A week ago, Saturday Night Live paid tribute to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who passed away earlier that week. The SNL sketch featured Fred Armisen as Ian Rubbish, a Johnny Rotten type, whose dislike for the British monarchy and government inspired punk-rock gems. However, as we learn in this “documentary,” when Margaret Thatcher came to power, Rubbish’s reaction left his band, the Bizzarros, and fans alike scratching their heads. Expecting Thatcher to be “Rubbished,” Rubbish instead did a 180 and wrote songs praising Thatcher. What in the world had come over Rubbish? Well we learn soon enough that his “love” for the Iron Lady developed because, wait for it, she reminds him of his mum. So there is no changing his mind. SNLs tribute reflects a myriad of responses to Thatcher’s death. Not surprisingly, the stormy reaction across Britain and Ireland over Baroness Thatcher’s death hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention. The decision to commemorate or celebrate her death in Northern Ireland in particular, was bound to produce a split in opinion. The relationship between Northern Ireland (and the Republic of Ireland for that matter) and Thatcher has always been tense. Recent revelations from former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson about Thatcher’s supposed mistrust of the Irish, and her equally naive and ridiculous Cromwellian solution to the “Troubles” (i.e. to simply move all the Catholics to the Republic) is just the latest in this deeply complicated relationship. Yet, the polarized responses to her death reflect not only her conservative policies that still influence British politics, but also reveal cultural norms and beliefs regarding gender and politics. Thatcher may have reminded Rubbish of his mum, but this reduced Thatcher to being a mum, not a politician, judged not for her (controversial) policies, but for her inability to fulfill feminine expectations.
Thatcher ruled as head of the British government for 11 years of the Northern Irish conflict; 11 years of leadership which brought about the criminalisation of republican and loyalist paramilitaries, the death of ten republican prisoners in the 1981 Hunger Strikes, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Numerous attempts by Republican organizations such as the INLA and the Provisional IRA to murder Thatcher are used to explain away her refusal to deal with Northern Ireland in any pro-active way until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a document she later admitted regret over signing. This Agreement, signed in 1985 and hated by some Unionists, revealed a significant change of policy – a commitment to recognizing the intricacies of the conflict and the need to include the Irish Republic in an effort that would drive policy towards the pursuit of peace.
Across the water, as discussed in Sandra Trudgen Dawson’s post, Thatcher’s unpopularity in certain areas of the United Kingdom stem from the miners’ strike in 1984-85, her mistreatment and reshuffling of the NHS, and the attempt to dismantle the Welfare State. To this end, sporadic street parties of celebration occurred all over the UK and Ireland following the announcement of her death. While the motives vary (the Hunger Strike for those in West Belfast, the Miners’ Strike for those in Midlothian), the campaign to celebrate the death of Thatcher has a gendered factor. There exists in some celebrations an attack of Thatcher as woman, rather than Thatcher as leader. Not that all of the celebrations have done this, but like the presidential elections in 2008, with the Hillary Clinton Nutcracker and Sarah Palin as dominatrix, there has been a tendency to reduce and objectify women in politics.
A campaign to bring The Wizard of Oz song, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” to No. 1 in the UK pop charts left the BBC in a tight spot, debating whether or not to play it. While the BBC was spared the decision when the song only rose to No. 2, the reluctance comes from the subtle suggestion that doing so would be calling a former Prime Minister a witch at best, and at worst a bitch. The song is as close as the British media will get to using the B-word for Thatcher while still being allowed on before the watershed. This kind of chauvinist naughtiness reveals just how titillated the British public can still get with a bit of sexism.
Even the much lauded Russell Brand Guardian article focused on Thatcher’s supposed flaw as a mother/matriarch figure, reading “for a national matriarch she is oddly unmaternal. I always felt a bit sorry for her biological children Mark and Carol, wondering from whom they would get their cuddles.” I will say this, he was right in saying in response to Obama’s statement that Thatcher had broken the glass ceiling, that this occurred “only in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards. She is an icon of individualism, not of feminism.” Thatcher’s refusal to define herself as a feminist is well documented, and distressing. Yet watching “Ding Dong” rise to the top of the charts, it’s not difficult to postulate as to why. I will not claim to understand her motives in eschewing feminism, but as Britain’s first (and to date only) female Prime Minister, the pressure to not be ‘the Feminist Prime Minister’ must have been intense. The very fact that the “Ding Dong” campaign exists proves the existence of a still extremely hostile environment for female politicians, past and present.
Like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, sexist rhetoric followed Margaret Thatcher throughout her career. As Jenny McCartney rightly points out, there exists a double standard placed on female politicians who carry out the same policies as their male counterparts, especially if it has to do with “women’s issues” (i.e. children, caring, etc.). For example, the “Thatcher the Milk-Snatcher” taunt followed her after the removal of free milk for children over the age of 7 in primary schools in 1971, when she served as Education Secretary. Very few declare Harold Wilson a “Milk-Snatcher,” despite his move to cut milk from children in secondary schools three years before Thatcher in 1968. McCartney called it: “but mothers are supposed to supply milk, not stop it.” Like Russell Brand said, she was oddly unmaternal (despite being a mother – the horror!) and that continues to be unacceptable from a female leader.
The extreme duality of hate and love over Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister fall within the Great Man theory of history. The simplistic idea that one individual was so powerful and integral to events, that they alone can be counted as directly responsible for certain actions and worthy of analysis with a degree of isolation. I would go so far as to say that while this is correct, what is different about this kind of historical analysis of Thatcher is that it is gendered. As Jenny McCartney suggested, similar actions by men in great power are rarely given the same credence, spectacle or investigation as Thatcher. Despite my shared personal objections to Thatcher’s actions as Prime Minister and the continued ideology of Thatcherism being carried on by the current Tory party, none of this excuses the sexist commentary her death has been subjected to.