The Position Of Women In Politics: Cases Of Margaret Thatcher And Indira Gandhi

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Women from the beginning have been marginalized from any positions of power. Granted they were given a say in domestic affairs but even then the final say has always been that of a man. A woman has merely played the part of a middle level manager I domestic affairs, and even lower (if any) in the professional, with men being the top bosses taking every away every opportunity a woman may have to rise. This glass ceiling, the invisible barrier, still does exist which prevents women from taking the top jobs. Very few women are able to break through this glass ceiling, which is nothing but a “specific pattern of career disadvantages.” in definition. According to a research conducted by Folke and Rickne, for this glass ceiling to occur, there must be two factors working towards it – first, discrimination based on sex which bars a woman’s advancement in her career, and secondly with every step towards the hierarchy, these discriminations should keep increasing (Folke and Rickne). Therefore, since men have always been the leaders, the qualities that are required of a leader are seen as being synonymous with being male. This has gendered certain qualities into being feminine and masculine. This has also led to the formation of the public and the private spheres, public sphere is the one where men are allowed to work like government, services and labour, and private sphere within which the women were supposed operate, which usually started and ended with the house. These spheres complimented what society had agreed upon as certain qualities which differentiate men and women. Women were supposed to be of delicate temperament and their more active and demanding role as a reproducer entailed that they stay at home and look after the man and children. The men, on the other hand were strong and resilient, and their passive role in the process of reproduction meant that they would have to be the chief breadwinners. However, the issue arises when these practices become the norm, and the sheer fact that men were the sole breadwinner became to mean that they were entitled to make decisions on everything, or rather that women were removed from the decision making process altogether. All sorts of excuses were put forth – that women were too emotional to think logically, that their delicate minds could not make hard decisions and simply that they lacked the intelligence that men inherently had.

These beliefs cemented throughout the years and formed the basis of discrimination due sex which women face even today. The public and private life are still heavily gendered and breaching them means incurring the wrath of the society, which still firmly believes in maintaining the status quo of patriarchy, or what a woman and a man ought to do and ought not to do. If the woman abides by the rules she is good, if she deviates, she should be punished. In psychoanalytic literature it is called the Madonna-Whore complex which is quite self-explanatory. However, the complex infests itself as a dilemma for women in power, who also have to make themselves likable to the public, like the women in politics. In the age where some people are fiercely campaigning for gender equality, while others are still clinging to the status quo, which way to go? Should they pander to the traditionalists, denouncing the women who are campaigning for equal choices or should they pander to the more liberal and in the process alienate the conservative base? This issue is more severe for women politicians than male politicians because they are expected to pay more attention to the women issue more than the men. Then there is also the case of women being the outsiders in the field of politics.

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The old prejudices and all other elements come to work against the woman in power, and as they often say, being at the top is a lonely thing. It is especially lonelier for a woman because in many cases they are the first ones among their sex to be in the position, so they don’t even have the luxury to look back to their predecessors. They have to prove their worth twice, once as a politician and then as a woman politician, since they are still looked upon in intrigue. In order to assimilate in such a workplace, and to command respect, women often have to masculinize their approach to work. In this paper, I shall try to highlight this approach in the lives of some of the most famous women politicians of the last century. I shall also try to analyse the role of gender on two of the pioneering women politicians. And while I do not claim that the characteristics that they share with one another is shared universally among women in power, in particular the effort they put in trying to appear masculine by denouncing or ignoring feminism and women’s issues, the idea of appearing as rather masculine is found to be quite universal. And it has not just been with the case of the women in middle 20th century, but it is prevalent now. Even modern female politicians like Angela Merkel has famously slipped out from the halo of feminism, and won’t call herself an outright feminist. More importantly, I shall try to focus if the issue of gender has had any effect on their political dealings. Further, I shall try to answer the question that should the victory of one woman, two in our case means the victory for the entire sex? In an age where we deify anyone based on just one action, it is important to look back at what they actually did for the given movement.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher was famously described by then French President Francois Mitterrand as having “the eyes of Caligula and mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” Few women have achieved as much attention in the last century, as Margaret Thatcher. From being appointed as the first woman leader of a major political party the UK, to becoming the first woman Prime Minster and the longest serving one too, of the last century. She has had a polarizing effect on the everyone, with her juxtaposing conservative views on the role of women, while herself being the complete opposite. As journalist Jenny Murray writes “Self-awareness was never her strong point.”

