Margaret Thatcher: Prime minister v mother

margaret thatcher and familyMargaret Thatcher’s legacy is being hotly debated in the wake of her death. Some people are singing her praises, others are singing Ding dong the witch is dead.

We’ll be talking for some time about how she transformed the UK. Part of that analysis already is not political but personal: How successful was she as a mother?

It’s said she occasionally called her daughter by her assistants’ names. Her children slept in the nanny’s room and went to boarding school. She never attended a single sports day.

Perhaps that’s a function of the changing times (flash to those news stories about Cameron and Clegg as involved dads). We tend to look back with our current set of values and judge the past (missing a child’s sporting event? Impossible!). It’s standard to examine “the real person” behind the controversial public figure. Yet criticizing Thatcher the Mother is, when you think about it, a strange way for critics to stick the knife in. Not only was she a divisive political figure, they seem to be saying, but she failed at home as well!

How different Thatcher was from the vision we have today of the highflying working woman or politician. We’ve all read the profiles of these high-powered women: they rise before dawn, exercise and email before breakfast, work like demons all day but always make it home for dinner or bedtime stories. Then it’s back to the computer until bedtime. It’s agreed and accepted that children are a top priority, shoehorned in between work, work and more work.

When I read these stories I think “I could keep that up for a week or two, but I couldn’t live that way permanently”.  When is the time for thoughtful repose? Time to spend with husband or lover? Time to call your mother or watch Mad Men?

In that way, I actually take comfort in the stories about Thatcher’s aloof parenting and shortcomings at home. It acknowledges a truth that we don’t like to admit to ourselves: there is only so much of us to go around. Of course women and mothers can get to the “top”, whether that’s in the political, corporate or creative world, all other things being equal. Of course all other things aren’t equal, but that’s a whole other story. But something’s got to give. You can’t be everywhere at once. You can’t create more hours in the day.

She was a remarkable prime minister, and remade the UK at a pivotal time in its history. Despite the divisions she caused in the UK – many of which are still abundantly apparent almost a quarter of a century after her resignation – she was widely respected overseas. In the UK, the mother stick is still used to beat her.

Perhaps Thatcher was just pragmatic enough to recognize that if you’re busting the unions, engaging in a war in the Falklands, and dismantling the welfare state, it doesn’t leave much time for reading bedtime stories every night. Perhaps she was simply a product of her generation, when leaving all the childrearing to nannies and boarding schools was perfectly acceptable.

Women and men both make sacrifices for fulfilling high profile, responsibility-laden roles. We’re in the process of examining how our institutions should accommodate family life. But let’s stop pretending that all you need to be the perfect politician, CEO, innovator, spouse and parent is a bit of grit and an alarm clock set to go off at 4am.

By all means, let’s debate the effect of Thatcher’s leadership. But I’d rather talk about what she did as a prime minister than as a mother.

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About Jennifer Howze

Jennifer Howze is the Creative Director and co-founder of BritMums. She blogs about family travel at Jenography.net, tweets at @JHowze and Instagrams at @JHowze. Previously, she wrote the Alpha Mummy blog at The Times and as a journalist has contributed to The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Budget Travel, CNN.com, Allure, SELF and Premiere, among others. She won The Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for a health article in Seventeen magazine.

20 Comments

  1. 11 April 2013 / 12:18

    Love your balanced perspective Jen. Really interesting how she is regarded on the International Stage in a more positive, uniform way. As a Scot, I find it very difficult to be sanguine about her as her policies decimated lots of areas. I just remember lots of stressed, anxious, unemployed people – bit like now really. The upside is that she paved the way for doing “it your way” and there are now lots of prominent, inspiring women like Shami Chakrabarti and Camila Batmanghelidjh working for positive change.

    I can’t wait to hear Historian’s take on her contribution in years to come re: legacy.

    • 11 April 2013 / 15:57

      Jacqueline, thanks for your comment.

      There’s been so much analysis on Thatcher and feminism. It seems to me she definitely wasn’t one, although she benefitted from it and paved the way for high achieving women who came after her, even if she wasn’t interested in raising up women or “fighting the cause”.

  2. 11 April 2013 / 16:10

    Great post. Thought-provoking.

    You’re right. We do judge the past through the spectacles of today. There were plenty of wealthy women in generations gone by who had very little to do with their children. They had servants and nannies, and spent a brief few minutes with the children before their bedtime. They would judge Margaret Thatcher’s approach to her children very differently to how we do, as you say.

