Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Working-class women's views on Maggie not ironclad

In the mid-1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's policies were in full swing, one woman marched tirelessly in solidarity with the miners' strikes. She was staunchly working class, passionate and politically active.

So why, when I started asking questions as a teenager, did my mother tell me that Thatcherite policies had done a lot for "people like us"?

The answer is complicated, which is difficult to admit. This is because most of us have internalised that simple idea put forward moments after her death: that Thatcher was 'loved and loathed in equal measure'.

She was the Marmite of the political world.

Undoubtedly, Thatcher got the ball rolling on a number of serious and persistent problems in society. Her right to buy policy, for example, directly contributed to a council housing shortage and a continuing problem with homelessness.

But, to my mother, this policy also seemed to prove that Maggie looked out for those working class 'strivers' of modern Conservative rhetoric. The right-to-buy policy appeared to give them something that workers had been losing in the preceding decades: social kudos.

It felt like acknowledgement. For a while, this gifted sense of pride would serve as a convenient smokescreen to distract people from the reality of chronic underpayment and disproportionately levied taxes.

Small personal victories would not be enough to overshadow obvious repressive policies, such as those targeted towards the miners and the trade unions.

Young women in the council flats that they now owned began looking to Thatcher as a figure of inspiration, even as she dismissed 'women's libbers', denied the existence of a glass ceiling and professed no desire to change the gender balance in politics.

She had still managed to change something; to play the system to her advantage. This can be best summarised by an afternoon tweet from that marker of British sentiment, Geri Halliwell: "Thinking of our 1st Lady of girl power, Margaret Thatcher, a greengrocer's daughter who taught me anything is possible."

It's doubtful that Thatcher would have found these words heartwarming. "There is no society," she once stated, "only individual men and women and families."

This position was manifest in everything she did; from tearing down communities, to dismantling nationalised industries, to refusing to appoint more than a single, solitary woman to her Cabinet. Her business was business (with perhaps a side-order of warmongering).

As far as people went, her position was built around a total lack of empathy. She refused to be a role-model, because of her sex, or background. Among her often-ruthless policies, many working-class women couldn't help but admire that attitude.

Now, in the aftermath of her death, we can hope to step back and see Margaret Thatcher for what she really was.

There should be no shame in professing that her legacy is decidedly ambiguous; she may not have cared, but her very existence changed the face of British politics. It challenged enough entrenched attitudes to make a difference to people – particularly young girls. Perhaps she would be turning in her grave if she knew that – considering her disdain for the women who'd 'unreasonably' expected her support and the poor, in particular.

But, then again, the Lady's not for turning.

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