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Can we call Margaret Thatcher a feminist? ‘I think you can’

PUBLISHED: 12:27 28 January 2019

Margaret Thatcher in 1983. Picture: PA

Margaret Thatcher in 1983. Picture: PA

PA Wire/Press Association Images

I cried with the Prime Minister when the end came, says civil servant Caroline Slocock. ‘I felt a tremendous empathy for her... It really touched my heart’

Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, opens Halifax Primary School 
in Ipswich in 1971   Picture: ARCHANTMargaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, opens Halifax Primary School in Ipswich in 1971 Picture: ARCHANT

Despite detesting the Prime Minister’s voice and being left-wing, Caroline Slocock worked closely with Margaret Thatcher in the PM’s final, fated, 18 months – and cried with her when the end came. “To not accept her achievements is wrong,” she insists now.

A rising star in the civil service, when she had the chance to become the Prime Minister’s private secretary (home affairs) – the first-ever female private secretary to any British Prime Minister, in fact – she couldn’t let the opportunity go begging.

Caroline admits, though, she brought her own prejudices to 10, Downing Street – “strong, quite unreasonable, I think, on reflection”.

Now, in the year marking the 40th anniversary of Mrs Thatcher becoming our first female PM, Caroline is defending the feminist credentials of a woman labelled The Iron Lady (and not, usually, as a 100% compliment).

Grass roots campaigning. Margaret Thatcher and friend during a Suffolk farm visit in 1979, just before she became Prime Minister. Also in the picture is John Gummer, who would be elected MP for the Eye constituency, and BBC journalist John Sergeant  Picture: ArchantGrass roots campaigning. Margaret Thatcher and friend during a Suffolk farm visit in 1979, just before she became Prime Minister. Also in the picture is John Gummer, who would be elected MP for the Eye constituency, and BBC journalist John Sergeant Picture: Archant

At the end of the month she will appear at the Cambridge Union debating society and support the motion that “This House Believes Thatcher Was a Feminist”.

The timing is perfect. Five days later, the paperback edition of Caroline’s book People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me comes out. For good measure, the UK’s second female Prime Minister is locked in her own battle with her party’s anti-European Union faction and might well face a similar dénouement.

But – honestly – can we really call Margaret Thatcher a feminist?

“I think you can, actually. The truth is, it’s not clear-cut. She didn’t regard herself as a feminist. I think she said she wasn’t a women’s libber. She didn’t really accept the argument you stick together with women in order to change the balance of power.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis outside 10 Downing Street in 1987   Picture: PAPrime Minister Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis outside 10 Downing Street in 1987 Picture: PA

“She was very much an individual. She did, I think, enjoy working with men and didn’t particularly enjoy working with women. But that’s partly because that’s the world she knew.

“So there are plenty of things you can say to show she wasn’t a feminist, but I think if you look at her as an example of female power, it’s hard to deny her achievement.

“It’s also true to say that even if she didn’t devote her career to helping other women, she did do something. She introduced independent taxation for women who were married. And I know, because I wrote with her a speech to The 300 Group (which campaigned for more females in Parliament, the European parliament, local government and public life) that she very sincerely did want to see more women in powerful positions, and thought that would be important.

“She chose to include examples in the speech of female scientists who had been overlooked: like (mathematician) Ada Lovelace, or Marie Curie – whose research had to be published under her husband’s name in the early years.

'What I found was that she struggled to speak the words and broke down in tears. I started to cry too. It really touched my heart,' says Caroline Slocock  Picture: Juliana Johnston'What I found was that she struggled to speak the words and broke down in tears. I started to cry too. It really touched my heart,' says Caroline Slocock Picture: Juliana Johnston

“I think her kind of individualistic model – although in some ways in opposition with a left-wing view of feminism – was also a celebration of the power of individuals to cut through and make a difference in the world.

“My argument really, in the book, is that as part of the maturity of feminism we should embrace her as a woman. There are women who have tried to excommunicate her. I don’t think feminists should be saying ‘She was the wrong kind of woman’. It’s a problem if we think there’s a ‘right kind of woman’.

“Also, the whole term ‘feminism’ is very problematic for conservative women, and not even just for conservative women. (Actress) Meryl Streep, who played Margaret Thatcher and is known to be outspoken on gender-equality issues, has said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist.

“She doesn’t use that term. She explained it’s because she’s a mother of a son and she loves her husband, and she loves men, and I think some people feel feminism is a term you use when you’re choosing to battle against men and you don’t like men. I don’t see feminism as meaning that.

Smiles before the storm. Margaret Thatcher meets Norfolk marshman Eric Edwards in 1990.  Picture: Adrian JuddSmiles before the storm. Margaret Thatcher meets Norfolk marshman Eric Edwards in 1990. Picture: Adrian Judd

“I’m going to make a kind of nuanced case for her (Lady Thatcher) in the debate. To not accept her achievements is wrong.”

‘Rather good legs’

It seemed Margaret Thatcher had, whether formally or through the vibes she gave off, created a bar on the promotion of women. As Caroline says, “the word had gone out, at least for a period, that she would not work with a woman”.

That Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher. Penelope Lucas looks at it inside the Sainsbury Centre stand at the 2017 Royal Norfolk Show. Picture: Nick ButcherThat Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher. Penelope Lucas looks at it inside the Sainsbury Centre stand at the 2017 Royal Norfolk Show. Picture: Nick Butcher

Nevertheless, when names were put forward in 1989 for the private secretary job, she found herself among them – and then going to meet the Prime Minister as the likely successful candidate.

“Mrs Thatcher came down from the flat of Number 10. She came down the stairs – slightly sideways; all I could see to start with were her high heels. Rather good legs, it has to be said. “I was somewhat surprised. I had this stereotype image of her as a kind of headmistress harridan, I regret to say. She came down with a bowl of blue hyacinths and said ‘Caroline, I’ve brought these down for you.’

“We went into the study, which in those days was a very feminine room, and she put the hyacinths between us. We sat in two armchairs and she interviewed me.”

The guidance to the PM was not to make an immediate decision, but she said “yes” to Caroline there and then… despite her gender.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arriving at 10 Downing Street in 1979 after winning the election. Picture: PAPrime Minister Margaret Thatcher arriving at 10 Downing Street in 1979 after winning the election. Picture: PA

“I think – I’m just guessing – she saw in me someone who had a similar belief in change.” Caroline had worked on a project trying to make the civil service more businesslike.

“I didn’t mention I didn’t agree with the change she was making, because I didn’t agree with her politics! But I really did think the civil service needed shaking up. We agreed on that. I think she thought ‘Yes, this is somebody who wants to move mountains, like me’, so she took me on.”

‘I started to cry too’

Margaret Thatcher and husband Denis on the steps of Ipswich Town Hall during campaigning for the 1979 election.  Picture: archantMargaret Thatcher and husband Denis on the steps of Ipswich Town Hall during campaigning for the 1979 election. Picture: archant

Caroline began when “you could see these rifts developing on Europe”. The Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, were key figures at odds with the PM. The poll tax hadn’t helped, and there was friction over the UK joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Something had to give.

The new private secretary thus “by chance happened to walk into this extraordinary story – a very human drama of betrayal, anger and determination”.

It came to a head in 1990, when Mrs Thatcher withdrew from a Conservative Party leadership challenge despite winning the initial ballot. Caroline had a ringside seat that November. She was the only other woman in the Cabinet room when the Prime Minister revealed she was quitting.

“I felt a tremendous empathy for her, actually, which I hadn’t expected, partly because I felt it was time for her to go. I thought I would be quite cold about it, but what I found was that she struggled to speak the words and broke down in tears. I started to cry too. It really touched my heart.”

The end is coming... Margaret Thatcher opens the European Information Centre in East Anglia in May, 1990.   Picture: ARCHANTThe end is coming... Margaret Thatcher opens the European Information Centre in East Anglia in May, 1990. Picture: ARCHANT

Whatever their politics, we need to remember our chosen representatives are people.

“The manner of her departure was especially cruel. She didn’t see it coming – part of her problem was her tunnel vision. It came like a ton of bricks. One minute she was the most powerful person in Britain, probably; the next, she was leaving in tears. Her powers were stripped away.

“It was the sheer vulnerability of this woman, surrounded by men and round this coffin-shaped table – telling them the end had come. And, basically, the reason she had to face this decision was they’d told her so.

“And the other thing was, this was her life. One of the things that happens to women is they fight to get to the top of their profession. To be taken seriously, they have to be better than the men.

Mrs Thatcher among the blackcurrants at Rose Cottage Farm, Rivenhall, near Witham, in 1987. Picture: JOHN KERRMrs Thatcher among the blackcurrants at Rose Cottage Farm, Rivenhall, near Witham, in 1987. Picture: JOHN KERR

“I think there’s this slight phenomenon where you think you have to do everything perfectly. So she always did her ‘homework’; always did her boxes (of papers to read and sign); prepared for every speech really carefully. She put her heart and soul into the job.

“I knew, when I saw her finally leaving Number 10, there was nowhere for her to ‘go’. She wasn’t going to be like Tony Blair, earning lots of money.”

That Spitting Image puppet

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a visit to Bury St Edmunds in July 1983. Picture: ARCHANTPrime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a visit to Bury St Edmunds in July 1983. Picture: ARCHANT

Caroline believes one of Margaret Thatcher’s biggest problems was that her identity had, during her political rise, been constructed “almost entirely on the advice of men. She changed the way she dressed: it was more power-based; looking a bit more like a man. She abandoned dresses with bows, on the whole, and she adopted this more androgynous profile.”

Her voice became deeper, and she stopped showing her softer side – because that, at the time, wasn’t going to win you elections.

The labels and comparisons started appearing: The Iron Lady, Boudicca, Elizabeth I. “These stereotypes go back very deep.” And perhaps she fell into the trap of wanting to appear extra-strong, finding it hard to show emotion as a result. “I think that if she had, she might have been more popular.”

