Margaret Thatcher’s legacy for Jewish Women – JC 19th April 2013 by Laura

It is nearly forty years since Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of Britain, trailblazing the way for women, changing the rules and smashing the glass ceiling.  Whilst we don’t buy this for a moment, it is worth considering what this this formidable leader really did for women and in particular, what we as Jewish women can learn.

Currently, of 195 independent nations about 17 are led by women.  22% of MPs and 15% of seats on boards of FTSE top 100 companies are women.  In the Jewish world things are even worse with approximately 13% of top leadership roles being filled by women. What has gone wrong and why haven’t the expectations of Women’s Lib, bra burning Feminism and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, come through?

In 1970 Margaret Thatcher, MP for Finchley, was co-chair of the Women’s National Commission. Beyond that it is hard to find any evidence of Thatcher aligning herself with the women’s cause. “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers” was Thatcher’s view.

The number of women MPs rose from 27 to 43 in the Thatcher years but with the exception of Baroness Young, Thatcher appointed no women at all to cabinet roles and whilst her pool of choice was limited, the women who made it to MP were presumably determined and talented.  The issue of ‘positive discrimination’ is fraught.  Obviously we shouldn’t be promoting women (or anyone else) with lesser skills but where there is an equal choice, why not give the under represented group a voice to share a different perspective?

By all accounts Margaret Thatcher had an adoring and supportive husband.  We laugh about Denis and belittle him for appearing subservient but, as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook asserts in her inspirational book, Leaning In, “I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position, whose partner is not fully, and I mean fully, supportive oh her career. No exceptions”.  In the Jewish world our expectations of women at home are unforgiving. Jo Wagerman, the only woman President of the Board of Deputies, knew that she was the sole Honorary Officer rushing home at the end of a week of Jewish politics to cook the Friday night chicken. We have a deeply held expectation that our women should carry the domestic load. American research shows that when a husband and wife are employed full time, the mother does 40% more childcare and 30% more housework. How much more so in Jewish homes? “Its not about biology,” says Gloria Steinman, “it’s about consciousness”.

There were occasions where Mrs Thatcher used her gender to further her cause.  In her famous speech of 1976 she turned the tables on her critics: “I stand before you tonight in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my fair hair gently waved. The Iron Lady of the Western World? Me?” But who could blame her?

Mrs Thatcher did not have it all easy. She was pilloried in a manner wholly reserved for women.  “Attila the hen” (Clement Freud), “Shrill and hectoring” (Peter Mandelson), “What does she want, this housewife, my balls on a tray?” (President Chirac) and “She is a bitch, she is tough, she lacks scope and cannot lead” (Chancellor Schmidt).  The term ‘hand-bagging’, whilst superbly descriptive, stayed with Mrs Thatcher for life.  Today, such sexism is toned down but how many times have I heard women in Jewish organisations labeled “hysterical” or “overly emotional” or indeed, heard derogatory comments made about their hair,  clothes or even their hat.  This sort of behavior is too often tolerated nearly half a century after Mrs Thatcher fought her way  to the top.

Mrs Thatcher was a role mode, but not a campaigner. She showed that a sufficiently determined and talented woman could get to the top though, disappointingly, she abdicated responsibility for the women following behind. Disturbingly, many of the barriers she faced still exist, multiplied in the Jewish world. As we set up Women in Jewish Leadership to implement change, with the support of the Board and the Jewish Leadership Council, we invite men and women to join us. We must now be active in demanding variety and diversity in our leaders for, as Mrs Thatcher recognized in 1979,  “The women of this country have never had a prime minister who knew the things they know. And the things that we know are very different from what men know.”