Last Christmas my teenage son spent his hard-earned pocket money and gifted me a lovely bone china mug featuring ‘Women who changed the World’. Embellished with 35 female scientists, suffragettes, politicians, writers, activists, palaeontologists, Queens and Pharaohs, there are depictions of Angela Merkel, Malala Yousafzai, Helen Keller, Emmeline Pankhurst and many other notable women from history around the world. There obviously isn’t room for everyone, but I was really disappointed (although not entirely surprised) by one glaring omission……..my mug doesn’t have a space for Margaret Thatcher.
As a mother, I was of course touched by my son’s thoughtfulness. As a British girl child of the 1970’s I felt infuriated that one of the world’s greatest female icons had once again been ‘cancelled’.
For many of us coming of age in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister and indeed the first female elected head of state in Europe (she pipped Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo of Portugal to that honour by a few months), the Iron Lady was a titan. It was a transformative moment in our lives – if she could smash that great big thick glass ceiling, then so could we, just as the feminists promised.
Thatcher wasn’t a feminist, she never pretended to be a feminist but that doesn’t mean her very presence at the top of government didn’t change anything for women, whether she liked it or not. We had never seen pictures like these before and once we saw them, many young women across the UK knew that they too could rise to the top – it was simply no longer off limits.
Just like the young women now inspired by the inauguration on 20 January 2021 of Kamala Harris as both the first woman and the first person of colour to become Vice President of the USA. Harris has said that her rise to power means ‘Every little girl sees that this is a country of possibility’, precisely replicating Thatcher’s achievement in May 1979. These words and images become etched in little girls’ minds as formative moments, never to be forgotten.
So when they shouted ‘Maggie’ Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out’ and when they danced in the streets and sang “Ding dong the witch is dead” on 8 April 2013, the day of Thatcher’s death, for the silent majority it hurt us profoundly. Not only did we have our own feminist struggles to deal with; in the workplace, in our marriages, in our health care, in our child-rearing. But they were once again telling us that unless we are the ‘right sort’ of woman (which in fact really means a woman of the left!), we don’t matter, we aren’t women worthy of respect, in fact we are to be despised for our Conservatism. I am not sure they even understood the irony of using the trope of ‘witch’ when describing an older woman – an insult levelled throughout history against women persecuted for their wisdom, for challenging the status quo and for being outliers, just like Thatcher herself in her time.
So why isn’t Thatcher on my new mug? Perhaps the potters are concerned that her presence might affect sales? Perhaps the designer just doesn’t like her? Perhaps I should ask….?
The real irony is that if it is a concern about sales figures, Thatcher herself would have completely understood this as a commercial decision and not taken it personally. I see that as another testament to her legacy!