    I agree totally with your last point. No-one would be talking about how Harold Wilson or Tony Blair did as a father. It would all be about their legacy as a Prime Minister. It’s a shame we still feel that a woman has to justify herself as a mother too. And maybe as a mother first.

    • 11 April 2013 / 18:02

      You’re so right that in a way Thatcher is judged as a mother as a top line item.

  3. 11 April 2013 / 17:22

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thatcher divides views possibly like no other politician. However, as you say, we wouldn’t be having a debate over the parenting skills of a male former prime minister.

    • 11 April 2013 / 18:03

      Sarah, I’ve been really surprised at how heated the discussions and analysis has been!

  4. 12 April 2013 / 18:02

    Well said. Two things though – first (and the obvious one) is that there were many, many PMs before her who never spent much time with their children and that was never an issue. Nor is it now, come to that, although they are keen to let us see them being “normal” fathers.
    The second is that, I know a lot of female high-flyers and, of the ones who are corporate client focused, (rather than entrepreneurs with some flexibility) they really aren’t able to do all the mom things. Many women I know regularly miss their children’s bed times, and are rarely able to come to school for anything in the middle of the day. Despite the chat, it hasn’t really changed all that much in some quarters.

  5. 12 April 2013 / 18:50

    Well said Jennifer! Good to read a balanced piece about the Iron Lady. Even though I hated her policies at the time, I can see now that she had to make some very tough decisions. We should judge her as a politician, not a mother or a ‘feminist’. And as a politician who was honest, passionate and followed through on her convictions in a world that was dominated by men, she has much to teach us.

    It’s testament to her impact that she has attracted so much heated debate now.

  6. Bilbo
    13 April 2013 / 13:50

    Surely you have to take into account that her daughter was sacked from the BBC for making racist comments, and her son was convicted of trying to organise a coup in Equatorial Guinea. Is this the product of bad parenting, or would they have been that way anyway? The Mark Thatcher episode is particularly unpleasant. Carol Thatcher may just be a moron, or she may be deeply racist, we’ll never know. Mark Thatcher, on the other hand, was willing to play with many people’s lives to make a few quid. Much like…

  7. 13 April 2013 / 18:47

    Many people forget just what a mess we were in in the late 1970s. We went cap in hand to the IMF for a bail out the equivalent size of Greece -$4 billion. We were the “sick man of Europe” and Thatcherism turned that round, transforming us into a country with a surplus rather than an national deficit, a strong player on the international scene and a respected nation. At that point in time, (1979) just like during wartime we needed a Prime Minister who could focus on the Bigger Picture, a strong leader with a vision, a “Conviction Politician” not a “Convenience” politician. Yes the gap between rich and poor became greater and yes that needed redress BUT you actually need more money in the economy for anyone to be better off and we were circling the sinkhole. http://musingssahm.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/maggie-thatcher-rip.html

  8. 13 April 2013 / 18:48

    I also believe, as someone who probably has Asperger’s and with a son who is also AS that Thatcher was on the spectrum, and it shows just how successful someone with Autism can be, and how driven we are.

  9. 15 April 2013 / 21:31

    I wonder if we have ever seen this type of split or division over a man who has had to make difficult decisions in politics or as a working parent, it makes me angry the comments about her as a mother. I am a working Mum (part-time) and it is rubbish, I feel so much guilt over my children leaving them in the day and sometimes missing events at school and nursery but financially I also have to work or we would be in poverty, I can only do that by gritting my teeth and getting on with it, it only shows me how we have not come far enough for women to be respected as people and individuals, wife and mother is still much weightier than father and husband, somehow equality has not quite reached parenting in eyes of the media or the world of politics.

  10. 16 April 2013 / 09:19

    The Mother Stick is the least of the things they’re using to beat her. Just talk to anyone Northern and over 40, I doubt they’ll give two figs on whether she was a good mother or not!

  11. 16 April 2013 / 19:49

    Thought provoking, Jennifer.

    I am northern and have to confess i have absolutely no interest in talking about her as a mother. I don’t care about the effects of her work on her family, I just care about the effect of her work on families and mothers around the country.

    Whether we like it or not there is a fight going on about what her legacy will be. Some want her recognised as the saviour of Britain, others the ruin of it.

    Coming from the north and being a long time Liverpool fan in the week that saw the 24th anniversary of Hillsborough, I know which side I think should win out.

