I don’t want to talk about why you hate her. I don’t want to hear how you are glad she is gone. I live in a socialist country, benefit enormously from and support socialism, and do not tow any kind of line about her “saving” the UK from going down the same road as, say, the rest of Western Europe. I am not interested in defending any of the comments she made about South Africa, or labor unions, or feminism, or anything else. I am not defending her at all, actually. But the fact that, when she passed this morning, almost every commentary surrounding the announcement mentioned the significance of her being the first female Prime Minister, and how she presented an image of femininity in power that most of us had never seen before — that is worth discussing.
I have only lived in countries which have never had a female Head of State, and the election of one anywhere in the world, though it is increasing, is still rare enough to make international news. The representation of women in politics is still dismal, and a huge part of that undoubtedly stems from the fact that most of us grow up rarely seeing a woman in a true position of political power. We might hear about the errant senator, or a governor from a few states over, but the idea of a female President was simply hard to conceive. We see women as too easy to dislike, too easy to label as a ball-busting bitch (instead of an assertive, take-charge leader), too full of all the femininity we have always placed as dichotomous from strength under pressure. When we were all sketching pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up in fourth grade, few girls drew themselves wearing a crisp navy skirt suit and American flag pin, because the idea of being the President some day just didn’t seem an option. The world put us in tutus and a matronly schoolmarm’s dress, so we learned to draw them on ourselves.
I did my fifth grade report on Margaret Thatcher, and given the US-centric information we were provided about her, it was very flattering. I learned little about her in general, but I understood that she was our friend and she was for things like markets and freedom and progress. Those were all good things to my undeveloped ears, and I was happy to receive an A on my project. I didn’t know that I would grow up to completely disagree with the conclusions I was once encouraged to draw, but I knew that I looked at her and saw myself. She was a woman — she had nice dresses and pretty hair and wore lipstick — and she was a leader of a country as big and powerful as England. Rooms full of angry, arguing men quivered in front of her because they knew that she wasn’t going to be intimidated by them. When she spoke, people all over turned on their televisions and listened to what she had to say. And she was a girl, just like me. People weren’t calling her names or telling her that she couldn’t do it just because she was icky and had girl cooties like I did, so maybe that meant I could grow up and do it to.
For a long time, I thought I was going to go into politics. I studied International Relations, I canvassed for a politician, and I went to Q&As with diplomats. It was a world that seemed to open itself to me, despite being a clear Boy’s Club, and would perhaps make a good home for my tendency to take charge of group projects and penchant for public speaking. Even though I encountered countless men who second-guessed my abilities or treated me just a little bit like a child because I couldn’t possibly be as competent as them, I knew it was possible.
My experience in politics — and my learning about the world around me — eventually led me to disagree deeply with Thatcher and what she stood for. It took me to a country whose values she detested. It made me realize that she was not the hero whose portrait I was so excited to color in fifth grade. But standing in front of my class at 10 years old, telling everyone about this big, strong woman who ran a whole country across the ocean from us and stood up for what she believed in in front of the world, I believed a bit more in myself. I knew that I could go into politics if I wanted. I knew that there was a place for me, even if it would be a bit harder to get to.
The real tragedy here is that there are so few women to choose from who are leading nations, so few who teach us that we can be a leader when we grow up — and even fewer who do it while enacting positive, humane politics. We have a shallow pool of idols, many of whom (like Thatcher) are deeply flawed. We need more of them, and we need to understand just how powerful it is when one of them rises to the world stage. We need more little girls giving reports to their class and understanding that they have somewhere to aspire to if they want to achieve it. As long as politics remains an enormously male-dominated sphere (in a world which has a female majority, no less), we will never know how many bright young women we are missing out on as leaders because no one ever showed them that they could be anything they wanted to.