Thirty years on, what is Thatcher’s legacy for women?

March 9, 2009 9:20 am

By Fiona MillarThatcher

This post was originally published on LabourList as part of International Women’s Day on March 9, 2009.

I graduated in the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, started my first job in her first term in office and had my first baby in her third. For part of the 1980s I worked on the political staff of the Daily Express, a paper that was engaged in an ongoing love affair with the Tory Cabinet so I got to see the then PM and her politics up close. She was forced out of office, a source of much celebration in our household, just as our elder son started nursery.

Appearing on the ITV show Loose Women last week, to discuss my new book about working mothers, I was asked about Thatcher’s legacy. It can be tricky to come up with quick sound bite answers that suit the format of a fast pace, live TV show, especially one which is watched by thousands of real women voters not just those in the political bubble.

However in this case there was no problem. True, Thatcher blazed a trail by becoming our first female PM, but in every other way she was a disaster for women. She broke the mould then boasted that ‘the battle for women’s rights had largely been won’. She denounced the idea of a generation of ‘crèche children’ to justify her government’s unwillingness to invest in the sort of affordable childcare needed b millions of ordinary working women who weren’t married to a millionaire, as she was.

By the end of the 1980s the UK was the poor relation in Europe when it came to maternity pay and leave. Many women were still discriminated against in the workplace and a dangerous legacy of her determination to smash the unions has been a lack of understanding among many young women today of the protection union membership can afford them.

Meanwhile she trumpeted her own particular style of working; shoulder pads at dawn, eighteen hours a day in the office, with three or four hours sleep a night, setting a standard that many other professional women felt they had to follow.

After she left office, more honest public and private, conversations started to take place, about whether women could really ‘have it all’, and also about the extent to which governments and employers can help men and women achieve a better work-life balance.

But it took a Labour government to act, to make radical improvements in maternity leave and pay, so that those vital early months in the relationship between mother and baby are protected, to champion the development of a national childcare strategy that is gradually supporting women back to work and to introduce the right to ask for flexible work, a right which next month will be extended to all parents of children up to 16.

But above all Thatcher’s long term legacy stems from her belief that there was ‘no such thing as society’. This mantra underpinned her willingness to destroy the lives of thousands of hard working families, and their communities, with her uncompromising policies. One only has to read the comments of her surviving diehard supporters today, twenty five years on from the miners’ strike, to remember the high social cost Thatcher and her ministers were prepared to pay to pay for their harsh free market policies.

Tragically many of the social problems we see today – the intergenerational transmission of poverty, the low aspirations, the high rates of teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency and anti-social behaviour – are concentrated in those same communities – worth remembering when you hear Cameron bleating on about a ‘broken Britain’. They have their roots in Thatcher’s willingness to break previously proud, working families. Women in particular paid a high price for that.

Latest

  • Featured Is Labour ready to appeal unashamedly to England?

    Is Labour ready to appeal unashamedly to England?

    Is Labour ready to appeal unashamedly to England? Whilst many party members feel (as I do) more British than English, that actually makes it more important to answer the question. Because whilst the Labour Party has in the past decade been more than comfortable in speaking directly to Scotland (something which is obviously in focus at the moment) and Wales (somewhere that is obviously under fire from the Tories at the moment), the same can’t be said about England. Sure, we’ve […]

    Read more →
  • News Why are the Lib Dems so shy?

    Why are the Lib Dems so shy?

    Regular readers will know that we’re always keeping an eye on Lib Dems leaflets. Their local propaganda sheets are always good for a questionable bar chart, or forgetting the name of the generic place their text is for – but they can also be quite shy about their party affiliation too. For example, take the “Islington Chronicle”. Sounds like a local paper, and there’s no Lib Dem logo and barely a splash of their trademark yellow. But it is, in […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Seats and Selections Have the Tories given up on Scotland?

    Have the Tories given up on Scotland?

    This morning we noted that the Tories haven’t selected candidates in nearly half of the most marginal Labour and Lib Dem seats. But what’s particularly telling is that in over 60% of target seats in the Midlands and the North they have so far failed to select a candidate, while the Independent claims that in Scotland there are no Tory parliamentary candidates at all. However, Mark Wallace over at ConHome notes that the Tories have in fact selected a total of two […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour go on UKIP offensive

    Labour go on UKIP offensive

    Labour have gone on the attack against UKIP, following the launch of their European election campaign over the weekend. Releasing a statement from Jon Ashworth, the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, the response focusses on how right-wing UKIP are - suggesting this change of tack is to designed to put Labour supporters off switching their vote to Farage’s party. Ashworth said: “UKIP would have us believe they stand for working people but the truth is very different – they’re even more right […]

    Read more →
  • News Seats and Selections Tories yet to select candidates in nearly half of marginals

    Tories yet to select candidates in nearly half of marginals

    Out of the 75 most marginal Labour and Lib Dem held seats, the Conservatives have selected only 41 candidates for the next election, according to the Independent. Labour, on the other hand, have selected candidates in all but two of their top 50 target seats: With only a year to go until the general election, this shortage seems to suggest the Tories are not expecting to gain many seats. By this stage in a parliament, a party hoping to make […]

    Read more →