Margaret Thatcher, Sheryl Sandberg, Hell and Feminism

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Author: Jacob Surpin

Is it bad that I thought Margaret Thatcher died around the time that “The Iron Lady” came out, in 2011? It was a bit of a shock to find out that she in fact died following a stroke just last week – on the morning of Monday, April 8 at the Ritz Hotel in London. Reaction to her death was immediate and split into a few camps: conservatives called her a powerful leader and urged people to be kind and respectful of her passing (arguments which tend not to hold water); liberals rightly pointed out that she was a public figure with a public legacy and then eviscerated that legacy; and Slate.com published a revolting article by Lionel Shriver titled “Muscular Feminism: Margaret Thatcher didn’t just talk. She did things.” Thatcher, the first and (so far) only female Prime Minister of Britain, was not a feminist. She was a very successful woman who used her position of authority to espouse and uphold the individualist myths of capitalism – that the individual is always in complete control of his or her own success and is thus to blame for his or her failure – that contribute to the enforcing of systemic disadvantages faced by other women.

The debate over whether or not Thatcher was a feminist has an easy answer – she herself said: “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.” It is important, however, to point out that labeling Thatcher as a feminist, and the reasons behind it, are neither innocent nor isolated incidents.

For Shriver and certain other conservative voices, Thatcher was a feminist for two reasons: she shattered a “glass ceiling” for women by becoming Britain’s Prime Minister, and she was a strong figure, dominant in all of the traditionally muscular masculine ways. Rather than talking like a woman, Shriver says, she took action like a man. Whatever action she may have taken, Thatcher did little to help other women. She was infamous for promoting only one woman to her cabinet and failing to raise any other women above the level of junior minister. Moreover, her war on the “welfare state” included attacking programs integral to the lives of working mothers, such as affordable childcare. The desire to make feminism, a multi-faceted social movement, equivalent to a few high-level success stories – in Thatcher’s case, a success story lauded only for its masculine features – is dangerous and worse, familiar.

Thatcher’s death, and the feminist issues raised by it, call to mind debates swirling around Sheryl Sandberg and her self-labeled feminist book, “Lean In,” published in March 2013. The current Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sandberg has proclaimed her intention for “Lean In” to be more than a book – she wants it to be a movement, empowering women in the corporate world to “lean in” at the meeting table and work their way to that corner office. The most entertaining of the numerous reviews of the book that emerged out of the media sphere was a damning review by Kate Losse in Dissent Magazine. Losse, herself a former Facebook employee, rightly identifies Sandberg’s feminism with the tradition of corporatist feminism, or what Linda Burnham calls “feminism for the one percent.” After Losse’s article was published, she received a Facebook message from a Facebook employee that said, “There’s a special place in hell for you.” Losse screenshotted it, published it online and something between hilarity and an important discourse ensued.

The “hell” quote is a reference to a quote from Madeleine Albright, who once said: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” (Taylor Swift also recently referred to this quote, saying there was a special place in hell for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler after they made fun of Swift’s love life at the Golden Globes), and it brings up several pertinent questions in relation to Losse, Sandberg, Thatcher, feminism and hell. What is hell? Why can’t Taylor Swift take a joke? What does it mean to help other women? Does Losse deserve this special place in hell for attacking a successful woman or do Thatcher and Sandberg deserve it for taking the populist history of feminism and (admittedly not intentionally in Thatcher’s case) making it equivalent to a few elite success stories?

In terms of the hell metaphor, Thatcher and Sandberg have reserved their (rather warm) seats by becoming two of the key figures of trickle-down feminism. Thatcher, while the first female prime minister of Britain, shattered the glass ceiling and did nothing to pull other women up after her – or to make the lives of lower-income women more equitable. And Sandberg, while a hyper successful woman in a male-dominated industry, puts the historically grassroots and social-justice based feminist movement at risk by conflating it with the individualist ethos of corporatism, of feminism for the one percent and of trickle-down feminism.

Jacob Surpin is a junior ECLS major. He can be reached at surpin@oxy.edu.

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