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Column: Thatcher Advanced Feminism by Doing Rather Than Talking

Feminism has long been associated with talk: combative rhetoric about equal rights, academic analysis of whether men and women are the same or whether women are actually better, that moldy debate over whether it’s possible for women to “have it all,” both career and family. Many a feminist like Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan, and more recently Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter, has made her mark through writing about gender issues — sometimes to considerable cultural effect, but still more talk. Connotatively, a “feminist” has a chip on her shoulder the size of a two-by-four, never shuts up about “empowerment,” is eternally on the look out for sexist slights, and never considers the possibility that other people might deny her a job or dismiss her opinions because she is personally insufferable. The movement has often obsessed with language, leaving a legacy of awkward “him/her” constructions or faddish but equally sexist Bibles whose God is a “she.” Given the humorless blah-blah-blah the term feminist evokes, it’s little wonder that many young women today avoid the label.

Margaret Thatcher was a real feminist. Not for what she said but for what she did. She did not pursue justice for her gender; women’s rights per se was clearly a low priority for her. She was out for herself and for what she believed in. If we had more feminists like Thatcher, we’d have vastly more women in Parliament and the U.S. Senate, as well as more trees and fewer tedious television talk shows. More “feminists” like Thatcher, the first woman to lead a major Western democracy, and young women would be clamoring to be called one, too.

I moved to Belfast in 1987, when Thatcher was beginning her third term as prime minister, and in retrospect I’m gratified to have experienced at least a portion of her premiership. In Northern Ireland, no name evoked more unqualified loathing than Thatcher’s, particularly among pro-IRA republicans. I instinctively admired anyone who could weather that intensity of antipathy.

Thatcher was never about being liked. Indeed, in a 2011 Reuters/Ipsos MORI Political Monitor poll about prime ministers of the last 30 years, Britons rated Tony Blair significantly higher in “likability” than Margaret Thatcher. But in the same poll, she topped the charts in “capability.” Thatcher herself must surely have treasured that poll. She always courted less affection than respect, which even many of her detractors begrudgingly accorded her. She wasn’t nice. She was formidable.

In Belfast, I rapidly grew to appreciate the ferocity with which Thatcher stood up to thugs in the IRA — and of course an organization that tries to kill you and successfully kills your friends and colleagues has hardly ingratiated itself. Her will was particularly tested during the 1981 hunger strikes, during which 10 republican prisoners starved to death in an effort to win privileges that, poignantly, would be accorded all Northern Irish prisoners in due course. Yet in principle, she would not capitulate to emotive, manipulative pressure tactics, even when the specter of hollowed cheeks and sallow skin made her appear heartless.

Nevertheless, she helped to author the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, ultimately paving the way for Tony Blair’s Belfast Agreement of 1998, which to a large degree brought the gruesome “troubles” to a close. My personal view is that in allowing the Republic of Ireland to have even a toehold say in the governance of the North was a fatal concession, but I am by nature even more inflexible and hidebound by principle than Thatcher, which is why I should never be elected to public office. Thatcher, by contrast, had a pragmatic side and was capable of compromise that she viewed to be in the larger interest of her country.

Thatcher consistently defied gender stereotypes. A woman’s prerogative may be to change her mind, but Thatcher was decisive; her defense of British territorial interests when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 was unequivocal, and helped to restore waning British self-regard. The Iron Lady was anything but sentimental, as evidenced by her refusal to be moved by the miners’ strike of 1984-85 (the breaking of which the British left has never forgiven her for). Though women ostensibly seek harmony, she never shied from conflict, which is why a string of powerful ministers in her Cabinets were driven to resign. From her first assumption of the leadership of the Conservative Party, no one ever had the nerve to call her weak.

As she confounded the expectation that a female political leader would err on the side of softness, accommodation and dithering, Thatcher also upended the traditional power structure of marriage. Modest and retiring, Dennis Thatcher sat cheerfully in the backseat while his wife drove the car — and the country. Yet Maggie and Dennis were by all accounts happy together, and therefore writ large a new domestic model: If one of you has to be the boss, it can just as easily be the wife.

Nevertheless, Thatcher’s personal style was unapologetically feminine. Her twin sets, bouffant hairdo, quiet but meticulous make-up and ubiquitous handbag are still internationally iconic.

Without a doubt, Thatcher wanted to live in a world in which girls were so unfettered that they could grow up to become prime ministers. But that’s because she was ambitious on her own account and keen to advance an agenda quite apart from feminism as an ideology. She believed fiercely that confiscatory tax policies impede both personal enterprise and economic growth. (The top income tax rate when she took office was 83 percent; with a 15 percent surcharge on investment and dividend income, this could add up to a marginal tax rate of 98 percent.) She had more faith in the private sector than in bloated government bureaucracy. She was loath to allow labor unions to hold government hostage. She advocated a muscular foreign policy and despised anti-democratic factions that bullied government and citizenry alike with car bombs and assassinations.

Reluctant as her critics are to admit it, Thatcher inherited a depressed, stagnant, grumpy nation forever mooning nostalgically for the good old days of World War II when Britain was important. She revitalized the U.K. into a vibrant, functional country with a renewed sense of pride from which it continues to benefit (if to a lesser degree today, alas). Drawing international respect, Thatcher restored her country’s self-respect.

As for her effect on gender politics, in that Reuters poll more men (40 percent) than women (32 percent) rated her the United Kingdom’s “most capable” prime minister of the last three decades, and one can only hope that this admiration gently bolsters male estimation of women in general. Whether or not subsequent generations embrace the specifics of her worldview, Margaret Thatcher’s forceful leadership continues to inspire young women to act on their own convictions, and to eschew the rhetoric of feminism for its embodiment.

Lionel Shriver’s 11th novel, Big Brother, about obesity, will be published in June.