and legitimate light.
‘Wash out the stain of sex’?
Whilst Thatcher used her rhetoric of being Mrs Thatcher, she did not promote feminist causes – a tradition not dissimilar to the approach taken by the first female MPs, such as Nancy Astor (MP for Plymouth Sutton) and Ellen Wilkinson (MP for Middlesbrough East). They thought it strategically more important to exhibit loyalty to the party on a broader scope of issues than those exclusive to their sex. Appreciating they had made significant progress in advancing the political leadership of women, these early female MPs recognised the continued male prejudice which women would have to face when they were in Parliament, and of the very fact that they owed their position as much to male as to female support. Therefore, in many ways these women tried to blur over the issue of their sex, and thus privilege their loyalty to party issues in order, as Pedersen asserts, to ‘wash out the stain of sex’.
This can be seen in the election manifesto of the first female MP Lady Astor whose broad appeal is subsequently highlighted: ‘I intend to work for the Peace, Progress and Prosperity of the Country. I shall, at the same time, have due regard to National Efficiency and Economy which women above all understand.’ MP Ellen Wilkinson further showed her political versatility in becoming the spearhead for the iconic 1936 Jarrow March – symbolically representing the needs of the unemployed. Being an under-represented group in Parliament, the majority of female MPs recognised it would have been too politically damaging to focus only on issues of importance to women, as it would limit their long-term potential impact.
Britain’s ‘most powerful housewife’?
Thatcher, in framing her understanding of the economy through the lens of household management, did not openly challenge the widely accepted doctrine that a woman’s place should be in the home, even though her role as Prime Minister could not provide a more direct contravention to this principle. As Peter Shore commented, her ability to ‘simplify […] [and] moralise complex issues’, worked to her advantage in extending her appeal, whilst not undermining widely held traditions and principles held in society.
One of Thatcher’s key strengths as a leader was making government objectives appeal on an individual basis to families. This is echoed in her memoirs where Thatcher comments on prioritising the need for governments to provide a ‘framework of stability’ which would allow ‘individual families and businesses […] to pursue their own dreams and ambitions’. Thatcher was therefore able to reach out to large sections of the electorate during her time in power, on her basis of privileging familial values, which she was able to lend greater legitimacy to as Britain’s ‘most powerful housewife’.
‘She is a prime minster, a warrior and a housewife’
Thatcher was unique in her ability to construct a public image which combined the conventional experiences of the housewife, whilst not making her gender the basis of her leadership. Following on in a similar vein from this piece, it would be useful for further research to set other female politicians into the wider context of female leadership. For Thatcher, it would be interesting to consider how her rhetoric and approach towards her gender changed throughout her time as Prime Minister, and the impact this had on the electorate. Campbell’s interpretation of Thatcher is certainly an intriguing place to conclude this piece on, ‘she is not like a man; she is more than a man – she is a prime minster, a warrior and a housewife.’