Margaret Thatcher and Women in Government

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Category: Election Law, Federal Law & Legal System, Feminism, International Law & Diplomacy, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Popular Culture & Law, Public
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“I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.”

– Margaret Thatcher

One of the world’s most powerful women died today.  Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only woman prime minister, was 87.

Thatcher, leader of the country’s Conservative Party, was British prime minister from 1979 to 1990.  According to CNN.com, she shared “a close working relationship” with former President Ronald Reagan, “with whom she shared similar conservative views.” Initially dubbed “Iron Lady” by Soviet journalists, she was well known (for better or for worse) for her personal and professional toughness. (For interesting commentary on Thatcher and her impact, see here, here, and here.)                                               

Thatcher was a trailblazer, one of just a very few women to become heads of their country’s government. While women make up nearly half of the world’s population, worldwide, they represent roughly 16% of the members of national governing bodies.  In the United States, women account for only 18.1% of Congress, 33% of the United States Supreme Court, and no woman has ever been elected president.

So, what’s the problem? Some would argue that there’s nothing stopping women from running for office, even for president. True, there are no laws that outright prohibit women’s participation in government.  (Saudia Arabia, long the hold out on allowing women to vote and to serve in government, has finally reversed course.)  But there are other barriers that may be less obvious.

First, one barrier that plagues many potential candidates, but especially women: money. Especially in the United States, it costs a great deal to mount a campaign. Women, more than men, have fewer available assets to put toward their own campaigns and may also be hindered in fundraising.

Second, the type of governmental system matters.  Women tend to fare better where there is proportional representation than where there is, like in the United States, a “winner takes all” system. In a proportional representation system, there are multi-member districts, where several people are elected, and the seats are divided in proportion to the votes received by a particular party or group.  If there are, say, 10 seats in a given district and, say, the Labor Party wins 40% of the vote, then members of the Labor Party get 4 seats.  See here and here. In the United States, however, we have a single-winner system. For example, there are 100 seats in the Senate, two from each state. And while multiple people may run for a seat in the Senate, only one person will win it.

Third, and perhaps most significant, are cultural reasons. Women may not believe they can serve as political representatives; they may not believe themselves smart enough or educated enough. They, more than their male colleagues, are likely to be the primary caregivers in their families and their family responsibilities may be (or certainly may feel) incompatible with public representation.  And men, whether as voters or as colleagues in Congress may believe, even if subconsciously, that politics is no place for a woman.

Women also suffer the perennial problem of likeability versus competence.  While men are presumed to be competent, women must prove their competence. And for some reason, it is difficult for people to believe a woman can be both competence and likeable.  The two main female candidates from the 2008 presidential election illustrate this point perfectly. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was perceived as entirely competent, although not very likeable. She has been called, among other things, “feisty,” an adjective that my colleague Scott Idleman wonders was meant in a sexist way. Prime Minister Thatcher, while called the presumably complementary “Iron Lady,” was also referred to with the less flattering “Attila the Hen.”

On the other hand, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was perceived as very likeable, albeit not very competent. (This classic Saturday Night Live clip from 2008 humorously illustrates this point, as well as addresses sexism in the media coverage of both women candidates.) My colleague Andrea Schneider has written an interesting paper about likeability and competence, particularly for women lawyers.  You can find the blog post here, which links to the paper.

Women’s lack of representation at numbers even close to their proportion of the population is important for a couple of reasons.  First, evidence suggests that women may be likely to raise issues normally not considered—or not considered important—by their male colleagues.  Women also can provide different points of view on the issues and policies being debated. Others suggest that women may approach legislating and leading differently than men.  See here, here, and here for example.

While we mourn Margaret Thatcher’s passing, we also need more women like her—smart and strong enough to break through barriers to serve in our representative government.

[Editor’s note:  I just received this link.  A recent study shows that when the media focus on a woman candidate’s appearance, she is less likely to be elected, even if what’s been said is positive.]

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3 Responses to “Margaret Thatcher and Women in Government”

  1. Great blog. Here is a link to some interviews about Margaret Thatcher. The interview with Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, is especially thoughtful and articulate: http://watch.thirteen.org/video/2364992844/

  2. Barbara Erlenborn Says:

    Awesome piece…. thanks for being on top of the news. I am hungry for more on Margaret Thatcher and understand Penguin Books is publishing an authorized bio by ??? It is to be released in the next few days. Cheers, Barbara

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by women holding high ranking government positions. Sad to hear about her passing. She paved the way for many more women to follow.

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