Emily O’Sullivan is a third year Religion, Philosophy and Ethics student. She likes poetry, Russians, and instigating political debates in a variety of South London pubs.
Eric Andre once asked Spice Girl Mel B if she thought that Margaret Thatcher had ‘girl power’, to which Mel B replied ‘yes, of course!’ Andre countered ‘do you think she effectively utilised girl power by funnelling money to illegal paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland?’ Mel B, quite clearly in a state of confusion, retorted that she didn’t really know. It’s not uncommon for liberal and conservative feminists to cite Thatcher as an inspiration to women, for her unwavering grit and determination, and for the great achievement of being the first woman to run the country. But given the history of female leaders in British politics, the question must be asked: does having a woman in power always warrant the label of feminism?
Let’s have a quick run through of some of Thatcher’s most significant policies before we begin, for those who have managed to avoid hearing about them thus far. In 1971, Thatcher introduced legislation to abolish free milk for primary school children, notoriously earning her the title ‘Thatcher the milk snatcher’. This was, for many, the beginning of an attack on the poor, which began before she was even appointed as the Prime Minister. Later, in 1980, she went on to implement the popular ‘right to buy’ scheme, under which the Conservatives sold social housing to council tenants, with no intention, however, to build any more affordable homes. In 1981 riots erupted across the country, against a background of police brutality and an 82% rise in unemployment amongst minorities, which continued to rise across the country.
Daily Mail, 2013, ‘Youth celebrations’
1984 was perhaps the most disastrous year for the working-class, when Thatcher created a ‘hit list’ of coal mines that her government intended to close. Hundreds of thousands of those working in collieries in Britain faced violence from the police, and eventually many mines were closed after a year of strike action. This was, alongside the ‘right to buy’ scheme, a calculated move to suppress trade unions and ensure that the working-class could not afford to go on strike. As Beckett states, Thatcherism ‘was a highly skilful exercise in feigned egalitarianism’ which ultimately proved to be an attack on the poor for short-term economic gain.
This systematic violence against the working-class parallels Britain today under Theresa May’s rule. The effects of Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ scheme can be seen most clearly in the current social housing crisis. Since 2010, the social housing construction rate has dropped by 97% and there is a predicted loss of 370,000 social homes over the next 3 years. House prices are increasing, and single mothers are amongst those hardest hit by austerity. Meanwhile, the estimated number of buildings that have been empty for longer than 6 months in the UK is 200,000. The horrific neglect at Grenfell tower earlier this year served as a reminder that the working-class are being subjected to appalling acts of social cleansing.
Those most affected by the government’s neglect and austerity are, without doubt, working-class women. According to Women’s Aid, on a typical day domestic violence refuges have to turn away 103 children and 155 women due to a lack of space. 4 in 5 women of black and ethnic minority origin are refused help by refuges, causing domestic violence campaign group Sisters Uncut to call on Theresa May ‘to put her money where her mouth is and commit funding to life-saving services’.
Such neglect by the government has led to women forming campaign groups and standing together in the face of austerity. London’s Focus E15 campaign serves as a remarkable example of this. The campaign began in 2013 when a group of young mothers were served eviction notices by Newham Council, and told that to avoid homelessness, they were required to accept private rented accommodation in other cities, leaving their communities and local support networks behind. Since 2013 they have occupied council buildings and flats, and continuously protested for improvements to social housing.
Not only has Theresa May failed to address the issues with social housing, but she has also done little to assist in the ongoing issues at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where many women seeking asylum are detained. Research by the charity Women for Refugee Women interviewed 26 women; 22 of which, they found, were survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, including forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. It is against the UK government’s own policies to detain women who have been victims of such violence. It is needless to say, then, that the anger expressed by many women at the apparent indifference of our female Prime Minister is justified.
These statistics are enough to make any feminist worry about a future for women who don’t happen to be as privileged as Thatcher and May; the women who aren’t white, rich, or lucky enough not to be subjected to male violence. The cheap feminism that we see so often today – characterised by a ‘girl power’ t-shirt and stopping exactly there – is somewhat sinister given the reality for many women. We must ask ourselves whether it is enough to simply celebrate the appointment of a female politician, or whether we’re going to make sure that the voices of other women are given a platform. We must stop equating the presence of female leaders with female solidarity. We must stop praising the oppressor, just because the oppressor looks like one of us.