Over the long years of her tenure as Prime Minister of England, she has been the “lone woman” in a man’s world of politics (Pilcher), and had intentionally surrounded herself with them. Her cabinet was full of men, and she was the boss of them all, firing and hiring them and ruling with an “iron fist”. On the international front as well, she was the only woman. However, to much of the disappointment to her fellow member of the female sex, her government did not so much as glance at women’s issues. She was accused of not paving the way for future female aspirants or as journalist Hadley Freeman puts it Thatcher was the “aberration” who “made it through” to the top but then “pulled the ladder up after her.” In her paper The Gender Significance of Women in Power: Women Talking about Margaret Thatcher, Dr. Jane Pilcher of University of Leicester conducted a study in 1989, where she interviewed women from same families i.e. mothers daughters and grandmothers, 57 women in total from 19 families. She instantly recognized the impact Margaret Thatcher had on gender significance, when without her prompting most of these women jumped to her as an instance. Over the duration of her being sworn-in and her government starting their work, Pilcher noted a change in her perception among the women. In the beginning, for example, the major consensus of having a woman as a Prime Minister was an inspiration for other women, a victory for women in general for such a woman would have the power to challenge the male perspective of women and lastly a belief that it would mean more engagement with women voters and more women in politics. However, as the fog lifted, they realized her lack of sympathy for other women like her, who didn’t have the “support of a rich husband”.

Another thing that was noted was her tendency to show off her femininity, in order to win support and likability. She famously campaigned by comparing running a household budget to that of running a country. However, this show of femininity was just that, a show. Being a shrewd woman, she realised early on that in order to appear likable to the public, she had to play the part the part of the Woman, or performing her gender, as Judith Butler famously coined. However, she took great pride in being the “best man in the cabinet” which directly contrasted with her aggressive brand of delicate femininity. Beatrix Campbell has put it in the best words so far – ‘Femininity is what she wears, masculinity is what she admires.’ (Campbell, Iron Ladies). This aspect of playing the part of a conservative woman in public, the audacity to be condescending to other working young women who did not have the means to afford childcare or “an army of help” to help with the household duties is what irked the working women, and still irk the feminists who claim that her politics might be patriarchal but that “doesn’t make her a man” (Campbell, Iron Ladies) for she has been aggressively pushing forward her brand of femininity-a devoted housewife, a mother, and a wife. Despite of all the marketing, her reputation as being the “boss” still seeped through. Her uncompromising stance on steering clear from anything that could label her being a “women’s libber”, and her tough and aggressive policies both foreign and especially domestic, where she famously clamped down on the numerous workers’ strikes with privatization of state-owned utilities all established her as the Iron Lady, sarcastically from some and admiringly from others. She was known to have herself surrounded by men who were according some accounts “sycophantic” and “adoring” or loved to argue and her strict disciplinarian attitude not only kept them in line, but also made her quite attractive.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi was the first female Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977 for three consecutive terms, and had been an active member during the struggle for freedom of India from colonial rule. According to many, she inherited her political prowess from her father, who also happened to be India’s first Prime Minister. However, such a belief is further proof of the deep layers that patriarchy has permeated, to make sure that a successful woman’s is always connected with a man. Others similarly have attributed and divided her rule between a few men under whose “influence” she went ahead with the particular policies as if she has never had a mind of her own. Although the role of press and the kind of articles they printed about her was irrelevant to her, the wordings do betray more than a hint of sexism.

Like many other powerful women heads of states, she too chose to distance herself from the term feminism and from being called a feminist. Upon being asked the question point black, she falt out refused, saying “No, never. I’ve never had the need to; I’ve always been able to do what I wanted.” (Fallaci) Having been brought up in a modern upper class family, she assumed that every other woman too had the benefit of an egalitarian father where she “felt that I could do what I liked and that it didn’t make any difference whether I was a boy or a girl.” In certain interviews with the press, she has chalked her egalitarian views up to her father who, since she was the only child, never gave any specific attention to the fact that was his daughter, not his son. Her experience of growing up as a woman was far different than any other Indian woman, a fact that she herself acknowledges. In her interview with Oriana Fallaci, she clearly states that her reason for choosing to be blind in respect to gender, or partially blind as some feminists would argue, was that since she personally wasn’t exposed to gender injustices, like her mother who was an according to her an all-out feminist, she never had a reason to be “jealous”. In addition to this, upon getting its independence, India had a very egalitarian constitution which granted equal rights to both men and women. Since women then did not have to go through what western suffragists did, it was assumed that India has become a modern society. Far from it, but the leaders on the top bought this myth quite readily. Leaders which included the first and only female prime minister of India.

