Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Muldowney

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It’s enough that they did it first. They didn’t have to do it right.

Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to be Prime Minister of the UK after elbowing her way through layers of rock hard, calcified male privilege. She went on to establish a catalog of bad public policy. Shirley Muldowney was “The First Lady of Drag Racing.” For years, she was practically the only woman in drag racing. She ended her career in 2003 after racing ‘funny cars’ for years – elongated hot rods with massive engines that required parachutes to open to slow down after the quarter mile race.

Both Thatcher and Muldowney did something the rest of the world decided they couldn’t and shouldn’t do. Good for them, I say. Good for them.

We look back on them now – the Margaret Thatchers and Shirley Muldowneys, the Amelia Earharts and Gertrude Ederles, the Nancy Kassebaums and Frances Perkins – with the eye and sensibility of 2013 and we’re critical. They didn’t do enough. They did the wrong thing. They didn’t advance the cause.

It doesn’t matter. They broke the barriers that women today don’t even realize existed just a generation ago. Or if today’s younger women intellectually understand the evolution of feminism and women in politics, they lack the visceral knowledge of the exclusion of women from power, the impediments to the female pioneer, the resentment of any women’s attempt to be exceptional. Lacking is an understanding of the presumption of weakness of intellect, will, and commitment that marked attitudes toward women who aspired to be first or be leaders. In other words, if you’re under 50, you really have no idea how narrow options were for women.

My father sent me to college in 1966, telling me I could be a nurse, teacher or a secretary. I wanted to be a political commentator. A generation before, my mother told her parents when she finished high school that she wanted to be a nurse. Their response was that being a nurse wasn’t something a girl of her upbringing should do so they sent her to business school to learn to type and take shorthand. My razor sharp mother, the one with the kind heart and gentle hands, couldn’t fight the limits on her options. She just couldn’t. So she didn’t.

That’s why I respect what Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Muldowney did. They overcame themselves, overcame the presumption of weakness, looked past the rolled eyes of their male colleagues and competitors, ignored the snickered insults about their femininity and looks, and used everyone’s doubt of their ability as fuel for their ambition. And I say thank you. Let us all be so tough and courageous.

This puts me, the feminist, in the uncomfortable role of being grateful to someone who declared feminism itself a ‘poison,’ someone who was unwise enough to eschew the powerful role she could play in the elevation of women in governance, who decided instead to view herself as an anomaly rather than a pioneer, and there is the not small risk that readers might think I liked Margaret Thatcher. Not so much.

You know what I really did like? Watching Shirley Muldowney step on the gas on the green and fly down that quarter mile, the parachute ballooning behind her after the finish. It made me feel great to see a woman with that much power. It just made me feel great.

2 Comments on “Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Muldowney

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