The reaction to last week’s death of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, has been fascinating. Love her or hate her, she was the most important woman of the 20th century.
Paul Johnson in the Wall Street Journal called her the most important woman historically since Catherine the Great. Falling in the “hate her” category would be the Washington Post, in which a (below-the-fold) front-page obituary contained quotes mainly from her opponents. Her accomplishments were cited through obviously clenched teeth, and there was little attempt to place her in the larger historical picture.
It wasn’t just the Post either — media attention was largely limited relative to her importance. A friend of mine commented that her death seemed like a one-day media event, even for publications like the Journal. This led me to ponder: Would a man who changed the world as she did be sent off with so little fanfare? Or is this treatment of Thatcher — who smashed the ultimate glass ceiling of political leadership of a major, Western country — a flagrant display of sexism?
Thatcher was not given her due relative to her male peers during her tenure as prime minister. She was never named Time magazine’s Wo/Man of the Year, though her cohorts in defeating communism, former President Ronald Reagan (twice) and Pope John Paul II garnered the honor (as did Soviet leaders Mikhail Gorbachev (twice) and Yuri Andropov, who was the general secretary for all of 11 months).
In 1986, while Thatcher was still in office, Time did name just its third-ever woman as Person of the Year: the world-changing Corazon Aquino. Ideology obviously also played a role in the snubbing.
In the early 1980s, when I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Thatcher’s policies, I couldn’t help notice that Ms. Magazine (to which I was a subscriber) simply ignored her. How embarrassing Thatcher was for them, the self-proclaimed champions of rights and opportunities for women.
Here was a woman who — through intelligence, hard work and force of personality — not only reached the pinnacle of political life, but also was successful in restoring her country’s economic health and world standing. The magazine should have embraced her ascension and accomplishments, even if it disagreed with specific policies. But Ms. Magazine staff members couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
My American Heritage Dictionary describes “feminism” as: “A doctrine that advocates or demands for women the same rights granted men, as in political or economic status.” In the example that she set, Thatcher was the ultimate feminist. She spoke out about the abilities of women in an era when she was very much an anomaly. She famously stated, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
The Soviets dubbed her the “Iron Lady,” which conjures up images of East German swimmers. Still, the one time I saw her in person (after waiting in line several hours at a book signing) I was struck by how feminine and even pretty she was.
Thatcher’s accomplishments were remarkable, for a man or woman. She was the longest-tenured prime minister of the United Kingdom over the past century. She took the helm just months after John Paul II became pope and 18 months before Reagan became president. And with them, she brought down the Soviet Union using a mixture of sticks — deployment of advanced missiles in Europe — and the carrots of engagement and disarmament. She was the first major leader to identify Gorbachev as someone the West could work with.
Thatcher took the helm in Britain after the Winter of Discontent, a time when the island was crippled by labor strikes, high unemployment and poor economic growth. She took on the trade unions, privatized industries that had been nationalized and deregulated the financial industry. The year she became prime minister, 29 million working days were lost to strikes. In 1990, the year she left office, that had dropped to fewer than 2 million.
Thatcher was a woman of rare ability who was the right leader for Britain at a crucial point in history. The world became safer and more prosperous because of her. May she rest in peace.