Was Margaret Thatcher a ‘rebel girl’?

Image: rebelgirls.co

A follow up to the hugely successful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women is due out soon, which has me wondering if another apartheid apologist will be included this time round.

Like many other people, I was drawn to the concept of the Rebel Girls book — with more than 10,000 backers, the original Kickstarter project raised almost $700,000. Perhaps somewhat overenthusiastically, I pledged enough to get six copies. Some of the hype about the book was eye-roll inducing (clearly, buying a book does not equate to “joining a revolution”), but it still sounded like a worthy idea.

Yes, it was probably going be a highly-individualized, liberal feminist take on things. But, I reasoned, the well-established sexism and lack of female characters in children’s literature meant 100 stories about women would surely be a good antidote (if only a small one) to distribute to a growing collection of nieces, nephews, and children of friends. (With the added bonus that this would sort out birthday gifts for the best part of a year.)

When the long-awaited box of books finally arrived, I tore it open to flick through a copy. After seeing the sample images, I had been hopeful. The examples of Frida Kahlo and Serena Williams looked promising. And, idly thumbing the pages, it was great to see a range of different women included for a range of different contributions and achievements. From Ameila Earhart and Amna Al Haddad, to Yaa Asantewaa and Yoko Ono.

But I stopped on the Serena Williams page. It didn’t look like the mock up. It was now the Serena and Venus Williams page, which was fine — potentially even better. But the original quote had been replaced. The sample had read: “I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.” Now Serena’s quote read: “I’m really exciting. I smile a lot. I win a lot. And I’m really sexy.”

I’d been had.

A quick Google revealed other people’s concerns about some elements of Rebels Girls. As a sizeable chunk of the one-star reviews on Amazon still show, there is a strong sense that the story of transgender child Coy Mathis, for example,  simply reinforces the notion that to be a girl is to like “sparkly pink” things, and that gender non-conforming children need to be “fixed.” The story begins:

“Once upon a time, a boy named Coy was born. Coy loved dresses, the colour pink, and shiny shoes… One night, Coy asked his mom: ‘When are we going to get me fixed into a girl-girl.’”

These representations prompted me to read through the book a bit more thoroughly.

As I scanned down the list of entries, I was further horrified to find the words, “Margaret Thatcher” staring back at me. So horrified, in fact, that (after ranting on Twitter) I called an emergency lunchtime meeting of sympathetic colleagues to figure out what to do. One suggested cutting the pages out before gifting the book to any impressionable children. Nope, that was going to ruin Margaret Hamilton and Margherita Hack. Another suggested gluing the pages together, but although this had the benefit of immediate effect, it didn’t feel great. As an interim measure, we agreed to add post-it notes.

Not everyone understood this reaction. A male colleague inquired, for example, as to why Margaret Thatcher couldn’t be “right wing and a feminist.” Not having a copy of Dworkin’s Right Wing Women handy to pass along at that moment, I offered a brief lecture on the history of the second wave feminist movement’s links to — and emergence from — progressive politics and the necessity for feminist politics to be progressive if we are ever to overthrow white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (or even just challenge the status quo).

That Thatcher was not a feminist is hardly the only issue with propping her up as a role model for girls. Rebel Girls provides a nauseating white-washing of her politics and use of power, claiming people “admired her strength and determination.” But which people, exactly? This probably isn’t a great book to give the children of any Argentinian friends, for example. Or any leftist or working class British friends. Or any friends with a conscience, really…

There’s no mention of the Poll Tax or the ensuing riots. No mention of the fact that the proportion of pensioners living in poverty increased from 13 to 43 per cent under the Conservative rule shaped by Thatcher’s policies. Or that child poverty more than doubled (though the authors deign to mention that people “disliked” Thatcher when she ended free milk in schools). There isn’t a mention of the fact she opposed sanctions against the South African apartheid regime and famously referred to the African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation.” Nor is there any suggestion of her cordial relationship with various dictators, including her “true friend” Augusto Pinochet.

I started thinking these books were going to have to sit under my desk, unread by any kid, for eternity. Which was a shame, because there are some stories of brilliant women and girls included too. I also had to face the reality that I’m probably not going to find the time and energy to write my own 100 Stories of Radical Women and Their Great Contributions to Feminist Theory book for seven-year-olds in the near future.

So, I’ve compromised — I’ve rewritten some of the stories and pasted them over the originals. The Thatcher one appears below. If you’ve got old copies of Rebel Girls sitting around, or are now dreading what might be included in any pre-ordered, next volume, my advice is: get writing and get a glue stick.

With thanks to Dan Walder for his edits and many informative, Thatcher-related rants.

Dr. Meagan Tyler is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of “Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West” and an editor of “Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism.” Follow her @DrMeaganTyler.

Meagan Tyler

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. Meagan is the author of "Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West" and co-editor of "Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism."