Skip to main content

'That woman' Thatcher let women down

By Lesley Abdela, Special to CNN
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/08/world/europe/uk-margaret-thatcher-dead/'>Margaret Thatcher</a>, the first woman to become British prime minister, has died at 87 after a stroke, a spokeswoman said Monday, April 8. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/08/world/europe/margaret-thatcher-icon-outcast/'>Known as the "Iron Lady,"</a> Thatcher, as Conservative Party leader, was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Here she visits British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London in June 2010. Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become British prime minister, has died at 87 after a stroke, a spokeswoman said Monday, April 8. Known as the "Iron Lady," Thatcher, as Conservative Party leader, was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Here she visits British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London in June 2010.
HIDE CAPTION
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
Margaret Thatcher through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lesley Abdela: Besides being prime minister, Thatcher did little to promote women in politics
  • Abdela says a generation in Britain grew up knowing only a female prime minister
  • She says like many, she feels ambivalence toward Thatcher, a divisive but influential leader
  • Abdela: So powerful, she could have advanced women in politics but chose not to do so

Editor's note: Lesley Abdela is senior partner in Shevolution Consultancy, which has provided training and guidance aimed at women's empowerment in politics, on women's rights issues and in conflict situations in 40 countries. She has written for many publications, including The Guardian and The Sunday Times.

(CNN) -- When it came to promoting other women in politics, Margaret Thatcher was a disappointment. In fact, her main legacy for women was merely that she was a woman holding the position of prime minister for 11½ years.

My son was 5 years old when Thatcher first won election as prime minister, the first woman to do so. By the time she left office, he was a young man of 17. He didn't remember a country with a male prime minister.

Lesley Abdela
Lesley Abdela

As a feminist and women's rights campaigner who opposed many of Thatcher's policies, I am still trying to work out how I feel about her. As prime minister, Thatcher did almost nothing to promote women's rights actively, but at the same time, an entire generation grew up assuming it was normal to have a woman as prime minister.

During Thatcher's tenure, I interviewed Sir Bernard Weatherill, speaker of the House of Commons, for a documentary I was working on. Weatherill told me an anecdote about his grandchildren, a boy and girl of around 8 and 11. The children were dressing up in the speaker's robes, "playing Parliaments." The speaker said he overheard his grandson say, "I'll pretend to be prime minister." His granddaughter retorted, "Don't be silly, I'm going to be the prime minister -- only women can be prime ministers!"

A woman prime minister had become so much part of the British way of life that for two or three weeks after Thatcher left office the media had become so accustomed to referring to the prime minister as "she" and "her" that several times TV and radio journalists slipped up on air and had to correct themselves and refer to the incoming prime minister John Major as "he" and "him."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In the early 1980s, I founded and led the all-party 300 GROUP campaign to get more women elected -- we had 43 branches in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Thatcher attended a couple of 300 GROUP functions and spoke in support of the campaign for more women in Parliament.

At an event to unveil a plaque to Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, I heard Thatcher refer in her speech to the House of Commons as "a dreadfully male-dominated place." Such sentiments were the exception rather than the rule for her. I don't think she understood women's rights, and her record of appointing only one other woman to her Cabinet for a brief period was desperately disappointing.

Thatcher had such command over her Conservative Party that if she had chosen to do so she could have advanced large numbers of qualified women into public and political posts. She chose not to do so. It was a missed opportunity.

Not everyone mourning Thatcher's death
Giuliani remembers Thatcher
That one time Twitter thought Cher died

Once I was invited to lunch by former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Thatcher had defeated Heath to become head of the Conservative Party in 1975. Heath hated Thatcher. He never referred to her by name during lunch. Instead he referred to her as "that woman." He had invited seven of us as guests, including pop singer Bob Geldof. It was a sunny summer afternoon. We ate lunch out on the terrace of Heath's garden at his beautiful Georgian house in the country town of Salisbury, Wiltshire. Conversation ranged over Northern Ireland, European politics and music.

Knowing about my work with the 300 GROUP campaign, he suddenly turned to me and bristling with anger said: "I tell you one thing Lesley, you'll never see another woman prime minister in this country in your lifetime after 'that woman.' "

Margaret Thatcher triggered strong emotions for and against her. She presided over a ruthless era in British politics. The reactions on social media at the news of her death are a Molotov cocktail of people's views -- not just vitriol, but vicious, misogynist vocabulary from people who are quite reasonable and rational in other circumstances.

Thatcher is well-known for her quotation of the Prayer of St Francis after her 1979 election victory. The prayer includes the lines, "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony." What she achieved was the precise opposite of this.

So what will be the Thatcher legacy? I once asked the then-Chinese ambassador to London what legacy he thought Confucius left to modern China. He smiled. His reply? "Too soon to tell."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lesley Abdela.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT