"I owe nothing to Women's Lib." - Margaret Thatcher, 1982
The release of Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady has set free a torrent of Thatcher-loving. At first it was confined to British papers debating the merits or otherwise of this contentious era of politics, as well as Thatcher’s standing as a style icon (something I strongly refuted), but when such talk spreads across the Atlantic to the New York Times, you know you’re in trouble.
An essential element of this reappraisal of Margaret Thatcher seems to be asking the question (generally denied) of whether she constitutes a feminist icon. For someone who refused to acknowledge Women’s Liberation as an influence or aid in her career, this question seems somewhat redundant. It’s undeniable that Thatcher achieved levels of power that no other woman in the UK has reached before or since. But this shouldn’t immediately be equated with feminism, or inherent support of it.
While she managed to reach the top, she was hardly sympathetic to other women making the same journey; as her biographer Charles Moore points out in Vanity Fair, she only brought one other woman into the Cabinet during her eleven and a half years as PM. Thatcher certainly achieved things and yes, she is a woman but let’s not equate that with being a feminist icon. While her presence in parliament was unusual - a female among the sea of men at Whitehall - her particular brand of monetised individualism that saw a rise in childhood poverty and a decrease in social mobility did nothing to alter the status quo for women throughout her entire term in power.
Aligned with the media’s reassessment of Thatcher is the current vogue for understanding feminism from a centre-right point of view - 'Free-Market Feminism' as it's been labelled on Women's Hour and by the Guardian or Feminism for Tories as its known in the blogosphere. The concept behind right-leaning feminism is that market forces, rather than state intervention, should form the basis of women seeking power, and that the inequality gap should be closed through economic means (a great definition can be found here and read more about the history of Tory feminism here).
This drive towards individualism is, as advertised, true blue to its very core. With poster girls like Louise Mensch, this philosophy is particularly suited to the current government, especially Cameron’s desire to recruit more female voters.
Women’s bodies and their regulation continue to be a political hot potato. The ongoing All Parties Parliamentary Group on Body Image was set up in May last year, initiated by Jo Swinson MP and the YMCA’s campaign for body confidence. The meetings are designed to raise awareness of some of the issues surrounding body image, and have seen speakers from the worlds of psychotherapy, fashion, and the media as well as the diet and cosmetic surgery industries.
Much as the campaign is non-gender-specific, the fact remains that while male cosmetic surgery patients are on the rise, and more men are dieting than before, these examples are still the minority; the industries in question remain targeted at women and reliant on female clientele to remain operational. The YMCA-commissioned research highlights the issues that MPs believe are at the core of the problem, from a lack of mandatory lessons addressing body image in secondary schools to more responsible advertising. While regulating the promotion of these industries as a consumer choice would be welcomed by many, the idea that women’s bodies can be regulated by law is thankfully becoming increasingly outmoded, as Nadine Dorries’ defeated abortion amendment shows.
Running uncomfortably alongside the murmur of these potential governmental initiatives is the question of the fetishisation of the 'real woman' in print media. The fashion industry is perpetually cited as a key propagator of negative body image due to practices such as retouching (a practice that is actually as old as photography itself, not a modern phenomenon) and the use of young and painfully skinny models. While these practices certainly don’t offer any solace in the quest for self-esteem, does the continual focus on the ‘real woman’ as the pariah of all that is good in the world really advance feminist causes?
The running debate in the media over what constitutes a 'real woman's’ body shape goes someway towards making the case for Tory Feminism that focuses on individualism and rejects group mentality. The kind of fashion and lifestyle journalism that advocates and discusses 'real' women essentially divides half the population of the world into just two types: bone-jutting-5'10"-16-year-old catwalk model, or other. Anything outside the fashion ideal is considered 'real' which denies the diversity and beauty of about 99.99% of the female population.
It seems short-sighted to suggest that centuries of inequality can be adjusted with no state intervention at all (subsidised childcare, anti-discrimination laws to name a few), but can be overturned instead by capitalist forces which, if left to run their course, will level out the (societally entrenched for centuries) economic imbalance. Women have had the vote for less than a century, and this is a strikingly short amount of time.
It seems unlikely that ongoing issues such as the pay gap and a dearth of women in power in public life can be remedied simply by unconstrained market forces running free, especially when Tory initiatives such as Universal Credit run the risk of encouraging women to leave their jobs by offering incentives for the ‘first earner’. The cuts are another contentious area; while free-market feminists claim they affect all areas of society equally, the Fawcett Society’s belief that women are being hit harder has seen it become one of their central campaign issues.
The personal is political has been a mantra of the feminist-left since Carol Hanisch's 1970 essay. This idea that inequality is systematic, a group rather than individual issue, is what the current crop of Tory Feminists find contemptible.
As Louise Mensch put it on Women's Hour, :
"Conservative Feminism rejects the idea that women are a special species. If women at the moment, because they are economically disempowered, are particularly dependent on the state, then sorting out the economy is women's number one issue."
While sorting out the economy is in everyone’s best interests, the drive towards entrepreneurialism that is being pushed as a means of overcoming inequality is simply not an attainable goal for every woman. Without state intervention in terms of funded childcare or child allowance, many low-income mothers can’t afford to pump time and money into start-ups and new business ventures.
As Louise Mensch continues to fly the Tory Feminist flag, she succeeds only in turning the concept of feminism into a party political issue and using it as a soapbox from which to advance Tory policies. Her shout-outs to the sisterhood (“got our backs”) ring hollow alongside her denial that Tory economic and welfare strategies can be harmful to women. Of course there will always be political differences within social movements. But Mensch (and other’s) decision to turn the entire idea of feminism into a polemic on behalf of Conservatism is political grandstanding at its worst.
Main image: Stylist magazine