For a movement that concerns every single person on the planet, it is surprising that nobody seems to have really agreed on what it means to be a feminist. I have always noticed how often debates about feminist ideas devolve into disagreements about the movement’s very definition. Is it about equality, or fairness? Do they mean the same thing? Are men welcome in the discussion? What does ‘empowerment’ actually mean? Finally, and perhaps the most frequent: can you be a feminist and still do X, Y or Z? My response has always been to try to simplify the definition of ‘feminist’- if it is a simple, uncomplicated ideological belief, then everyone can uncontroversially call themselves feminists if they hold that belief, even if they aren’t going to become activists or outspoken critics of the patriarchy.
For this reason, I have always called myself a feminist, and have defined this as simply holding the ideological belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. I have thrown this catch-all definition at boys who have told me they are not feminists because they believe in ‘equality’ and so have no need of a concept which ‘only advances women’s rights’, and girls who have worried that particular actions weren’t feminist enough, or even contradicted their feminist beliefs. I wanted ‘feminist’ and ‘sexist’ to be mutually exclusive terms, because it made everything so much simpler.
But recently, I have changed my mind. I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union about whether or not Margaret Thatcher was a feminist, and on going in, I voted ‘yes’ in the pre-vote without any hesitation. Thatcher believed she should have as good a chance as any qualified man to be Prime Minister, therefore, surely, she was a feminist. Maybe her policies weren’t overtly or explicitly feminist, maybe she never used that word to describe herself, but she believed in equality, so she must have been a feminist. But by the time I left the chamber at the end of the debate, I had been swayed in my opinion.
Margaret Thatcher may well have believed in equality of the sexes, yes, but her policies, as I learned, affected women disproportionately and almost completely disregarded the disadvantages they already faced in society at the time. She was dismissive of the issue of expensive childcare which often prohibited women from working full time, advising them to find a relative who would be able to watch their children whilst they worked, and remained stubbornly oblivious to how impossible this was for many. She experienced first hand the male-dominated world of Westminster yet was silent about ways to make it more accessible, promoting only one woman into her cabinet during her time in office. She heavily implied a moral obligation on women to remain at home, unemployed, whilst their children grew up, and many of her economic policies have been shown to have affected women living in poverty far more than their male counterparts, because they failed to take into account the level of financial dependency these women frequently experienced.
A belief in equality is obviously a necessary part of being a feminist. This is why the argument in defence of Thatcher, claiming that she must have been a feminist because she inspired many women, will not work. She demonstrated that women may rise to the highest spheres of power in this country, and that was hugely significant and inspiring to women. But it would have been perfectly possible for a fiercely individualistic woman who did not believe in equality to do this, and so the simple fact that a woman emboldens others cannot be proof of her feminism.
Margaret Thatcher presumably did believe in equality of the sexes. But despite the necessity of such a belief to feminism, it becomes meaningless when the believer has the opportunity to act on it, and chooses not to. The level of opportunity people have to act on their belief depends on how much power they have, and as prime minister, Thatcher arguably had more opportunity than any other person to make significant changes to the lives of women while she was in office. Her failure to do so means that her policies did not reflect her beliefs, and is therefore incompatible with the idea that she was a feminist.
This is why men and women in power who identify as feminists cannot escape from their responsibility to advocate and advance women’s rights and issues. A person working for minimum wage who has not had the opportunity to read feminist literature, who has no time to attend marches and protests, and who does not know how to challenge gender norms effectively, is still a feminist even if all they have is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. But for someone who has had a high-quality education, who has the social and economic opportunity to effect change, or who has legitimate political power, this is not enough.
These people have an obligation to look beyond surface level equality and try to understand how entrenched patriarchal structures mean that women are affected by certain policies in different, perhaps not immediately obvious, ways and to different extents based on factors such as race, sexual orientation and class. They have an obligation to see that just because they have not experienced disadvantage related to a particular issue, this does not mean that it is not a legitimate feminist concern. Margaret Thatcher was one of these people, and she did not do any of these things.
Inspiring others is not proof of feminism, and a feminist woman does not even have to inspire any other women. I don’t think she has to look a certain way, and I don’t think she has to either challenge or uphold any exterior model of a ‘good’ feminist. But I do think that she has to make use of opportunities which she has to act on her feminist beliefs, even whilst acknowledging that not all feminists have such opportunities. If someone does not practice what they preach when given the chance, their sermon ultimately has no significance.
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