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Margaret Thatcher: How much did The Iron Lady do for the UK's women?

'With her hair and handbag sitting on a tank, that was macho politics big time'

There is a saying in Latin America that when one woman comes into politics, she changes; but when many women come into politics, politics changes.

Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly shattered some deeply held beliefs when she led the male dominated Conservative party to victory in the 1979 general election. She was ‘crowned’ Britain (and Europe’s) first female head of government and went on to become the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century.

More than 30 years after her famous victory only 22 per cent of UK MPs are women, which puts us in uncomfortable joint 49th place alongside Uzbekistan and Eritrea. While far flung, ‘developing’ countries such as Rwanda, Cuba and Afghanistan boast much higher proportions as a result of equality measures such as female quotas, the UK parliaments remain stalwartly male.

The business world is depressingly similar. There are roughly equal numbers of women and men in the workplace but only 22 per cent of senior management posts are held by women, according to GMB research. In 2009/10, women made up 57 per cent of first class degree graduates yet they hold only 12 per cent of FTSE 100 directorships.

Questions about what impact Thatcher’s 11 year reign had on women’s lives, and particularly their participation in the public sphere, are divisive. For some, her time in Downing Street demonstrated beyond doubt that women could do anything, shattering deep seated sexist stereotypes which cleared the path for future generations.

But for many others Thatcher not only failed to shatter the glass ceiling, she actually failed women completely by dismissing rather than tackling the barriers many of them faced. She became the exception to the rule. 

Thatcher was elected 60 years after the first female, Nancy Astor the Tory MP for Plymouth Sutton between 1919 and 1945, took her seat in the Commons. Progress in both Houses developed at a snail’s pace in the subsequent six decades, and seemed increasingly out of kilter with societal attitudes and legal rights.

She was elected amid great expectations from across the political spectrum.

Cheri Booth insists Thatcher’s victory was the one silver lining of the Labour defeat. “In 1979 there were more MPs called John than women MPs, so of course she broke the glass ceiling. You can’t underestimate the impact of the image of her outside Number 10, but Margaret Thatcher broke it for herself, and that was enough for her.”

Thatcher’s victory failed to trigger any kind of female stampede through Westminster village. She was one of 19 MP selected in 1979, increasing to only 23 in the next general election – a rise of 0.5 per cent. She appointed only one other woman to the Cabinet during her years in power, with talented figures left languishing in lesser posts.

Beatrix Campbell, author of The Iron Ladies: why do women vote Tory?, said Thatcher, like the Queen, always endorsed patriarchal ways of running the state. “Did she make room for women in politics? No. Did she make a difference to women’s lives? No. Did she make life better for women in society? No. Her political project was the antithesis to the equality project. What she did was perform leadership like no man could ever have done: with her hair and handbag sitting on a tank, that was macho politics big time.”

The biggest leap came in 1997 when the number female MPs doubled after Labour introduced all-women shortlists to safe seats, helping break the 100 MP barrier for the first time. However the increase wasn’t sustained and following lobbying by gender equality advocates, Labour introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, allowing, but not forcing, parties to use positive discrimination in candidate selection.

Similar measures have helped 23 out of the top 28 countries achieve the critical mass of 30 per cent female politicians, but only when implemented in conjunction with other changes such as proportional representation and sanctions for political parties who fail to improve access for women.

Begona Lasagabaster, political advisor to UN Women and former Spanish MP, said: “It is about access for women as a democratic right, but also every law, every policy has gender implications, whether you’re talking about tax, employment, infrastructure or defence. You need a critical mass of at least 30 per cent women, because they come with different skills and experiences, to ensure that a society progresses more equally… one woman alone, even if she is the Prime Minister, cannot achieve these changes.”

David Cameron appears to agree. He is strongly considering female quotas amid opposition from the usual suspects.

Dr Tamsin Hinton-Smith, researcher and lecturer in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, aruges that it is not just about the numbers. She believes Thatcher failed women because she failed to demonstrate an alternative way for family and work responsibilities to be negotiated in the public arena.

“Around 40 per cent of women in their 30s will die without ever having children because they know it is very difficult to mix ‘women’s responsibilities’ in home life with career progression - that is her lasting legacy. Yes women are now allowed in at the highest levels, but only if they’re prepared to do what men do and reject traditional roles,” said Dr Hinton-Smith.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) in 2011 found that 73 per cent of female managers believe barriers still exist for women seeking senior roles, compared to 38 per cent of men.

But while maternity breaks and access to child care present ongoing obstacles, the ILM also found women are impeded by lower ambitions and expectations than their male counterparts. 

Charles Elvin, chief executive of ILM, said: “The objective going forward has to be equality inside people’s minds, so that the only thing affecting someone decision to apply or appoint, is that they are the best person for that job.”

Further reading:

Obituary: Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first and only female prime minister

Margaret Thatcher: Round-up of today's full coverage