Margaret Thatcher Didn’t Promote Other Women in Politics. So What?

Posted on April 18, 2013


Do powerful women owe other women a a seat at their table?  I don’t think so.

Lesley Abdela, a senior partner in Shevolution Consultancy, recently wrote an article for CNN lamenting the fact that Margaret Thatcher did little to change the male-dominated political landscape in Britain.  “Thatcher had such command over her Conservative Party that if she had chosen to do so she could have advanced large numbers of qualified women into public and political posts. She chose not to do so. It was a missed opportunity,” writes Abdela.

I find this an enormous turnoff.  Just because a minority person successfully attains a position of power does not, and should not, automatically mean that they hire or appoint more people like them to key positions.  Not even qualified ones.  As a responsible leader, the first order of business is to hire or appoint the best people for a job, not reasonably-qualified-people-like-me with some kind of agenda to diversify simply for diversity’s sake alone, or worse:  to create a staff or pool of employees who look and think just like me.

In my Army years, I was from time to time approached by other officers (both male and female) suggesting that I attend some women-oriented event, or that I contribute a speech or organize some function for Women’s History Month, join some on-post women’s group, and the like.  I found this offensive, frankly, and I did not participate.  I did not consider myself a “woman first,” as one of my colleagues once challenged me to do; I thought of myself as an Army officer first.  “I’m not a woman,” I responded.  “You’re not?” came the confused reply.  “No.  I’m an Army officer.  All you need to concern yourself with is my rank and my name tape.”   It was something I had earned, not simply been born to.  As it turned out, my attitude was much appreciated by my male colleagues, who sometimes felt like they had to constantly tiptoe around the gender issue.

Back to Ms. Abdela’s thoughts:

In fact, [Thatcher’s] main legacy for women was merely that she was a woman holding the position of prime minister for 11½ years…. During Thatcher’s tenure, I interviewed Sir Bernard Weatherill, speaker of the House of Commons, for a documentary I was working on. Weatherill told me an anecdote about his grandchildren, a boy and girl of around 8 and 11. The children were dressing up in the speaker’s robes, “playing Parliaments.” The speaker said he overheard his grandson say, “I’ll pretend to be prime minister.” His granddaughter retorted, “Don’t be silly, I’m going to be the prime minister — only women can be prime ministers!”

How can this be a complaint?  This is a huge legacy for women, a tremendous gift!  Why is it not enough that Thatcher proved that women were electable, that she proved herself competent and tough, that she led her country in wartime?  Thatcher had been active in politics since the 1950s, only being elected Prime Minister after holding other offices for fully twenty years.  She earned her way on her own merits, unlike so many other nations’ female heads of state, who are elected on the strength of their husbands’ or fathers’ political dynasties:  Gandhi, Kumaratunga, Zia, Hasina, Bhutto.  In essence, Thatcher clawed and hacked her way through the undergrowth, blazing a path that other women can choose to follow on their own two feet.   Why should anyone expect more than that?  Must she also carry us?

Part of leaving a legacy that other women or minorities can follow is making your tenure about leadership, strength and success, rather than about elevating others for the sake of giving them a charitable helping hand.  Voters, shareholders, board members or taxpayers want their interests looked out for.  If, every time a woman or minority comes to a position of power, a large part of their legacy is simply bringing other women or minorities into the fold, well… that’s what women and minority leaders will be known for.  Do I really want a Feminazi leader?  Do I want an Angry Black Man leader?  Do I want a La Raza leader?  No.  No, I do not.  I want a leader who will focus on the job at hand.

For everyone who complains that white men dominate this or that profession and how unfair it all is, and they should just hire the best-suited people – yes.  I agree.   And when you are in a hiring position, you should hire the best-suited people too, even if they’re white males.