Joan Smith and Sarah Sands: The Thatcher years: a giant leap for women or a big step back?

The IoS columnists go head to head on the legacy of Britain's first female prime minister, who walked into Downing Street 30 years ago tomorrow

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Dear Sarah

I was too young for 1968 (like you) – my parents would have had a fit if I'd suggested going up to London to join a demo. But I had my own little struggle, not against the Vietnam war (though naturally I was against it) but against school rules. The girls' grammar school I went to liked to think of itself as posh and we were supposed to wear ghastly uniforms and never be caught eating in the street. The idea was to turn us into little ladies, and by the time I went to university a lady was the very last thing I wanted to be.

I wanted to be a woman, and suddenly the Tory party had a leader who was female – good, I can't take that away from her – but still aspired to be a lady. The hair, the suits, the handbag, the voice: I wish I were caricaturing her but I'm not. My friends and I were demanding the right to wear trousers, drinking in bars previously reserved for men, throwing away the absurd underwear our mothers had worn, taking the Pill and questioning the role of marriage. Yet the first woman to occupy 10 Downing Street on her own account was using all the old feminine tricks I'd grown up to despise. She might be more autocratic than any of the men in her Cabinet, but no gentleman would ever be rude to a lady.

Of course, class had a lot to do with it, as it always does in this country. At some point in the 1960s, the Tory party began contracting out the work of running the country to the lower ranks. We had Grocer Heath, quickly followed by a grocer's daughter from Grantham who obviously felt she had to reinvent herself to be accepted by the party's grandees. It was a lifelong cure for any longings I might ever have had to be described by that mealy-mouthed adjective, ladylike.

The lady wasn't for turning, but what Margaret Thatcher also wasn't – and this, for me, is the tragedy – was a modern woman.

Yours

Joan

Dear Joan

Ah, but that was the beauty of her. Boudicca in a pussycat bow. The woman who dressed so conventionally was a political radical, overturning doctrine, disrupting male complacency. I think what she meant to say was: "Where there is harmony, may we bring discord."

You paint her as a fainting woman with a parasol, but she was ferocious. The ladylike Margaret Thatcher scribbled "FEEBLE" on cabinet minutes and outargued any man. I have seen Margaret Thatcher accused of being a man – this was the Spitting Image puppet of the period – but you are attacking her for a particular expression of femininity. Could you have voted for her if she had the bohemian sex appeal of a Jane Birkin? The arms of Michelle Obama? Your objection to her sounds close to that of Jonathan Miller. It was her "odious suburban gentility" that you could not bear.

A woman appears like a comet and we shrug her off because she is "that" kind of woman. Now we have plenty of the other kind of women, modern, unladylike women, but men have closed ranks again at the top. I happen to have in front of me a photograph of the great scientific summit in 1911. A large gathering of men with beards and monocles stand rigidly in front of the camera. A lone woman has her head bent over a document, oblivious to the rest. It is Marie Curie. When a woman of extraordinary conviction and ability wins through, shouldn't we all be cheering her rather than sneering at her appearance and mannerisms? Winston Churchill was never a looker.

Yours

Sarah

Dear Sarah

Thank you for illustrating my point so beautifully. When your photo of Marie Curie and men with beards was taken in 1911, there were no women MPs in the House of Commons. Women didn't even have the vote. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, there was only a handful of female MPs in the House of Commons – 19 to be exact. The Tories had eight, three fewer than Labour, and Thatcher had an amazing opportunity to encourage other women to follow her extraordinary example. You're quite right, we should celebrate women pioneers and the avenues they open for other women. Thatcher didn't do that.

One of the most famous things about Thatcher is that she appointed only one woman to any of her cabinets, and that was the ghastly social conservative Lady Young. When John Major created his first Cabinet, he couldn't find any women to put in it at all; how hard he tried is another matter, but he had only 17 Tory women MPs to choose from and few of them had had experience as junior ministers or ministerial aides. You might say Labour wasn't doing much better, but less than 10 years later Tony Blair was able to find five women to put in his first Cabinet. Where was the Tories' Mo Mowlam? Now there was a modern woman for you.

This is about more than fashion. I can see the argument that Thatcher was a radical, transformative force in British politics, yet the only party to have produced a female prime minister is still struggling to represent half the population. Tory women are still sidelined and David Cameron is on the defensive on this subject, even though he doesn't have to defend much else. Ironically, the image you paint of Margaret Thatcher – "ferocious" is the word you used – is of a bullying, difficult boss, humiliating her charges (sorry, colleagues) by making them feel small. Nanny state, anyone? And when Cameron talks about a broken society, I have to ask, who broke it? Who told us there was no such thing as society, just individuals pursuing self-interest?

