By Fiona Millar
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.