With Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday, her incredible legacy has been a hot topic in the international media for the better part of this week. And for good reason.
Thatcher not only became the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, she also went on to win re-election twice more in 1983 and 1987.
The changes and reform that her conservative party implemented under her leadership continue to affect British policy today.
Regardless of your political persuasion, it cannot be denied that the “Iron Lady” represented a major advance in women’s power in public and political spheres. She was the first female leader of a major Western power in modern times.
What is most remarkable about Thatcher’s election is the fact that she was not elected based on the fact that she was a woman, but based on merit. The United Kingdom decided (again, three times!) that she was the best person for the job.
Her skills and positions on the issues were celebrated — her gender was irrelevant.
Thatcher’s election, of course, presents a sharp contrast to the presidential history of the United States.
Over 30 years after Thatcher’s first election, America has yet to elect a woman to the highest civilian office.
According to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, women today represent just 18.1 percent of Congress, 23.4 percent of statewide elective seats and 24.1 percent of state legislatures.
When considering the 1979 numbers of 3 percent, 11 percent and 10 percent, these statistics might sound pretty good.
But once you consider the fact that women represent 50.8 percent of the U.S. population according to the 2010 census, the serious imbalance is obvious (for the record, Mississippi is just one of four states that have never sent a woman to Congress).
To further put things in perspective, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks an embarrassing 77th out of 190 countries in female political representation. Five historically Muslim countries — countries that often attract criticism in the U.S. for being “backward” by Western standards — have elected women to their highest civilian seat: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Kosovo.
For a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon of democracy, why have we not had a Ms. President?
Structural and cultural barriers are to blame. Even though women have had the right to vote since the 1920s, societal stereotypes and gender roles deterred women from exploring work or activity outside of the home for decades.
Even though serious change in women’s representation only started to materialize in the latter half of the 20th century, we still have a lot of work to do.
Following the 2010 elections, the number of women in both state legislative and statewide elective offices actually declined.
So how can the discrepancy be addressed? Quotas? Incentives?
Somewhat surprisingly, Thatcher was infamously anti-feminist. She refuted the idea that a woman should be elected based on her gender, to fill a “quota” or anything of the sort.
As she told National Public Radio in an interview in 1993, “I would hate a person to ask me a question, are you a quota woman or are you a merit woman? Well, I would like whatever I did to be that I got there because I was the right person for the job. It didn’t matter as a man or a woman. I had the right qualities for the job, the right beliefs, the right principles. I wasn’t a quota.”
With this, I must agree. In order for women to be taken seriously in office, they must be taken seriously as people, not handed positions based on a quota system.
Electing politicians based on solely superficial characteristics — be it gender, race, hair color, fashion sense or otherwise — is simply a bad idea.
Americans should vote for presidential candidates according to their positions on the issues, their values and their ability to lead.
In short, their merit.
The U.S. must make the conscious decision that it will judge female political candidates based on the content of their character, not their gender, if women are to take to on leadership roles. Until that happens, a female president of the United States will never become a reality.
Lexi Thoman is a senior international studies and Spanish double-major from St. Louis, Mo.