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Jill Kirby: Being a woman was intrinsic to Margaret Thatcher's rise. And it was also intrinsic to her fall

Jill Kirby is a writer and policy analyst, and was Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, 2007-2011.

Screen shot 2013-04-08 at 19.03.41“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” So Margaret Thatcher advised the Townswomen's Guild in a speech she gave in 1965. Ten years later, she became the first woman to lead the Conservative Party. The rest, as they say, is history – history made by a woman. Baroness Thatcher certainly lived up to her own famous aphorism, proving that a woman in politics could indeed get things done; she knew when it was time to cut through the chat and make it happen.

As a woman in a man's world (and there is no question that politics was dominated by men) gave Margaret Thatcher particular strengths; in my view, being female was an important factor in her success. As I will explain later in this piece, however, I believe it was also an ingredient in her downfall.

Who can forget the 1970s TV footage of  Mrs Thatcher as the political housewife, likening public expenditure to the household purse, warning against spending money you don't have? Making the sums add up at the end of the week  - no doubt an exercise rigorously observed in the Roberts' household in 1930s Grantham - provided a homely example for voters. It was a neat expression of the predicament in which a country found itself when government spent beyond its means.

This was certainly bringing politics down to earth; it was also a way of speaking directly to women, who in many homes of that time did most of the shopping and were responsible for the weekly budget. De-mystifying politics was one of Margaret Thatcher's great skills. She didn't like wrapping things up in lofty or elitist language and I think that one of the reasons for this clear-sightedness was her sense, as a woman and thus an outsider, that politicians too often tried to convey their superior wisdom by using complicated terminology.

Politics always has been a bit of a club, in many ways it still is. Most men (not all) rather like clubs; women tend not to; they can't really see the point. Margaret Thatcher couldn't see the point of clubs, and was rather keen to break them down, including the biggest club of them all, the EU. In contrast, many of the men around her, even those who  were sceptics in theory, tended to succumb quite quickly to the warm embrace of the club's elite. It made them feel comfortable; Mrs Thatcher was used to feeling uncomfortable, and didn't mind that so long as she felt she was doing the right thing.

Although Margaret Thatcher made history for women, the women's movement didn't care for her,  because she refused to pander to the feminist lobby. She would  have been horrified at any suggestion that she would govern “for women.” Positive discrimination was an anathema to her. Her role was to govern for all, to represent her constituents and to serve the country, not a particular sector or interest group.

Ironically, because she used her femininity to her advantage, rather than complaining about it, feminists thought she was letting the side down. Always immaculately coiffed, make-up carefully applied, Mrs Thatcher practically invented “power dressing.” The colours! The style! The handbags! Those pictures of her sweeping through Germany in a tank, in trenchcoat and goggles with a swoosh of a scarf. What must she have though of the dress-down tie-less generation of male Conservatives who now occupy the upper ranks of government? Margaret Thatcher didn't just do conviction politics, she dressed with conviction. No sloppy cardigans or beige knits and – heaven forbid! - no jeans for her.

She may not have been a feminist icon, but she was, from the outset, a career woman. Starting out as a research chemist, whilst struggling to get her foot on the lower rungs of the political ladder, the young Margaret decided that becoming a wife and mother could usefully be combined with training as a barrister. Staying at home to look after her twins was simply out of the question; whilst she respected the traditional family, she had no wish to encourage women to become full-time mothers. During the 1980s, as Chancellor Nigel Lawson took steps to introduce independent taxation for husbands and wives, it was put to the Prime Minister that this reform would disadvantage married couples where one spouse was at home looking after children (and thus could not take advantage of the tax allowance available to both halves of a working couple). “Remember the mill girls of Bolton!” was her riposte (according to Ferdinand Mount, then head of the Number 10 policy unit). In other words, her government should not be seen to encourage women to stay at home with children when they are capable of getting out to work and earning a living for themselves.

In later years, Mrs Thatcher expressed some regret at the failure of her governments to enact specific measures to strengthen the family. There were no doubt moments, too, in her personal life when she felt she had sacrificed time with her own family to the greater good. For despite her steely resolve, Margaret Thatcher had something of the mother hen about her, as colleagues and staff alike have testified – fussing around her late-night Downing Street guests, offering them drinks and homely snacks. This was a woman with great pride and dignity but no false egotism; she did not disdain to put on her rubber gloves and get stuck into the washing up.

It is hard not to feel sad at the death of this great stateswoman, who made such an impact on this country and on the world. I remember, as a student and a Conservative, the excitement of seeing her elected as leader in 1975, breaking the old and failed Heathite consensus; I remember campaigning for her party at the three ensuing elections, and the pride I felt in being led by a Conservative Prime minister of such conviction and principle, who transformed the country and opened up so many opportunities.

I also remember those dreadful days of November 1990, ending in her departure from office. And as I look back, I have no doubt that one of the ingredients in that final, inglorious, episode was the simmering resentment that some of her colleagues had long harboured at being led by this outspoken woman, who neglected to flatter their male egos, and who preferred getting things done to just talking about them.


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