By the way, I've never even noticed Michelle Obama's arms.

Yours

Joan

Dear Joan,

You are right that Margaret Thatcher was not particularly interested in promoting other women, and this has vexed me, but I think that I understand why. She believed that women were superior to men – remember her maxim that if you want something said, call for a man, but if you want something done, get a woman. Yet the idea of female collectives bored her. She would have opposed utterly Harriet Harman's call for positive discrimination. Not because she wanted to hold back other women – although it is true she did not much care to share the stage – but because she did not want them to fall into an obvious trap. Tokenism destroys the very cause it champions. If people think women hold jobs because of equality legislation rather than talent, they will not respect them.

The real successor to Margaret Thatcher is Barack Obama. He refused to fight the election as a black man. It was not about black empowerment but about an extraordinary man who happened to be black. Yet the effect of his presidency is soaring aspirations among people of colour. Racism may continue but the expectations of people of colour around the world are changed for ever.

Try to remember the landscape when Mrs Thatcher became leader of the opposition. When she stood up to speak in the Commons, the Labour MPs would make screaming noises. The sound of a female voice was so alien that they jeered at it. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, men on both sides still believed that it was a freakish accident and that order would soon return. Then she won an election again. And nobody laughed at the idea of a woman leader after that.

Mrs Thatcher knew that the political world was always waiting to say: "Well, we tried a woman, but she couldn't hack it." Isn't that what is being said now about Labour's women? She called it the "woman thing". She saw it as the greatest threat to the progress of women. So she sidestepped any stereotyping. Her first great ambition was to be chancellor. She would have scorned the role of minister for women.

It was one conquest at a time. First finance, then war. During the Falklands War she was the only female presence. There were no other women involved, not in defence, nor in the civil service, nor in front-line politics. When she won that war – short, sharp, wholly successful, doesn't it make you nostalgic? – people said only she could have done it. Only she could have led like that. She not only liberated the Falklands, she freed women. Even her handbag because a symbol of power. Out of it she would brandish speeches and treaties. Margaret Thatcher did not talk about women's rights, as Harriet Harman has done. She got things done. She changed the world that women inhabited. She was not perfect, but she was heroic.

Yours

Sarah

Dear Sarah

I'm glad you reminded me of the world Margaret Thatcher inherited in 1979.

Yes, I vividly remember how she was patronised. I also concede that the country was stagnant, plagued by class conflicts – I worked in Manchester during the "winter of discontent" – and struggling with a failed economy. Much of that was down to the Labour Party sticking too close to its 1945 constituency: white, male, not very democratic and largely unaffected by the social and political upheavals of the 1960s.

Thatcher was like a gale sweeping across the country, but her force was more destructive than constructive. She took on the trades unions, which she saw as obstructing the will of hard-working individuals, but she didn't understand the vital role of grass-roots organisations in shaping civil society. Why would she? She didn't acknowledge its existence.

People need bonds beyond their families and if they aren't nurtured through schools, trades unions, women's groups, political organisations and NGOs, there's a rapid reversion to tribal loyalties. Thatcher's neo-liberalism was new and shiny but it brought about a situation in which our lives were governed by markets: no equal pay, no minimum wage, nothing for the poor except Victorian exhortations to get up and change their own lives. And her radicalism didn't extend to taking on institutions: the monarchy, hereditary peers, the established church, the BBC, the NHS and the City emerged intact after 11 years of Thatcherism.

What she did do is change Britain's relationship with Europe; she created the Single European Act and agreed to share more power with European states than any previous prime minister. That killed off the lingering Euro-scepticism in the Labour leadership, paving the way for John Smith, Tony Blair and New Labour. Maggie the Europhile? Perhaps you could have a word with William Hague.

When do you think Cameron's Tories will be proud to claim that legacy?

Yours

Joan

Dear Joan,

Hmm, stagnant economy, class conflict, rudderless Labour government. Britain written off by investors. Sounds familiar. Margaret Thatcher taught us that the economy can be understood as the simplest household budget. You must not spend what you do not have. In the past decade we stopped looking at our household budgets, preferring the soothing assurances of experts and politicians. We now have a nation teetering on bankruptcy. And still Gordon Brown cannot stop himself from spending.

The state and its vast public sector cannot save us. We need entrepreneurs, small businesses, risk-takers, individuals who will take responsibility for themselves. We need Thatcherites.

What I loved most about Mrs Thatcher is that she would not accept defeat. If only she were among us now.

Yours

Sarah

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