Caroline suggests: “There was a particular edge, to the way in which she’d been hated, that I think has to do with her being a woman. I’m not saying it’s as straightforward as saying ‘She was a woman and therefore she was disliked’. She was a powerful woman, and we tend to dislike powerful women. I think we need to confront that prejudice.”

Theresa May does not excite such strong emotions, “but I think that’s because she’s not a powerful woman; she’s in quite a weak position”.

Remember the Spitting Image TV puppet of Mrs Thatcher, all sharp shoulders, manly and gangsterish. “It goes back to some deep cultural thinking that powerful women were witches – that they’re sort of Medusa (a mythical Greek monster with writhing snakes for hair) – and that strand is still there in politics.”

Caroline cites as evidence the hate mail and messages sent to many females in politics; “and people like Caroline Criado-Perez, who wanted a woman on a new British banknote, got rape and death threats. With Hillary Clinton, there were T-shirts of her as Medusa, with her severed head being held by Trump (as Perseus). So there is still misogyny around”.

That’s one of the things she hopes to combat – and that we stop thinking of powerful women as manly.

“One of the points of the book is that people think Margaret Thatcher was just a bully – they see her as that handbagging Spitting Image puppet – and actually she was being bullied as well behind the scenes, and she was giving as good as she got.

“She did have difficult relationships with some of her more-powerful ministers, but I think that’s because she felt under threat. And all her life, by virtue of being a woman, she’d been battling her own side, I suppose, as well as the status quo in Britain.”

So how do we tackle any misogyny in society and, if it’s there, in politics?

“I feel it’s a question of getting it out into the open and seeing it for what it is. I think when people see it they start to become much more self-aware. The more we become aware of this stereotype, the more people will recognise it’s wrong.”

The ‘control freak’ element

Caroline thinks Theresa May shares a number of qualities with our previous female Prime Minister: “Being prepared to be unpopular, and determined against all odds to drive things through; personally courageous, and stepping up to what some people are calling a poisoned chalice… women taking on a difficult job men largely won’t do.”

Mrs Thatcher wasn’t good at networking, she says, “and I don’t think Theresa May is either. Certainly Margaret Thatcher became a bit bunkered at the end; and I think they like to keep things to themselves – some people might call it the ‘control freak’ element – which, in the particular circumstances we face, it’s not a good set of qualities.

“A common factor between Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher – very different women in lots of ways – at this point is that neither is good at listening. Mrs Thatcher boxed herself in behind the poll tax and then she went out on a limb about Europe. Theresa May barely has a team behind her, and she’s not prepared to go outside her own particular box.”

The verdict

“Although I didn’t vote for her (Lady Thatcher), there’s no doubt she changed our world. She had a huge impact. The way in which we still view the world is shaped largely by some of the political ideas that when she came to power were seen as pretty off-beat – certainly not mainstream Conservatism. Now, they’ve become the norm.

“Small state, enterprise Britain, individualism, home-owning democracy – all these things have become norms.

“We should recognise her achievement as a woman, getting to the place she got to, and also look at her honestly for who she was as a person – and take away this mythology as an Iron Lady/Spitting Image hag and see her for what she was: a really remarkable woman able to do things that the men around her were unable to do.”

People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me is from Biteback Publishing at £9.99

Caroline Slocock

Grew up in Wimborne, Dorset

Father was a self-employed printer

1990: Marries civil servant John Nightingale

They have two grown-up daughters

After Lady Thatcher’s departure, Caroline was private secretary to John Major, until 1991

After leaving Number 10, she strove to change the culture and working practices of the Treasury, and reformed the public expenditure system and public services

At the Department for Education and Skills, she oversaw expansion of childcare and nursery education

2002 to 2007: Chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission

Now: Runs think-tank Civil Exchange and a leadership network aiming to improve services and strengthen communities

Recently appeared on BBC’s Newsnight show

Suffolk: We can’t keep away

Caroline and husband John have long been bewitched by Suffolk. For many years they visited friends in the county. Then, wet February day, they chanced upon an empty and forlorn-looking house hidden by overgrown pine trees. It was up for sale. How could they resist?

Now, they split their time between the capital and the house in a forest east of Yoxford – spending three or four days a week in Suffolk.

Caroline can work up here – as can John, who threw himself into crime-writing after leaving the civil service.

“I love the wildness,” she says. “There aren’t many places within easy reach of London where you can walk for miles without having to go on a road.

“I love the variety: the marshes, the forest, the sea. They’re all on the doorstep. The villages are so unspoilt. We like the pubs; the places to eat; the walks.

“We like the summer theatre. Wells is a really great example in Southwold of a place where you can go and buy music and great books. You can’t find anywhere else in the country that’s like it (Suffolk). You still get those individual shops.

“You can wander into Halesworth and the post office goes on and on, and you can buy anything from a screwdriver to a lawnmower and a food mixer, as well as envelopes and stamps. You can’t find shops like that in London. It’s almost a bygone era.”

John says: “We fell in love on either end of civil service phones, talking about civil service reform. Caroline was in the Cabinet Office and I was at DWP (Department of Work and Pensions).

“The first time we met in person was at a meeting she had contrived for the two of us with a consultant in Ernst and Young.”


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