Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
3 February 2016

The Thatcher Problem

From Margaret Thatcher to Hillary Clinton, we forget that women do not deserve to exercise power only on the condition that we would do it “better” than men and promote the feminist cause.

By Sarah Ditum

Let’s call it the Thatcher Problem. Women with power make a lot of people very uncomfortable, because power is essentially anti-feminine. The echo of John Knox’s warning against a “monstrous regiment” of unsubjugated women has never really gone away. A woman in power has to prove she’s womanly enough to be acceptable, but not so womanish that she can’t do the job. And up pops the answer: Margaret Thatcher with headscarf neatly tied, head poking out of a tank: impressively martial, but always ladylike.

It’s easier – a bit – for women in politics now. You no longer have to burnish your gender credentials by showing off your ironing board. You can leave your handbag at home. Trousers are tolerable. Women now make up 29% of all MPs in Westminster, in what is shamefully an all-time high. Shameful, because there are still more male MPs currently sitting than there have been female MPs in the whole history of parliament. Labour can fairly take some credit for this success, limited as it is. The women-only shortlists used by the party to select candidates for the 1997 General Election did more to shift the stubborn sex ratios of parliament than anything before.

But once the women were on the benches, the glass ceiling persisted. It had just been raised a little. Look, for example, at the Great Offices of State (Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary), which after all are the jobs that really count when it comes to power. In the Labour ministries of 1997-2010, Margaret Beckett served as Foreign Secretary for one year, and Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary for two.

Simply by putting Theresa May in the Home Office and leaving her there since 2010, Cameron is well ahead in the first year of his second term. It’s a disappointing truth, but Labour made it easier for women to get into parliament without doing enough about them getting on – something underlined by the fiasco of Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, which left women feel very much like an afterthought.

And of course, most accusingly, there’s still only been one female Prime Minister, and she was a Tory. This gives rise to the Thatcher Problem #2, which is not a problem about how women manage power once they have it, but rather a problem designed to undermine women (particularly those on the Left) who would seek it in the first place: feminists say they want more women in power, goes this problem, but what if they get another Thatcher? What if women aren’t any nicer than men? What if women in power are not, in fact, very feminist at all themselves?

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

In the current US Democratic primaries, the issue of whether Hillary Clinton is really a feminist has been ferociously debated, and the conclusion appears to be that she is not. In fact, despite Clinton’s strong record of supporting abortion rights and equal pay, the verdict of many American pundits is that Bernie Sanders would be the true feminist candidate (as if the most radical possible outcome would be another white man in charge). This is, of course, another double-bind for women: it is beyond facile to pretend that Clinton would be more popular for being more feminist, when any woman quoting Dworkin on the stump would be guaranteed an electorally toxic “feminazi” tag.

Content from our partners
How automation can help insurers keep pace with customer demand
How telecoms companies can unlock their growth potential through automation
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better

Women do not deserve to exercise power only on the condition that we would do it “better” than men and promote the feminist cause. Women have the right to political office exactly as men do, and that means that we can do it well or badly, feministly or unfeministly – just as men have been doing for millenia. Women are entitled to be wrong and mediocre sometimes. Being wrong and mediocre is part of the human condition, and women are allegedly human. At the despatch box or in the boardroom, we should have our fair share because it’s simply a matter of justice. Until we have our fair share, we have no idea how the normalising of female power might change the world; but we don’t have to change the world to merit our half of it.

The work of feminism is to liberate all women from male domination. If not every single one of those women is a perfect mirror to my beliefs, so be it. I am not in the business of issuing freedom-from-oppression passes only to my political comrades, and nor do I see it as a service to the liberation of women to force female leaders to live up to one more impossible standard that men never have to negotiate. Here’s Thatcher Problem #3, one I don’t yet have an answer for: what is it about the Left that makes it struggle so hard against producing its own women leaders? And why should women bother with the Left as long as it treats us like this?