Margaret Thatcher is a figure that divides political opinion, in my experience when talking to people about her it generally seems to be a typical 'love or hate' situation. On the one hand, many love the radical nature of her economic reforms, taking Britain from an economic situation in which we had the highest proportion of state-owned industry outside of the communist world to one in which personal freedom, innovation, and enterprise prevailed. Thus, massively expanding the middle class and giving working class kids a means of improving their situation.

On the other hand, she is also hated by many. The hatred predominantly lies in former industrialised regions, such as the South Wales Valleys, where the local economy almost unilaterally relied on a single industry, which provided the majority of (particularly male) employment in the area. The plight of miners and other industrial workers during the strikes causes many to identify her policies with the destruction of their communities.

However, whether you are a Thatcher lover or loather, there is one thing that cannot be ignored, and that is what her time in office did for women. While she did not identify as a feminist, her time in office arguably did more for women in public life than any of her predecessors.

She paved the way for women

One thing that is undeniable is Thatcher, through all stages of her political career, had to fight barriers and preconceptions that existed on the basis of her gender (and her class background). When she was fighting to obtain a winnable seat for Parliament, the party's hierarchy was predominantly made up of Eton educated men and this was the general perception of what a politician should be.

Thatcher, despite winning a place at Oxford, did not fall within this perception. She was grammar school educated and a grocer's daughter. Her determination to break down gender stereotypes to obtain, and win, a winnable seat was an insight into her determination to do well in politics, in spite of her gender.

She won the respect of male colleagues

In 1975 she won the leadership of the Conservative Party, making her the first female party leader of any political party in the UK. She was seen as the best person to lead the ever-growing section of the party committed to moving away from the 'post-war consensus.'

They saw the economic policies of the post-war consensus as being something that was holding Britain back and the motivations behind the heavy state control/ownership of industry at the time as merely a way of keeping the working class in their place.

Prior to this point, it would've been almost unimaginable for a woman to lead a major political party in the UK. It had been less than 50 years since women were entered into the franchise on an equal basis to men, and there still existed a general perception that women were 'homemakers' as opposed to people who should be running a major political party, or the country.

She proved that women can be radical

Her election victory in 1979, and successive election victories in 1983 and 1987, only went further to alter the nation's perception of women. Prior to this, the general perception even among scholars in the field of voting behaviour was that women were typically 'small c conservative' and typically opt for consistency and stability whereas men tend to be more radical, and are more interested/open to delivering change.

Thatcher's time in office completely flipped this idea on its head. As previously mentioned, prior to her election victory in 1979 Britain was in an era commonly referred to by political scientists as the 'post-war consensus' in which general perception was shared among both Conservative and Labour governments that the state had a vital and crucial role to play in the economy.

This resulted in a move towards state ownership of industry, and by the 1970s large sections of the economy were owned by the state. State-owned companies included British Telecom, British Gas, British Airways and Thomas Cook. By this time, the UK had the highest proportion of state-owned industry outside of the communist world.

It would be safe to argue that, during this time, policy objectives became stale and uninventive with neither party wanting the deviate too far from this consensus while they were in government.

Thatcher, however, was not interested in consensus politics. A principled politician, and economic policies inspired by the likes of Adam Smith and championed by key figures in her inner circle such as Keith Joesph, lead her to develop a policy agenda that was extremely radical for its time.

Her time in Parliament

During her time in Parliament, she voted in favour of a number of issues that are considered to be a pivotal moment in the fight for women's liberation.

She voted in favour of the Abortion Act 1967, which gave women a right which many see as indispensable today, and that is the right to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy and thus giving a greater degree of body autonomy to women.

She also voted in favour of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which created the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The authority has been central to the development of research into human embryo research and fertility treatments which gives the gift of motherhood to women who may not otherwise be able to experience it.

Her gender did not define her

To summarise, considering the factors which have been discussed in this piece, it is clear that Thatcher's time in public life was absolutely essential in the fight for women to be seen on an equal basis with men in society. Thatcher was not a feminist, and her gender never defined her time in office, she did not see herself as a female Prime Minister, just as a Prime Minister. The fact she was a woman, however, has certainly had a long-term impact.

She proved that women can be competent and effective leaders, she is still our longest-serving prime minister to date, and the time she spent in office saw a great deal of radical change. She successfully defended the Falkland Islands from Argentine invasion, she and Reagan were crucial elements in bringing down the Soviet Union, she completely changed the economic direction of the UK and liberated the aspirational working class.

Without abandoning feminity, or treating it as a handicap (which many modern feminists seem intent on doing), she changed the perceptions of not just her party but the entire country of what a woman in office could do. She was not a feminist, but she has done a lot for the feminist movement and has paved the way for a bright young girl who may, one day, wish to take on the role herself.