Was Margaret Thatcher Leaning In?

It would be a kind interpretation to say that the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t care for feminism. Thatcher, who was the first elected female ruler in Europe, once said, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.” Conservatives have excitedly pointed to this fraught relationship as proof that women don’t need feminism, while feminist blogs have lamented all that Thatcher could have done for women, if she embraced the women’s movement.

But with Thatcher’s passing — and her fraught relationship with feminism — in the news this week, it occurred to me that there is a type of feminist idea that might describe Thatcher quite well: She was a woman who was “leaning in.”

The crux of the argument in Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new self-described “feminist manifesto,” is that women will take a variety of routes to defeat sexism, but that one of the most important and efficient routes is to plow through sexist stereotypes, claim control of powerful positions, and, from your cozy perch at the top, subvert and change expectations. That’s an apt description of the late Prime Minister. Upon being elected, she said, “The women of [the UK] have never had a prime minister who knew the things they know. And the things that we know are very different from what men know.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s interpretation of feminism is pretty radically different from modern day feminists who are working to upend rape culture and close the gender pay gap. She focuses solely on the aspect of putting women in power and seeing what they can do, with the strong belief that their presence will positively affect any office place. (“Women will tear down the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles,” she writes in Lean In.) That’s essentially what Thatcher did.

And Sandberg has pushed the idea that feminism’s most effective form is not external criticism. She promotes for the more Thatcheresque, by-your-bootstraps approach to changing institutional sexism. Sandberg’s interpretation of feminism puts the onus on women to push their way to the top instead of relying on institutions to level the playing field. She argues, “Until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not gong to achieve as much as men.”

Compare that to Thatcher’s famed “there is no such thing as society” quote:

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

And of course, it would be negligent not to point out that part of the reason Sangberg’s philosophy on feminism applies so well to Thatcher is because both have the privilege to so narrowly focus their feminist capacities. It’s been the response to Sandberg’s book, and it’s true of Thatcher’s legacy: It ignores the more subtly detrimental effects that sexism can have, particularly on poorer women or women of color.

Thatcher never appropriately tackled the issues associated with feminism and sexism during her time in office — things that the British Women’s Liberation movement was deeply involved in circa 1979, like abortion, single motherhood, contraception, and equal pay. Thatcher said she “owe[d] nothing to women’s lib,” and certainly her record on the issues they valued reflected that. (She didn’t even do much to help other women succeed — she appointed only one woman, Baroness Young, to her cabinet in her entire 11 and 1/2 years in office.)

But ultimately, the fact is that Thatcher succeeded in doing what Sandberg begs women across the United States to do: To aspire to higher positions and grasp onto leadership roles, because “when leadership insists that [sexist] policies change, they will.” Her very presence in politics, no matter whether she did so willingly or not, was a feminist act. Natasha Walter phrases it well when she writes in The Guardian:

We should never forget her destructive policies or sanitise her corrosive legacy. But nor should we deny the fact that as the outsider who pushed her way inside, as the woman in a man’s world, she was a towering rebuke to those who believe women are unsuited to the pursuit and enjoyment of power. Girls who grew up when she was running the country were able to imagine leadership as a female quality in a way that girls today struggle to do. And for that reason she is still a figure that feminists would be unwise to dismiss.

Thatcher was an unwilling participant in the history of feminism. But she was a participant. Her boundary-breaking legacy has been heralded with her passing, and was the main point of President Obama’s praise yesterday when he said, “she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” It might not be that Thatcher did anything, in terms of her policies, to help women in the UK or around the world. But it might be that her controversial and wrongheaded opinions helped to outline that women’s views, like the views of men, can differ vastly and be wrong, but are just as valid. Her mere presence in politics, the fact that she leaned in at all, should be applauded.