The most powerful woman of the twentieth century died this week, and she left a trail of ideological disarray behind her. Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, by all accounts asserted her equality with the men around her, but her methods emphatically were not those of “women’s libbers,” as she derisively called them. Thatcher famously claimed that she owed nothing to modern feminism. This clash of a female politician with woman’s rights advocates makes clear that in Western thought, there are two distinct strands of feminism.
Feminism in its roots is a doctrine of equality between men and women. The early feminist movement led to female suffrage, property and contract rights for women and reduced misogynistic violence. Today, the equality of women and men is mostly accepted in the West, at least in our minds and laws. With very few exceptions, it is now legal (while admittedly not always easy) for a woman to do the same things it is legal for a man to do.
If this is feminism, then Thatcher was a feminist. She stepped over the deep-rooted masculine wall of the Conservatives to win their leadership, and strode confidently into place as the most powerful person in Britain. She was not ashamed to have power, or to love it. If there was any question as to whether she believed in equality, it was at the expense of men, whom she sometimes belittled as indecisive and weak.
But Thatcher was not a feminist–not in the modern sense. By the time she broke the glass ceiling, the movement had moved on. They didn’t want her, and she didn’t want them. In fact, with the notable exceptions of Hillary Clinton and arguably Julia Gillard, most women politicians are disliked by feminists, despite their achievements. If the treatment of recent prominent female politicians in the US is any indication, modern feminists aren’t fighting so much for the advancement of women as they are for the advancement of modern feminist ideology.
Rather than promoting successful women, feminism today seems to revolve around grievances. In the semantic game of academic feminism it is a victory enough to identify an errant insensitive word by a non-feminist, that could in isolation offend someone, or perhaps worse, suggest that men and women are not the same creatures. In the striving for indiscriminateness that characterizes the left, feminism threatens to scrape away womanhood from women, reducing gender to a variable in the imagined equations of identity politics.
In an article for the National Post, writer Barbara Kay recently promoted a kind of “family feminism,” the kind of feminism she believes impelled women’s rights activists like Hannah More and Frances Willard in prior centuries, where feminism has its roots. While later feminists would argue for a normless female identity independent of gender roles, these women believed that womanhood was not fully expressed when stripped of its familial context. Unfortunately, the feminist movement has turned against this sort of feminism, accusing modern “family feminists” of blithely upholding traditional gender roles and patriarchy.
But perhaps family feminism has a place in the movement. In her article, Kay notes, “More than 70% of American women today reject the “feminist” label, partly because, in Hof Summers’ words, “they don’t want to be liberated from their womanhood.”” Perhaps this quiet majority of women embraces the classical feminism of the suffragettes, the feminism that does not make excuses or accusations, the feminism that promotes women in order to strengthen the families and societies of which they are a part.