Sexism: it’s wrong, right? But what if it’s in the name of a greater good? I find myself pondering this, as I knew I would, following the death of Margaret Thatcher, knowing that each time her legacy is analysed some small part of me will be on the alert, waiting for all those little reminders that she was just a woman after all. I know it will make me angry but also that I’ll hate myself for feeling this way; after all, they’re just words. Sexism kills, sure, but so did Thatcherism, so isn’t this one scenario in which we’re allowed to call it quits?
Like many people of my generation I have a resentment of Thatcher that is at least in part manufactured. I didn’t feel it when it mattered. I was too young and besides, the north of England I grew up in was rural. We didn’t learn anger until BSE and foot and mouth crept up on us later. During the 1980s, I was blissfully unaware of politics, or rather I thought it was a kind of sitcom, genuinely believing that Thatcher and Michael Foot were married and hammily acting out their strife before a delighted audience. I can’t even remember when I stopped thinking this; disturbingly late, for sure. Once I did work out Thatcher was Prime Minister, I couldn’t help feeling it was at least a good thing that she was a woman, not because it made her a better person but because it ought to make everyone else less bothered about sex and gender. I thought a lot of stupid things when I was younger.
These days we still care about Thatcher being female. We wonder whether she was “the first Spice Girl” in a way we’ll never wonder whether Tony Blair was “the first member of One Direction” (the answer’s no; he just hasn’t got the moves). In Wednesday’s Times Alice Thomson is writing about the “iron mother” who “couldn’t have it all” (ha! That make you feel better, decimated industrial north?). Meanwhile in the Guardian Russell Brand is wondering just how good a mummy Maggie was after all:
For a national matriarch she is oddly unmaternal. I always felt a bit sorry for her biological children Mark and Carol, wondering from whom they would get their cuddles.
Well, doubting her ability to cuddle her own children is possibly better than just calling her a bitch, a witch or anything else offensive that rhymes with “itch”. Or maybe it isn’t? Maybe if we really cared we’d up the sexism ante – especially those of us who are feminists, just to show we’ve got our priorities right?
There are ways in which this can be positioned as an issue of privilege. Women in positions of power, especially those who’ve abused others, deserve to be attacked in the name of everyone who’s weaker than them. What right do they have to a sexism-free life, those who don’t even acknowledge their complicity in wrongs far greater than calling someone a bitch rather than just a bad person? And if they’re dead, surely this matters even less? Go ahead, call Thatcher a bitch, she can’t hear you. It’s not misogyny, it’s a display of solidarity with those whose lives her policies destroyed. And yet, what you’re really saying is “however powerful she was, however many abuses she committed, she never rose above the status of mere woman”. If that’s the way you seek to disempower her memory you’re inadvertently disempowering all women while you’re at it (including those whose lives she destroyed).
I’ve always been bothered about righteous sexism in relation to Thatcher. One of the first rows I had with my partner related to him telling me about a male teacher he’d had who brought champagne for his class on the day she left Downing Street. I felt appalled; it seemed so oddly personal, particularly as the Conservatives were still in power. Certainly, her effect on so many lives – and deaths – will have felt pretty fucking personal, but when men who weren’t touched in this direct way get overly delighted that the witch is dead, I am mistrustful. You wonder if they lie in wait for these opportunities to be sexist for the “right” reasons, as though it’s some kind of release. As though they’d be like this about all women only it’s no longer the done thing.
Of course, righteous sexism isn’t just used against Thatcher. We’re “allowed” to be more sexist about any woman who is wealthy, annoying and/or evil. We probably feel a bit bad about the first two – are Katie Price and Victoria Beckham really so terrible? – but not so much about the third. I mean, should I seriously be arsed if people are sexist about Myra Hindley? Because on one level I still am, but not because I care about her or her memory. It’s disrespectful to women to bring her sex into the discussion, disrespectful to the wrong she did to make being female a part of it.
As Glenn Greenwald writes in the Guardian (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use), people should be allowed to criticise Thatcher, even in the immediate aftermath of her death. Even so, the fact that she was female shouldn’t mean our usual standards regarding sexism are suspended. If it’s okay in relation to her, it’s okay in relation to all women. We might cause less damage, but we’re no less female. That’s a trait we may not wish to share with her, but there it is. Whatever else it means, it’s no reason for us to ultimately bring hate on ourselves.