President Obama’s statement honoring Margaret Thatcher was an example of the chameleon-like nature of liberalism. Rewriting history is a liberal specialty. Just as the anti–Cold War liberals were miraculously transformed into cold warriors after the war had been won, yesterday’s anti-Thatcherites are today morphing into something else.
The president’s statement praises Thatcher as one of the “great champions of freedom and liberty” and goes on to observe that “she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”
So today we all celebrate Margaret Thatcher as a feminist icon? This is revisionism of a high order.
Of course, she ought to have been a feminist heroine. Thatcher was one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and the greatest female leader of modern times. A woman of rare brilliance, grit, accomplishment, and determination, she won three national elections, helped to dismantle the Soviet empire, and transformed her nation and the world for the better.
But no, the feminists loathed her. During her first campaign for national office in 1979, the more polite noseholders said, “We want women’s rights, not a right-wing woman.” The less subtle circulated the slogan “Ditch the B****.” Following the release of the movie The Iron Lady, a feminist wailed on the Huffington Post that Thatcher was “the embodiment of everything that feminism is not: selfish, rigid, and intolerant.”
Ah, yes, the tolerant feminists! Thatcher understood them well enough, remarking, “I owe nothing to women’s lib.” Young women, we were told, required female role models. Thatcher’s hero was Winston Churchill. While at Oxford, the grocer’s daughter who grew up in a flat without running hot water majored in chemistry, not women’s studies (a curriculum that didn’t yet exist, but that she would definitely have despised). Her tutor, as it happens, was a female pioneer of X-ray crystallography, who had the effrontery to win a Nobel Prize before the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world had supposedly paved the way.
Eschewing the usual female ghettos of health, education, and welfare policy, Thatcher the politician focused on economics and international affairs. At a Conservative-party congress, she responded to a fellow Tory’s temporizing about policy by pulling a volume from one of her famous handbags. Thumping her copy of F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table, she declared, “This is what we believe.”
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who rode to power on her husband’s coattails, or world leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, whose powerful fathers blazed the trail, Thatcher was completely self-made. She never once complained, as Clinton has more than once, that she was unfairly treated because she was a woman. Many a male MP tangled with her to his cost. She never asked for a vote in the name of women’s empowerment. She had no use for such trivialities. She had a country to save.
The magnitude of Thatcher’s accomplishments as prime minister cannot be understood without reference to the depths into which Britain had fallen by 1979. Successive Labour (and spineless Tory) governments had delivered an economy close to collapse. During the “winter of discontent” in 1978–79, strikes by public employees had crippled public services. Pickets blocked the entrances to hospitals, and only those suffering emergencies were permitted entry. Railway workers and truck drivers disrupted transportation. Trash accumulated on the streets as sanitation workers walked off the job. Bodies accumulated in morgues as gravediggers joined the strikes, prompting officials to discuss burial at sea for the mounting piles of corpses.
Thatcher’s victory ushered in a period of difficult but necessary free-market reforms. As in the U.S. under Reagan, Britain endured a tough recession as Thatcher wrestled inflation down. But the economy then rebounded and grew dramatically. She privatized state-owned industries, cut taxes on investments, radically reduced the power of trade unions, and reduced government spending. “The trouble with socialism,” she said, “is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
Britain’s economy grew, confidence was restored, and the Labour party was forced to abandon its soft Marxism and become “New Labour” under Tony Blair.
Contra President Obama, perhaps the least interesting fact about Margaret Thatcher is that she was a woman. Far more important were her dedication to liberty (economic, as well as political), her fierce opposition to tyranny of all sorts, her indomitable spirit, and this above all — that she was proven right. As she said, “The facts of life are conservative.”