Although she did not reject feminism as readily and vocally as Margaret Thatcher, she certainly turned a blind on it. For her, like any other male leader, the country’s domestic and foreign policies came first and individuality came second. Here is a classic case of sympathizing and yet denying the need for change which is so closely linked to the behavior of patriarchy, especially in India. Her lack of attention to the cause of women empowerment is not the main concern however, it is the complete opposite. As the Blema Steinberg, author of Women in Power writes, “During Gandhi’s time in office the conditions of the majority of Indian women worsened, as reflected in literacy and employment rates and the declining sex ratio.” (Steinberg). In addition to that, she did not make any special effort to appoint any female members to her cabinet (Katz, p.12 ) where she reigned supreme. There are tales of her preference to be addressed as sir, instead of madam according to a few journalists. At one point, when she visited Washington to meet president Nixon, his assistant allegedly asked his Indian counterpart as to what Mrs. Gandhi preferred to be addressed as, and the latter replied as ‘Her Cabinet colleagues call her ‘Sir,’’ (Times of India, 2007). However, patriarchal gas lightning was not the only aspect she shared with the populist mentality, she was the Iron Lady before the Iron Lady herself. Frequently quoted as being an influencing factor on the future first Prime Minister of the UK (Moore), she was often quoted as the “only male in her Cabinet.” Her stringent policies, a realist approach to politics and stubbornness added to her image of more as a man. As Margaret Thatcher would set out to do in the Falkland crisis, she did with East Pakistan. When everyone else suggested diplomatic routs to the migrations from East Pakistan to India, she went the realist way. She went to war instead, which not only solved the issues of excessive migration, but also liberated East Pakistan into what is now known as Bangladesh. Touted one of the shortest wars in history, it cemented her position as a master strategist. However, her hard Machiavellian approach did not work out in her favour when she turned authoritative, doing away with elections and proclaiming a state of Emergency and overtaking authoritative powers. Or when in order to eliminate the Sikh separationists, she launched a strike against her own countrymen. It was for the first time in the modern world that people were seeing this side of a woman. Naturally, all they could do was proclaim her to be a man, which was at once a denial of her identity as a woman and criticism of her actions, as well as a grudging nod to her aggressiveness.


Here we have seen an example of two women who have been touted as the most powerful women of their respective times. However, the

Feminism is a wide branch of study, and is often more based on the collective experiences of women than on an empirical study, since every woman women might go through the same thing but their experiences are vastly different and so is their approach. Some take it lying down, some rebel, some assimilate, some imitate, but all in all, they learn to live with it or try to bring about as much change they possibly can. The questions that arises from this, and which we should all keep in mind while talking about female politicians and other women in power is such: In such a time where some women are striving for change, embracing and even asserting their femininity, is it fair to take women who have assimilated or who imitate masculinity, while doing nothing to change to the quality of life of fellow women as role models for young girls? Women who openly denounced feminism even though going through the same thing or seeing it happen to others around them, women who learned to live with it since it does not affect them as much as it does those who do not have the same advantages as they do. Or should we then simply dismiss them as a case of patriarchal brainwashing, where focusing on women’s issues upon coming to power would have been perceived as a weakness and a deterrent to their image as a strong leader. Or made them more vulnerable to snide sexist remarks. Should we then try to understand their situation and consider this as a strategic decision? Or simply just accept that you cannot be a feminist just on the virtue of being a woman, and give into the idea that a woman is the biggest enemy of another woman? While there are no right answers for this, it is important to know the whole story of these women before hailing them as a victory for women, as was the case upon the death of Margaret Thatcher, where many young women made her an epitome of “girl power”.

This bend of femininity and masculinity has been the most favoured of women in power throughout the ages. In a time where crying sexism is considered as the ultimate weakness, few options remained for the women in power to handle the sexism. The most preferred being the proverb, if you can’t beat them, join them. For a long time, women have had to adopt “masculine” attitudes because all the attributes linked to being a leader have come to be considered masculine – power, authority, dominance, sacrificing personal life in order to succeed in public life etc. This gendering of attributes meant that those positions were meant only for men and not for women. Therefore, whenever women have risen to power, they have striven to become more of a man than their competitors, at the expense of becoming “unfeminine”.


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