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Thatcher and the glass ceiling

When Parliament met on 10 April to pay tribute to Baroness Thatcher, Prime Minster David Cameron observed that, ‘at a time when it was difficult for a woman to become a Member of Parliament, almost inconceivable that one could lead the Conservative Party and, by her own reckoning, virtually impossible that a woman could become Prime Minister, she did all three'. The statistics are daunting. She was first elected in 1959; one of just 25 women in a House of 605 men. Constance Markievicz had been the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1918 (though as a Sinn Féin MP she did not take up her seat), but this did not open the floodgates. For most of the period after 1918, the proportion of women MPs hovered around four per cent of the total; it was only from the 1987 General Election that numbers began to rise, reaching nine per cent by 1992 and then doubling in 1997. Even today, nearly four-fifths of MPs are men. Once in the House promotion proved difficult: in 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first woman to sit in the Cabinet, as Minister of Labour, but 41 years later Margaret Thatcher was still only the fifth woman to do so (and only the second Conservative woman). The death of Margaret Thatcher is therefore a fitting occasion to reflect on the history of women’s involvement in British parliamentary politics.

Opposition to women sitting as MPs continued long after Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her parliamentary seat in 1919. The sources of this opposition were complicated, changed over time, and were neither confined to men nor to opponents of women’s suffrage. Some held that women were intellectually or physically unfit for the job; others complained that women’s moral purity would be endangered if they entered the political arena. Generations of men simply had no clue how to engage with women as equals: their presence was therefore seen as disruptive, requiring a whole new way of behaving. Thus Winston Churchill complained that he found ‘a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.’ A constant refrain throughout the 20th century was that women were too emotional for political life. In 1928, Colonel Reginald Applin, the MP for Enfield, explained why he thought that a woman could never be Chancellor of the Exchequer, asking the House to ‘imagine her introducing her Budget, and in middle of her speech a message coming in, “Your child is dangerously ill, come at once.” I should like to know how much of that Budget the House would get, and what the figures would be like.’ The implicit assumption – barely credible today –is that a male Chancellor would stay at his post and finish his speech. Masculinity was presented as characterised by rationality and emotional control to justify men’s claims to political leadership. Women MPs have had to struggle against this prejudice, sometimes by assuming exaggerated airs of detachment.

Once women over 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918, the right to stand for Parliament swiftly followed, but significant barriers to participation remained. The reluctance of local party associations to select female candidates for winnable seats has been a major cause of inequality of representation. Selection criteria were often heavily gendered. Mrs Thatcher, for example, was asked by a selection panel how she would cope with the competing demands of politics and her young family. No such question was asked of a male rival, who had four children under ten. Thatcher was only adopted for a safe seat after five attempts, while Shirley Williams had to stand four times before she was eventually elected.

Once in the House of Commons women members had to navigate a patronising political culture. The Labour MP Tom Price could stand in for many others when in 1961 he congratulated Mrs Thatcher on ‘her very charming argument, which she is putting with great ability'. Throughout her career, Mrs Thatcher was able to turn to her advantage the media attention she attracted as a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment, but the tendency to view women stereotypically could be a handicap to her and others.

Particularly troubling has been the stereotypical assumption that women will principally be concerned with domestic and welfare issues. Herbert Morrison, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, advised Lena Jeger to ‘stick to women’s issues’ when she made her maiden speech in 1953, and was angry when she chose instead to talk about international relations. This stereotype sits awkwardly with the breadth of interests and expertise that women MPs brought to the House, from Mervyn Pike’s experience as managing director of a pottery works to Florence Horsbrugh’s experience as a delegate to the League of Nations, or Patricia Hornsby-Smith’s involvement with the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. Nevertheless, women were usually appointed to roles seen to extend their traditional domestic responsibilities: the ministries of health, education or pensions. Harold Wilson is noteworthy for his determination to promote women to a broader range of responsibilities during his time as Prime Minister. The most prominent beneficiary was Barbara Castle, who, along with Margaret Thatcher, mounted the strongest challenge to the conventions holding back women in politics.

When a woman did eventually reach the highest office, some men struggled to adapt. Jim Prior, one of the leading figures in Thatcher’s first ministry, found it particularly difficult to raise his voice to a woman and engage in the argumentative style which Thatcher encouraged: such behaviour was not gentlemanly. He found her confrontational manner ‘very difficult to stomach and this form of male chauvinism was obviously one of my failings.’ Prior described how Thatcher turned the gentlemanly culture of politics to her advantage, ‘A few tears occasionally, the odd tantrum, then a bit of coquetry were all permissible’ to win an argument. Many of her male Cabinet colleagues did not know how to respond once the political game came to be played by these very different rules. This may explain why she appointed only one woman to the Cabinet during her time in office (Baroness Young): these techniques would not have worked on female colleagues.

When she left office, Margaret Thatcher was elevated to the peerage as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven in 1992. This too illustrates a major change in women’s parliamentary careers in the 20th century. It was not until 1958, with the creation of life peerages, that women were able to sit in the House of Lords. Women who had inherited titles and were peeresses in their own right were not admitted until 1963.

Lady Thatcher’s death provides an opportunity to reflect on the uneven erosion of sexual inequality in British politics: slow processes, as yet far from complete. The number of women MPs is now at an all-time high, but still only 22 per cent of the total, and the UK ranks only fifteenth out of the 27 EU member states in terms of the proportion of women in Parliament. In recent years, the appointment of the first female foreign and home secretaries have been important breakthroughs, but important departments like the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence have yet to experience female leadership. While we should celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s ability to surmount considerable prejudice against women in politics, her career should be seen not as the summit of achievement, but a landmark on an ongoing journey.

Other relevant posts

Living above the shop: Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street

Suggested further reading

Pamela Brookes, Women at Westminster: an account of women in the British Parliament, 1918-1966 (1967).
John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: Volume One: The Grocer’s Daughter (2000).
Brian Harrison, ‘Women in a men’s House: the women M.P.s, 1919-1945’, Historical Journal 29 (1986), pp. 623-54.
Elizabeth Vallance, Women in the House: a study of women members of Parliament (1979).


Copyright Dr Ben Griffin. This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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