Remembrances
3:34 am
Tue April 9, 2013

Britain's Only Female Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher

Originally published on Tue April 9, 2013 8:14 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, as we consider the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the question arises about her significance as the only woman to serve as British prime minister, and the first woman to lead a government of a major Western nation. Kim Campbell, who briefly served as Canada's first woman prime minister in the early 1990s, put it this way last night on the "PBS NewsHour."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PBS NEWSHOUR")

PRIME MINISTER KIM CAMPBELL: But she really just, I think, opened up a space for women in other countries to be credible as leaders, that there were things you didn't have to compromise anymore, that this notion that you could not be tough and still be feminine, that there would be somehow some way that you weren't really a woman if you wanted to lead a country, or if you were prepared to send to people into battle. It just wasn't the case, and she just established that once and for all.

GREENE: That sentiment was echoed yesterday by women leaders, ranging from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But to Thatcher herself, her gender was beside the point, as she noted in a 1993 interview with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER: I would hate a person to ask me a question: Are you quota woman, or are you a merit woman? Well, I would like whatever I did to be that I got there because I was the right person for the job. It didn't matter that I was a man or a woman. I had the right qualities for the job, the right beliefs, the right principles. I wasn't a quota.

GREENE: Polly Toynbee has written about the contradictions in Margaret Thatcher's position. She's a columnist for The Guardian in London, and we've reached her there this morning. Polly, good morning.

POLLY TOYNBEE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Margaret Thatcher comes to power at a moment when there were very few women in British politics, and she herself has said she never expected to see a female prime minister in her entire lifetime. So what enabled her to take this role, and be taken really seriously?

TOYNBEE: Well, it shocked her own party. She came through the middle in a tight race to be leader, and people put their votes with her as a way of blocking the other side. And they were all rather shocked when they got her, and they didn't quite know what they'd got.

GREENE: So she comes into power this way. No one really expected it. And when she is in the role of prime minister, she had strong words for the women's movement in Britain. I mean, she once said: I hate feminism. It's poison. I mean, why do you think she so firmly distanced herself from those discussions?

TOYNBEE: She went out of her way to have nothing whatever to do with any feminist ideas. She pulled up the ladder after her. She was the only post-war prime minister in Britain to have had a Cabinet for part of the time with no other woman in it at all. She had this firm idea that there were quotas, as we heard in that clip, and there was merit. And she was merit.

And anything that seemed to help women might in some way diminish her achievement, or might suggest to people that she only got there because she was woman - to some extent, she did because she was very much the token woman who was put in the Cabinet by her predecessor, because they always had to have women in the Cabinet, though she didn't always. So I think perhaps she was fighting against the idea that she'd only got her first foot on the ladder because they needed a woman, anyway.

GREENE: Canada's first woman prime minister, I mean, as we just heard, Kim Campbell, she said that Margaret Thatcher showed that you could be tough and feminine all at once. Was Margaret Thatcher both?

TOYNBEE: Yes, I think she was. She was notoriously flirtatious, and often surprised foreign leaders who were not used to dealing with a woman. But tough she certainly was. If you look at her social legacy in this country, it's devastating, and we live with it still. She created a kind of inequality not seen since before the war.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you, then, because you wrote for an American publication in the 1980s, a piece called "Is Margaret Thatcher a Woman?" You were very critical of her impact on women. It sounds like what you're saying is as a symbol, she was very important, but that her policies were not good for women, in your mind.

TOYNBEE: Exactly so. She did nothing at all for women, nothing in terms of childcare, child benefits, making it easier for women to juggle family and children. She was very rich herself, and so had no problem or experience of worrying about how she looked after her twins at the same time as being prime minister. And she simply had no natural empathy or identity with women, and I think felt that it would hold her back. And maybe she was right in those days, politically, to be seen in any way as endorsing women.

GREENE: That's Polly Toynbee. She's a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in Britain, and she joined us from the BBC in London. Polly, thanks so much.

TOYNBEE: Thank you.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.