By Katie Nguyen
LONDON (TrustLaw) - Margaret Thatcher is famously on record as saying she didn't think there'd be a woman prime minister in Britain in her lifetime. She, of course, eclipsed her own expectations and became the country’s first, and so far only, elected female leader.
But a feminist icon she was not - as many commentators have pointed out.
"Her notion of women's rights – to compete, fight, and succeed on equal terms with men – did not fit the orthodoxies of contemporary feminism," Paul Vallely said in the Independent.
During her 11-1/2 years in power, Thatcher appointed only one woman to her cabinet - Janet Young, who became leader of the upper chamber, the House of Lords - and Douglas Hurd, foreign minister and interior minister under Thatcher, was quoted as saying that feminist ideology "left her cold".
"The battle for women's rights has been largely won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. And I hope they are," Thatcher said in a lecture on women's rights in 1982. "I hated those strident tones that you still hear from some women's libbers."
Some have defended Thatcher, saying it was not in her interest to promote women in government, but to advance the best people for the job regardless of their sex.
Others, including Amanda Foreman in the Daily Beast, have argued that Thatcher's refusal to give the feminist movement any credit for her success - and her lack of solidarity with feminists - was understandable.
"She had climbed the treacherous road to political power on her own, without the help of any movement, interest group or fan base," Foreman said.
Thatcher's skin was no doubt toughened by the sexism she regularly encountered in her career.
She wrote in her memoirs that as education minister under Prime Minister Edward Heath, she was "the statutory woman" - the one obligatory female member of the government, whose main task was to explain what 'women' were likely to think and want on troublesome issues.
In the House of Commons, the popular Labour Party slogan "Ditch the bitch", often rang out when she took to the floor, while parliamentary colleagues belittled her with comments like Austin Mitchell’s: "It's been a touching spectacle: the brave little woman getting on with the woman's work of trying to dominate the world."
In life, Thatcher was scrutinised by those who couldn't quite make her out, and in death the same questions are being rehashed.
Why has there been no British female leader since her? Is it because she outmanned the men and set an impossible example for other women? Was she the housewife who had her hair done every morning and cooked for her husband, or the Iron Lady who went to war? Was she feminine or was her handbag a symbol of that "classic" male trait - aggression?
Shirley Williams, one of the best-known female politicians of her generation in Britain, said Thatcher's femininity was her secret weapon. Others have recalled a woman who enjoyed being the centre of male attention, and flirting with ministers, journalists and aides.
"Always elegant, always formidable, but also capable of personal kindness to her staff and helpers, she understood Tory men. Most of them had been brought up by fearsome women of authority: nannies, matrons, distant and detached mothers, whom one did not challenge or disobey. A woman leader baffled them. They simply did not know how to relate to her, and they were uncomfortable with anything that looked like competition or defiance," Williams told the Guardian.
Thatcher's many critics, however, accuse her of wasting the opportunity to advance women's rights and of "setting a bad example of a woman in power".
"Beat the men she did," said Robin Abcarian in the Los Angeles Times. "But she shouldn't be celebrated for blazing trails for women. By sheer will, she hacked open her own path to the top, then let it close behind her."
For all that, her death at the age of 87 prompted tributes from at least two women who, like her, broke the mould to become the first women to lead their countries.
Africa's first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hailed Thatcher as a "role model, because she came at a time when women's participation and women's leadership was in scarce supply and because of her, many of us were inspired. Inspired to be strong, inspired to follow her footsteps in leadership".
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Thatcher changed history for women, adding that women around the world would be "reflecting on the loss of a woman who showed a new way forward for women, and a way into leadership."
Michael Hirsch, writing in The Atlantic, said Hillary Clinton, who may run for president of the United States in 2016, could learn a lesson or two from Thatcher, adding: “In her remarkable life, Margaret Thatcher achieved what Hillary Rodham Clinton still wants (or at least what the pundits say she wants): She became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought”.