Can Feminists Love Thatcher?

AS a cover girl, Margaret Thatcher hardly compares to Elle McPherson. Nonetheless, the former British prime minister's face graces the covers of most of the news magazines this week, and she has been on the front page of most of the major newspapers since her battle for the leadership of the Conservative Party began last week.

Headlines such as Time's "The Iron Lady Bows Out" are not particularly kind, but underneath the cliches of Thatcher's tough image, public opinion has been a little gentler. Thatcher received praise from almost every corner--from Ronald Reagan to even Neil Kinnock, the leader of the rival Labour Party.

The London Times devoted almost two complete issues to detailing her successes. But among the upportive editorials, the lists of achievements and the fond recollections of her colleagues were several editorials by women criticizing Thatcher for not being enough of a feminist--or anything of a feminist.

"FOR women in search of role models," Valerie Grove wrote in The Times on the day Thatcher resigned, "the first woman prime minister proved a contradiction: so impressive, but so very unlike what most women would like to be--loved and happy. A hard act to follow, and harder still to emulate."

Another woman columnist wrote, "She gave them what had been offered by the men before her--the opportunity not to emulate but to admire."

These critics are angry because they don't think that Margaret Thatcher offered women anything as a feminist role model when she should have. They argued that Thatcher, in her refusal to carry the mantle of the feminist movement and her cultivation of macho image, imitated the worst in men.

The feminist criticisms are contradictions in themselves. The perfect role model for these women would have been a woman prime minister who was a working mother, but who never left her children with a babysitter. They also wanted a politician who played the game of English politics the same as a man, but who also constantly promoted her femininity.

Thatcher disappointed feminists because they asked too much of her. She was a working mother from the beginning. Immediately after Thatcher gave birth to twins, she filled out applications to take the British bar examination. Critics called her cold-hearted for starting work right away and for not spending enough time with her family. But if the kitchen at 10 Downing St. comes with chefs, why shouldn't Thatcher get to make as much use of them as Churchill did?

Thatcher's sacrifices were justified in the long run. She held the sixth-longest term as prime minister in British history, proving that she did very well at the political game. When she did very well at the political game. When she resigned, the men around her cried, and world leaders praised her--some saying she was "the greatest peacetime prime minister in this century."

Yet feminists are still angry that Margaret Thatcher did not do enough for her gender. They wanted her to constantly remind the world that she is a woman. But the contradiction in this demand is that constantly referring to gender differences defeats the purpose of striving for equality. Thatcher was successful as a leader without having to make an issue of her gender.

Thatcher got people to respond to her on a professional level, both negatively and positively, without constant reference to her gender. She got the respect of her peers in Parliament, both male and female, for the tasks that she accomplished--not as a woman, but as a leader. This is much more praiseworthy and a much bigger boost for equality than if Thatcher had been a militant feminist while in office.

The ostensible goal of rights movements is a color-blind, gender-blind society. Activists are supposed to raise awareness of discrimination until the discrimination is fixed--and then the playing field is supposed to be level. Even though the playing field is still tilted against women, Margaret Thatcher proved that sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.

That is something worth admiring.