Thatcher’s death and righteous sexism

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.

14 thoughts on “Thatcher’s death and righteous sexism

  1. Great post! I wanted to write a Thatcher post, but couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted to say – you did it for me!

  2. Great post! I definitely feel a degree of misgiving towards those who’ve voiced negative opinions on her passing (their stance on her actions aside), and you’ve verbalised exactly why.

  3. I don’t think these people hate Thatcher because she’s a woman, but so vehement is the bitterness many of us feel that some express it in misogynistic terms. I don’t condone it but I understand – and many fellow feminists have admitted their disappointment that our first female PM chose to follow such a profoundly reactionary agenda.

  4. Realistically not everything that involves a woman can be turned into a blog about sexism. I tend to think that the least important thing about MT was that she was a woman. She led the country into war, she demonised and then weakened the unions, she pursued policy that is having terrible repercussions for all of us now, and set a framework for thinking about the world that we have struggled to abandon. I hate David Cameron just as much and if he (omigod) managed 3 terms of office I would most likely welcome his death too. I’m a feminist and proud to be one, but sometimes it really isn’t about gender, even if someone is called a witch or a bitch: I don’t like to hear the former being used about any woman and the latter makes me feel queasy even if applied to a female dog, but MT was so vile, so hateful, so divisive and so negatively influential that I can see why women and men are reaching for these epithets. I’m a little older than you and grew up seeing what she did to industrial towns, working people and the prospects for this country – that made me angry beyond reason. Her death is a symbolic end to some of that, and if not a reason to celebrate, at least a time to emphatically tell it like it was.

    1. You are right. Her being a woman was the least important thing. So why all the “bitch” and “witch” stuff now? The way people are talking about her now, it would seem that her being a woman who didn’t “act ladylike” was the only thing about her that mattered. I think that was the point of the article.

      1. As an exercise, to try to unpick the “gendered” and “dancing on the grave before it’s even dug” aspects, I tried to imagine how I’d feel about a similar campaign about a politically-comparable male figure. Keith Joseph, say. (Possibly better examples spring to mind, but wouldn’t want to be seem to be wishing anyone else dead.) And truth to tell, I’m struggling to think of anything _remotely_ equivalent to the “Ding Dong” stunt. Where’s Julie Bindel when you need her? (It’s not as if I need her at all often, either!)

        I do feel somewhat uneasy about the “witch is dead” stuff, and indeed I’m still trying to unpick, even in my own mind, how much of it is genuine political rage, how much is triumphalism, misogyny, pure trolling, and so on. I do find it deeply ironic, having found myself at a loose end watching Maurice Saatchi wheeling the pseudo-libertarian quasi-justification for all things Tory and Thatcher. It’s a great theory, if one doesn’t consider oneself in any way bound by “facts” or “common decency”, which I gather is pretty much the first line in any adman’s CV. Meanwhile, the ultra-Thatcherite Mail is campaigning for an outright ban of a song from a U-rated movie.

  5. Wait, we’re not allowed to say “witch” anymore, Glossy? Teh irony! Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when things get ironic and “reclaimy”…

    My reaction was a lot like Marina’s and Jo’s. Much vitriol about MT is clearly “gender-themed”, but is it necessarily “gender-motivated”? My guess is that it’s often not. I’m not quite happy to say “so I’ll give it a pass, then”, as it must be conceded that motivations are hard to discern, and personal biases are naturally in play — I felt similarly about criticism of Sarah Palin, but somewhat differently about what the Right says about Pelosi and H. Clinton. And even if it were possible, either sort of gendered insult clearly has a general reinforcing effect, as GW describes.

    I’m a little confused about the nature of the argument GW describes about Thatcher leaving office. I don’t think celebrating the replacement of one Tory leader by another is very gendery on the face of it; I’d suspect rather that it’s a perception of getting a less-worse PM on political criteria, or else generalised “we have them on the ropes” triumphalism — in hindsight, neither of which would seem especially justified, given “Back to Basics” and Major’s election victory. But I might be missing key context here (or indeed, content). The “bottle of bubbly” aspect seems distinctly hoorayish, but I guess that’s my “class” funnybone being tickled.

    I do think that street parties in the immediate aftermath of someone’s (pretty much anyone’s) death are distinctly lacking in (the other sort of) class. It’s not as if she was doing much in the way of immediate harm of late — whereas plenty of other Tories most definitely are. The people complaining hard about such reactions (Conservative MPs, David Young, the Mail, etc) are of course exactly the people stoking them. You can’t really set about burying someone on a gun carriage, with military honours, complaining about it not being “full state” enough, while telling the unions and ruins of British industry that they had it coming to them, and then lecture people for not remaining dignified in their quiet opposition.

    On balance, I’m not going to recommend such rhetoric as “best practice” by any means, or even entirely condone its use, but much of it for me falls somewhere between “highly understandable” and “relatively venal sins”.

      1. Argh! It’s internalised something-or-other! *goes off for long session of self-examination* Um. I still can’t think of an answer to that.

  6. Tricky this one because as some of the comments above point out, being female is the least important thing about Thatcher – at the end of the day she was just another Tory: selfish and lacking empathy. And that is how she should be spoken about – we don’t need to gender her vileness. So I am trying very hard not to do that.

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