My mother wrote me the day the Iron Lady died and said, “I guess everyone in England must be very sad.” “Nope,” I wrote back. “They are weird about her.”
And that’s about as much commentary I feel safe making. The response to Margaret Thatcher’s passing has been very puzzling for an expat. The news coverage was totally schizoid, like watching Fox News and The Daily Show cover the same story–and not being able to tell if they are even reporting the same event. The Economist put her on the cover with a laudatory headline, while online a race was on to take “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” to the top of the charts as some kind of musical political comment. The Guardian summed the feelings about Thatcher up nicely: “To admirers, an anti-establishment hero; to detractors, a subhuman hate figure who heartlessly devastated entire communities: a monster to dress up as for your next Halloween party.”
In my crowd at Oxford, no one has anything nice to say about her. So, imagine my surprise to learn that she was the only female Prime Minister in British history, but also the longest in office. Wow. It would seem like that achievement alone would command some respect. But she broke the trade unions, which, of course, would never make you popular among the aristocratic would-be revolutionaries who populate universities.
The most interesting coverage was a Radio 4 story about Thatcher’s relation to feminism. She was apparently quite vociferous in her public opposition to the movement. And she was one of those silly women who say things like–“I wasn’t a woman Prime Minister, I was just doing the job”–and believe (a) nobody’s ever said that trite thing before and (b) that there was ever a single moment that the men around her were not aware she was “a woman Prime Minister.” Nevertheless, the women on this radio show have interesting things to say and stories to tell about comments she made privately and support she gave to other women politically. One remarked that, really, in that era “feminism was a different thing” and that she couldn’t possibly have gotten where she did, especially in that party, and been openly feminist.
It was interesting to reflect on what it means to say that feminism was a different thing then than it is now. As if we know what it is now and as if we have any clear idea of what it was then. Oh sure, you can argue all night that feminism is simply believing in equality for women, which at this point is something everyone agrees with (at least in public). Such things are so commonsensical and conventional today that it would be hard to account for why feminism remains controversial if, in fact, we could all agree on such an unthreatening definition.
But it isn’t just the definition. It never has been. Feminism scares people because it attacks every society at its foundation, no matter how nicely it is dressed and regardless of who is doing the speaking. Yet it is also the case that Second Wave feminism became rather nastily exclusive and judgmental, was especially critical of any subgroup of women that didn’t buy into its orthodoxy lock, stock, and barrel. The movement got loaded up with all kinds of stuff that many people felt uncomfortable with–abortion, Marxism–just as in earlier versions, the women’s movement burdened itself by becoming identical with unpopular causes like temperance. Now, I certainly believe that reproductive rights are key to women’s freedoms. But I don’t think it makes sense to turn away a large group of would-be supporters just because that one item makes them uncomfortable. It’s not as though abortion is morally unambiguous–and we all know that in our hearts. But the Marxism, like temperance, was largely irrelevant baggage that did more harm than good.
So today, feminism is said to be something different. And I think that really just means it has new allies and associations. One of the most important of these is its sudden credibility as a means of promoting growth and reducing poverty. The current Harvard Business Review is even running a story about how important women are to the future of the economy, something I couldn’t get their editors even to have a conversation about during the past three years. But now that Booz & Company are in the ring with their Third Billion report, HBR thinks it can manage to cover the issue.
Anyway, it is high irony to see a movement that the longest running Prime Minister in England wouldn’t be associated with–suddenly in the likes of Harvard Business Review. Feminism’s future bedfellows promise to be quite different from those of its past.