As an American child born in 1978, I recognize that I was not personally impacted by the “Iron Lady’s” apparently cold personality and extremely conservative views and agenda. I cannot identify with the vindication presently experienced by the “Battle of Orgreave” miners, a group who appear to have ample reason to wish ill upon Thatcher’s soul. While I feel a certain level of repugnance toward a group of men who have adopted the slogan, “I enjoy a good swim. But if someone asked me what my favourite stroke was I’d say Maggie Thatcher’s,” I understand that I haven’t walked a mile in their shoes. I wasn’t there when Thatcher’s anti-union reactionarism all but decimated a number of English working-class towns, and the livelihoods that went with them.
I know that in my own country, I have borne witness to the rise and reign of Reagan conservatism, a phenomenon that has stratified personal wealth, creating a seemingly permanent underclass of hard-working, law-abiding citizens even as corporate criminals and the top one percent have reaped exponentially larger profit margins. I know that when my parents came of age, the words “homelessness,” “AIDS” and “crack” were not part of the national lexicon and that in numerous ways, the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush only worsened a number of these social crises. I am aware that Thatcher and Reagan enjoyed an intensely warm relationship and I can only infer from anecdotal evidence that the Average Joe has much to lament from this historical meeting of the minds.
But I am also a woman. And I can tell you from personal experience that when it comes to discussing Thatcher’s legacy, that’s a tough space to occupy.
As an impressionable grade school student and avid reader in search of role models (finding none at home), I came across a series called Women of Our Time in the library of my tiny Lutheran place of learning. Marketed to children in the third to sixth grade range, the series offered abridged, age-appropriate biographies of some of the most important, female public figures of the day. The book devoted to the life and career of Margaret Thatcher was the first selected and devoured. I went on to procure every other title in my parochial school’s limited holdings, and was thus introduced to such figures as activist Winnie Mandela, painter Grandma Moses and humanitarian Mother Teresa.
For profound reasons, and despite the fact that I have read thousands of novels and biographies since that time, I have never forgotten that series, or the first female subject I encountered. I was able to take for granted that it was perfectly normal for a woman with Aqua Net helmet hair, a string of pearls and a handbag to oversee the business of the second most powerful democracy. From the vantage point of 2013, I envy my younger self, as yet unaware that there would be presumptive lawmakers, overreaching religious factions and male supervisors ready with a hair trigger finger to ignore, roll back or otherwise void the advances of my gender.
As an impressionable third grader, the simplified biography of Margaret Thatcher taught me that I could be a tough as nails prime minister – or not. It was my choice and nobody else’s. I carried that self-confidence with me everywhere and used it as a blunt instrument to protect myself when family, society and religion began to tell me “no.”
And that’s what Margaret Thatcher means to me – a symbol, an idea, an ambition. I’ve progressed passed the junior lit. phase of my academic discovery. I do not canonize Thatcher. She stood for much that I abhor. But I cannot join in some of the hyper-liberal celebrations of her demise. To do so would be to wrong the opened vistas her very existence promised my younger self.