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9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher blazed a trail that allowed women to walk the corridors of power

Smiling when constituencies rejected her for mediocre men, her political rise still didn't silence all the doubters. Ruth Dudley-Edwards dismisses Thatcher's critics

I met Lady Thatcher a couple of years ago at a small dinner given by one of her close friends. Although she looked splendid, her memory was seriously impaired and she was struggling to identify even those she knew well.The hostess decided we should each be photographed with the guest of honour.

I came up to her, and was introduced for the second time.

Then she looked with alarm at my Champagne glass, took it from me and put it behind us on a shelf.

"Never hold a glass in front of a camera, dear."

I treasured that remark and appreciated the kindness.

There was little of the Iron Lady's intellect left, but she had learned many lessons in a hard school about how to present herself, and her instinct was to pass one on to someone in need.

As all her intimates agreed, she played merry hell with opponents, but otherwise she was exceptionally kind, especially to women.

I was always irritated by feminist objections to Thatcher.

Not only was she loathed for being a Conservative: she was despised for dressing like a middle-class woman.

I asked an American fan of hers who rang me just now in a state of mourning about her as a female role model.

"Because Mrs Thatcher really was a strong woman she never objected to being womanly," she said.

"She was genuinely feminine so she didn't need to be a shrill gender feminist."

Even more to the point, had she been a shrill gender feminist, the United Kingdom would still be waiting for a female Prime Minister. Hairy legs, bra-burning and talk of the sisterhood was the way to frighten the horses, not the route to conquering the male redoubt.

The objections to having women leaders at the time were manifold, but the most potent were that they would prove weak, indecisive, emotional or frivolous.

Even Margaret Thatcher's worst enemies can hardly accuse her of living up to such expectations.

She gritted her teeth and kept smiling during the years when she was rejected for constituency after constituency in favour of mediocre men, but the iron that entered her soul would later be used to great effect by the Iron Lady, after she became boss.

"She did nothing for women", is one idiotic cliché that particularly gets my goat.

What she did for women was to ensure that they could never again be dismissed as contenders just because of their gender. Had she followed the feminist agenda, rather than applying herself to defeating the Soviet Union, Argentina and the trade unions, while giving European leaders a bloody nose, she would have been busy making enemies of men while appointing unqualified women to jobs they might make a mess of.

I recently heard Gillian Shepherd, Secretary of State for Education under John Major, being invited to trash Thatcher for not giving her encouragement and preferment.

She dismissed the criticism as nonsense, saying a) she hadn't been ready, and b) the Prime Minister had more important priorities than focusing on female colleagues.

After Thatcher's retirement, said Shepherd, when she had time, she was always encouraging and kind to young women on their way up, but the more important point was that she was there as an unassailable role model.

Angela Merkel should be toasting Thatcher tonight, for without that precedent, the Germans would have been far more resistant to a female leader.

So, too, should Hillary Clinton, who must know well that Americans are longing for her to be the Thatcher of today.

Thatcher was despised for being lower middle class and patronised for being female.

With the encouragement of two far-seeing men – her father and her husband – she fought her way to power through graft and patience.

Men came to jeer and stayed to cheer.

I toasted her at that dinner and I'm toasting her again today.

Here's to you, Maggie, for opening the doors to the corridors of power to women all over the world.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards