The Mother of the Nation

By Marianna Leite

Since Thatcher’s death, Thatcherism has received its fair share of attention from many quarters ranging from political commentators to academics. Two recent podcasts, ‘Thatcher’s Legacy: Thinking Psychosocially, across the Decades’ and ‘Thatcherism, Blairism and a Bad Week for Austerity’ discuss the symbolic significance of Thatcherism and the importance of moving beyond the contentious individual that was Margaret Thatcher towards the analysis of political and economic forces that sustain its rhetoric. Most commentators argue that Thatcherism means the use of discourse (as mere rhetoric) for the promotion of cuts, privatisation and widespread contempt for the poor. It resonates perfectly with the current politics of the coalition government as, in a rhetorical sense, it means shifting the mainstream political discussion from the ethical dimensions of austerity measures to moralistic values of socially constructed roles.

In symbolic terms, Thatcherism has been used to discredit feminism as a political project and to challenge the intrinsic value of women in power. Posthumous representations of Margaret Thatcher have created her as the ultimate feminist icon. For example, The Telegraph in an article entitled ‘Margaret Thatcher: ultimate feminist icon – whether she liked it or not’ argued that although Thatcher did not self-identify as a feminist, this rejection should not preclude her from being represented as a role model by those who do. This type of assertion is not only dismissive of notions of women’s needs but also of the theoretical constructions of feminism. When naming Thatcher as the face of modern femininity, Barnett’s article clearly ignores the fact that feminism is a social justice project aimed at the equality of outcomes for all men and women. Thatcherism purposefully exposed Thatcher to criticism in order to protect the corporate determinism embodied in the shift of paradigm performed by policies under her government. This did not always occur in a visible and transparent manner (and this is perhaps one of the main problems of its rhetorical appropriation). That is, Margaret Thatcher could be demonised as a leader and, most importantly, as a woman in power. Simultaneously, attempts to criticise the interests that upheld her in power were forcefully blocked.

The deconstruction of the symbolic meanings of Thatcherism reveals the discriminatory nature of capitalism. Thatcherism, as any other capitalist project, makes use of a political rhetoric that uses cultural images that rely on fear as one of the many instruments used to support a particular discourse and practice that increase economic dependency and the poverty gap. The capitalist project under Thatcher and now the neoliberal project under Cameron represent the continuity of an exclusive way of policy making and implementation that is run by an elite that is alienated and disconnected from reality. This policy praxis results in a lack of commitment to people’s experiences and needs and in a discriminatory and delusional perception of the reasons and the purpose of programmatic targeting and retrenchment.

Thatcherism subjugates the feminine and feminist aspirations and choices. It fails to view power as gendered even though it is clear that the fact that Margaret Thatcher was a woman made it easier for her to get away with intrusive discriminatory capitalist policies. For instance, Lynne Segal’s podcast notes that Thatcher’s exercise of sovereign power was more forceful than those of preceding male prime ministers. Thatcherism therefore relates to femininity in terms of masculinity, i.e. feminist demands and challenges to unequal gender regimes are always seen in negative terms. And, it defines society as a conglomerate of individualistic values and interests, thereby missing the point on the ethical dimensions of the social contract and of society itself. Ethical values become intertwined with morals making it absolutely impossible to identify the instrumental use of femininity for masculine purposes.

Thatcher has often been depicted by Conservatives as the mother of the nation. Motherhood is used in this sense in authoritative terms as a form of representation of women’s predominant and conforming roles and their bounded devotion to a heterosexual male-dominated family. This re-emphasises the male/female relationship in terms of the nature/culture binary by oversimplifying a spectrum of gendered experiences, disregarding other social categories that impact over women’s and men’s lives and creating artificial groups that are incapable of translating highly transient definitions such as womanhood and motherhood.

The mythmaking of Margaret Thatcher since the rise of the coalition government (reaching its climax at her funeral) is a conservative political strategy. It depoliticises political and economic discourses sustaining and/or rejecting Thatcherism while instrumentalising the image of Thatcher. It instrumentalises the figure of Margaret Thatcher in a way that is offensive to those who suffered and/or were opposed to the policies implemented under her government as well as to the individual memory Margaret Thatcher herself. It fails to expose the political rhetoric sustaining Thatcherite policies which undermine any democratic attempts to openly deconstruct and challenge these same policies as well as the symbolic meanings associated with them. In the end, we must ask ourselves if women are always to be used as scapegoats for permissive, individualistic and discriminatory economic policies that only serve to advance profit-seeking behaviour and a pathological ideal of a heterosexual and male-dominated nuclear family.


Lynne Segal, Thatcher’s Legacy: Thinking Psychosocially, across the Decades, 29 April 2013, Podcast available at

Tom Clark, Thatcherism, Blairism and a Bad Week for Austerity, The Guardian, 18 May 2013, Podcast available at

Emma Barnett, The Telegraph, Margaret Thatcher: ultimate feminist icon – whether she liked it or not, 8 April 2013, available at


Marianna Leite is an AHRC SSHP Research Studentship award holder completing her PhD in Development Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, under the supervision of Dr. Jasmine Gideon and co-supervision of Dr. Penny Vera-Sanso. She uses a Foucauldian discourse analysis to explore the significant shifts in maternal mortality reduction policies over the past decades in Brazil. This research is the extension of the work she conducted as a visiting scholar at the International Gender Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She is the editor of MaMSIE’s blog as well as in charge of referencing and style for Studies in the Maternal. She also co-organised the Gender and Development research group held at Birkbeck and IOE and is an active member of the Latin American Gender & Social Policy research group co-hosted by UCL and Birkbeck. Before joining MaMSIE, she worked in international development, at various instances, for INTERIGHTS, ActionAid and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Marianna can be contacted at