Women should not lament the loss of the Iron Lady
The endless media loop recording tributes and opprobrium in equal measure on the death of Margaret Thatcher has thrown up few surprises. Except for the number of women, high-profile and ordinary, remarking, often tearfully and proudly on her role as the UK’s first, and to date, only, woman to occupy the highest political office. This I find astonishing, given how frequently harmful her policies and ideological convictions were to women.
We’ll leave aside the impact of her systematic dismantling of key industries on communities all across Scotland and the UK. Women, directly and indirectly, paid a high price for the unemployment created in the 80s. And while many engendered a renewed resilience in facing a common foe and in standing with their menfolk on picket lines, the havoc wreaked resulted in absolute poverty, homelessness and hunger. I remember giving over my pocket-money regularly to appeals for various communities enduring real hardship and hunger as a result of her economic policies.
But a glance at specific measures and indicators show how well the Iron Lady pulled the ladder up behind her: her becoming Prime Minister might have been expected to herald a rush of women entering parliament but far from it. When she came to power, there were only 19 female MPs and by the time she resigned, that number had increased to only 41. Worse, no women were promoted under her premiership to a full Cabinet role and only a handful were deemed worthy of a Ministerial portfolio.
She presided over the dismantling of the wages councils: somewhat ironically, these had been established in 1909 by one of her political heroes, Winston Churchill. And while some argue that the councils’ role in establishing minimum rates of pay and holiday entitlement for a wide range of trades artificially suppressed earnings, there is no doubt that they provided protection for workers in sectors where women often predominated, such as hairdressing, retailing and clothing manufacture. Her antipathy was driven by ideology, believing that market forces should determine what employers might pay their workers.
The fight to win equal pay also stalled under Thatcher. In 1979, the gap in full time hourly earnings was 28.7% – by 1990, it had reduced by just over 5%. But the gap in part time earnings actually widened. Moreover, on her watch, the concept of equal value was added to the legislation, adding to the test which had to be satisfied. While this has undoubtedly helped many women in recent years receive the same salary as colleagues, it is worth noting that it took until 1988 for the first equal value case to be won by a woman, after ten years of fighting through tribunals and the courts. In the early days, it stymied women’s rightful ambitions to earn the same as men – as Thatcher’s government intended.
Thatcher also did little to further women’s maternity rights. While Iraqi women were entitled to full pay on maternity leave from the 1970s and enjoyed extensive workplace nursery benefits, in Thatcher’s Britain, women had very little rights. Employers could allow as little maternity leave as they liked, with entitlement linked to length of service and workplace nurseries were treated as a taxable benefit, deducted from earnings. In 1987, the universal maternity grant was abolished, state paid maternity allowance was restricted and a woman lost a landmark case against her employer which singled her out for redundancy because she was pregnant.
Women might have been entitled to expect that a female Prime Minister might have resulted in gains for women economically, socially and in public life. But the opposite was true. So many of her policies either hurt women directly or disdainfully treated them as collateral damage. This lady did little for the lot of women in the UK despite having the power to improve our lives in so many ways. We have little to lament on her passing.