    When you take that top job you should be judged on your political and associated moral actions, nothing else. And regardless of where the political pendulum settles, I don’t think social history will judge her kindly.

    • 16 April 2013 / 20:13

      Struggling to see how taking an economy on the verge of bankruptcy & requiring an international bail out, where unions prevented any meaningful work happening so GDP was pathetically low and no one had any prospects of economic improvement, either top or bottom of society, when we were written off by the rest of the world and turning the economy around so her government left a £20 billion surplus in 1997 and an international market which was thriving with us as a key player is not a good legacy???
      Sure, that wealth could have been distributed more fairly , she could have been more conservative with a small “c” and played it safe, but desperate times require radical measures. She did save our economy – some did better than others out of it. Don’t confuse that with a negative legacy. She didn’t look at individuals but she couldn’t have saved the Bigger Picture if she had.

      You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity. You have to create wealth (is the country’s economy has to grow) for ANYONE to get anymore money as the government doesn’t magic money out of thin air, it comes from taxpayers – more tax only comes from wealth creation. Basic economics. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!

      The title of this thread is actually misleading. Her political career only really took off after her children had begun to grow up, I admire her for juggling work and family, it’s a tough call.

  12. 17 April 2013 / 08:42

    Basic trickle-down economics, you mean.

    It never works.

    And society becomes all the poorer and more unhappy for the increase in inequality. there are economic studies indexing that too.

  13. 17 April 2013 / 09:00

    I had better qualify that “it never works”.

    Sure, she improved the lot of the economy when it was in a disastrous shape, and she was a good person to do that. Much of the extreme policies that will set her legacy occurred into her second and third terms.

    There was no need for her to deliberately pursue a policiy of unemployment, simply to crack the unions. They did need reforming, and Scargill didn’t help the miners case on occasion, but planning the stockpiling, changing the laws around strike and welfare claims, changing the laws around ballots, possibly even bringing in the use of military posing as the police if you believe some historical accounts. It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t right. If you want to end whole industries then you must create employment where those industries have died. You cannot leave whole mining communities in Wales, the Midlands, the North on the scrapheap. That’s what she did. She created mass unemployment and didn’t replace it. If you want to see her legacy then have a look round some of those towns that have never recovered from it. It is also not good policy to sell off all the council houses if you are again not going to replace them. Great for those buying their homes, no one could argue with it, but not so great for those who need social housing after to find none available.

    No one is arguing she didn’t do some good, especially in regards to foreign policy (the rebate, for instance) and standing up to Ronald Regan when needed is something politicians today could learn from, but when you leave the country socially poorer than you found it through fostering greed, inequality and the individual over society, then I would argue that results in a highly negative legacy.

  14. 17 April 2013 / 09:30

    No I don’t mean basic trickle down economics… it’s more fundamental than that. A bankrupt country cannot pay its workforce – look at Greece. The police, the NHS, teachers, all public sector workers who (and this is the huge irony!) were striking for better pay and conditions were striking themselves out of work, and pushing the economy to the brink. We had yet to recover from post WW2 bankruptcy and as I said, desperate times (and believe me, they were) require radical measures. Reform on that scale takes time, and teamwork. The former was in progress, I disagree that most happened in the 2nd and 3rd terms, and Major then Blair in many ways continued what she started. I don’t disagree about the mining communities – the same has happened in the European countries requiring bailouts, it’s unfortunately a natural progression, you cannot fix everything at once. On the latter, that was her downfall towards the end, her inability to play for the team.

    But you cannot judge a legacy mid term, it’s much much later, and despite the current recession we are still a strong international power, and a much wealthier country, and the past 30+ years have resulted in a socially richer country for everyone.

  15. 17 April 2013 / 09:32

    And also – as a woman she had to be even MORE than a male equivalent, women are judged so much more harshly and across a broader spectrum. She was the longest serving PM of the 20th Century, and is up there with Gladstone and Disraeli, Palmerston and the political giants of the 19th Century in that respect. She was elected three times running despite electoral reform, AND was a wife and mother. Amazing IMO and I wish I could be there in London today.

  16. christine
    30 December 2013 / 20:28

    I had a mother who preferred to be at work. I have 3 sisters and we loved our dad who found time for us. My mum was lonely and alone when my dad died. As we did not know our mum and she did not know us…I thought our housekeeper was my my mum…we felt no bond. You reap what you sew. I feel an affinity with Carol. This is sad but true.