Margaret Thatcher Wanted to be Known for Policies, Not Gender

American women politicians lagged Thatcher in earning cred for gravitas.


Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2008. As prime minister she sought to be known for her policies, not her gender.

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Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first and only woman prime minister, would have preferred you didn't pay attention to her gender and just focused on her record. But despite playing down her glass ceiling-shattering accomplishments, Thatcher became one of the most visible examples of feminism anyway.

[PHOTOS: The Life of Margaret Thatcher: 1925-2013]

"She wanted to be seen as prime minister, not a woman prime minister, and other people made it about gender," says James Cooper, a historian currently at the Churchill Institute at Westminster College and author of "Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: A Very Political Special Relationship."

"She did not have, as far as I am aware, any other women in her cabinet," he adds.

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, says whether or not she was looking for it, Thatcher made an indelible mark on how women candidates are measured.

"She became the clear counter-stereotype for a woman in politics; here was a woman seen on the international scale as incredibly viable and someone to take very seriously who was certainly not warm and fuzzy and focusing on women's issues," Lawless says.

[READ: 3 Economic Lessons From Margaret Thatcher]

It's a stereotype that American women politicians are moving away from, but Lawless points to the 1992 election as a sign of how far ahead Thatcher was.

"In 1992 when the United States saw the surge in the number of female candidates, those people rose to the occasion because they wanted to lead on issues that disproportionately affected women, families and children—that was not Margaret Thatcher's model," Lawless says.

And just by being able to point out how glaring it is that the United States has yet to elect a female president by pointing to Thatcher, she says the Iron Lady left behind a lasting reputation.

"I don't think it's possible to overestimate the impact of Margaret Thatcher just in people's consciousness when they think about women in politics," Lawless says.

Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian at George Mason University, says Thatcher used all her attributes to attain power—including grand elegance and femininity—but was all business once elected prime minister.

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"She set her own rules and that was a defining quality it seems to me," he says. "She was a very successful politician and politicians are manipulators."

When Thatcher famously said, "the lady's not returning," Smith says she "said it all."

"She emphasized the 'lady' but at the same time she made it clear she was intransigent on fundamental principle," he says.

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