Judge the Iron Lady as a Leader, Not a Woman

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's asset was not in being a male politician in a female body.

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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher poses for a portrait in 1980.

She was tough. The Iron Lady was her nickname. She didn't call herself a feminist, but her very success is viewed as a feminist symbol.

And now that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has died, can we also retire the very idea of her toughness as an explanation – let alone a prerequisite – for giving women power?

Women are becoming more and more prevalent in electoral politics and business (though they are still appallingly underrepresented). And for many of these women, the standard was not in offering a female perspective on government or business, but on their ability to acquire stereotypically male qualities to prove they are as capable as men to run things.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

What has been the underlying worry of having a woman as president? That she wouldn't have the courage to push the button and wipe out an entire country if necessary. The issue isn't whether a woman "could" do it – the question is why that is the definition of fitness for office. One could make a stronger argument that having the self-control to avert such an emotional response is a sign of strength, not weakness.

The qualities seen as feminine as also seen as soft – and not only is that an unfair generalization, but it presumes that being meaner is better. Even the term "Nanny State," which conservatives use to ridicule government regulation or safety nets, is female-centric in its origin. What is wrong with taking care of people? Even if that is a female quality, why is it automatically a bad one?

[See Photos: The Life of Margaret Thatcher: 1925-2013.]

We have candidates and talking heads tell officials to "man up," suggesting that being male is rooted in the ability to make tough decisions. It's an offensive term, but it's also not based in fact: Congress is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Anyone see them make a lot of tough choices recently?

Older male politicians are discussed as having "gravitas"; there is frequently a call for the "greybeards" to solve a problem. It's almost not worth mentioning that colloquialisms for testicles are used to describe courage – except that it is worth mentioning House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's, D-Calif., observation that "gravitas" must be Latin for testicles.

Thatcher was tough, to be sure. Maybe too tough; after giving in to coal workers' union demands early on, she engineered matters so that when a conflict came up again, she eviscerated them. Agree or disagree with that, but it has nothing to do with gender.

She was a serious, solid conservative, and had a right to lead the country as much as any serious, solid conservative man. But her asset was not in being a male politician in a female body. Her legacy – like all leaders – should be assessed according to the state she left behind.

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