Letter from Berlin: Does Angela Merkel Deserve to Be a Feminist Icon?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks set to win another election victory on Sunday. Outside Germany she is seen as something of a feminist icon, one of the most powerful women in the world. But inside Germany, when it comes to policies that actually favor women, her record is meager.

When French Vogue chose to dedicate its September issue to “heroines,” some of the women the style bible commended for their “courage” and “charisma” were obvious choices: Burmese democracy leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi, Noble Prize Laureate Toni Morrison, French ovarian cancer advocate Dominique Stoppa-Lyonnet, and Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a crusading Mexican journalist. And then there was Angela Merkel, the conservative prime minister of a Western European country. The woman who has governed Germany for the past four years has become something of a global super star — admired for being a woman in what is still very much a man’s world.

Merkel has been named Forbes “Most Powerful Woman in the World” for four years in a row, she has appeared on the cover of countless magazines — such as this week’s Economist — and she has enjoyed a positive reception since she hit the world stage back in 2005. Yet, there is a disconnect at play between how Merkel is perceived at home and abroad as well as her party’s female-positive policies. She may be something of a feminist icon overseas but things look a bit different back home in Deutschland.

Here in Germany the woman nicknamed “Angie” by her supporters, is known more for her detached ability to rise above the fray than any staunch political convictions, let alone feminist policies. Indeed, Merkel has tended to shy away from playing the female card. She doesn’t push women’s issues or speak very much about her gender. Yet in the run-up to this weekend’s election, she seemed to have changed tack. Suddenly she had discovered the advantages of her gender.

Shopping Lists and Recipes

Look closely at German demographics and you will find that there are 2 million more women than men eligible to vote on Sunday. In a tight-run race such as this one is turning out to be, that is a significant number; reportedly an opinion polling company advised Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats that the female vote could indeed be vital. And the chancellor is nothing if not a canny politician. Her cunning and skill helped her get to the top of her very patriarchal party. Now she is wooing these female voters with her new softer image.

In the run up to polling day on Sept. 27 Merkel has been making all the right moves. She gave an interview to Alice Schwarzer, a doyenne of German feminism, in Schwarzer’s magazine Emma. And she has suddenly started telling people cozy details about her domestic life, revealing how she leaves husband Joachim Sauer, a physics professor, shopping lists and how they share chores. She even deigned to share a recipe with her fellow German women.

However, Sabine Hark, professor at the Center for Women and Gender Studies at Berlin’s Technical University, is unconvinced and puts it all down to good PR. “The attempt to seem more open to women’s issues is simply an election campaign tactic,” she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

And it is a far cry from the image Merkel projected ahead of the last election in 2005. Then she took the stance of the tough economic reformer: more Margaret Thatcher than Martha Stewart. Yet, the toughness that made her the darling of economic liberals scared female voters off. After the election it turned out that more women voted for macho chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD) than Merkel’s CDU.

Consensus Over Confrontation

Things have changed. Four years at the helm of the “grand coalition” government — her center-right CDU with the center-left SPD — has seen Merkel shed the Thatcher-esque image and ditch the zeal for economic reform. Instead her role has been to smooth out the differences in an increasingly fractious alliance by rising above the discord between the two parties. Of course while some in the German media have ascribed this to a feminine trait of consensus over confrontation, it is just as likely to be down to very nature of coalition politics. Common cause had to be found and fundamental differences, such whether or not to abandon nuclear energy, were effectively parked.

Having said that, one area where her government has made significant changes has been in family policy. As her family minister, Merkel-appointed fellow conservative Ursula von der Leyen has introduced a series of measures, such as increasing the time and pay for parental leave and making it easier for fathers to also take paternity leave. Yet these are family policies with a conservative slant. “This has been a family policy that is concerned with demographics, rather than an active policy of dismantling the discrimination faced by women,” says Hark. “Increasing the birth rate has been the priority.” In other words, it is based on a deeply traditional viewpoint where women are regarded through the prism of motherhood.

In fact Germany’s scores extremely badly in general when it comes to equality for women. While Merkel has said she would like to see more women in the boardroom, Germany is far behind many other industrialized countries. And the country is on the lower end of the scale for equal pay in the European Union, with women earning on average 23 percent less than men.

Merkel addressed the issue of women’s pay in August when she spoke to Emma. She commiserated with those who earned less than their male counterparts but her solution was simply to dole out some advice: “Go to your boss with self confidence and say: ‘This has to change!'” When pressed on whether perhaps the state could intervene to improve things, Merkel said she didn’t think “forced measures” would bring much success.

“She thinks women should just fight their own corner, and if every woman did so, then everything would be fine,” Hark says. “But structural discrimination is not easily swept aside by simply having it out with the boss.”

An Ability to Take on the Big Boys

Yet Merkel has still managed to increase her popularity amongst women from across all the political spectrum. British MP Gisela Stuart recently told the BBC that Merkel was her party’s “best asset.” Indeed her no-fuss, lackluster approach, seems to be made to measure for these sober times. “Merkel’s matter-of-fact and steady political style, and naturally her honesty, have gone down well with women,” says Claudia Hassenbach, the director of the Frauen Union, the CDU’s women’s organization. “As well as the fact that she is not promising them heaven and earth.”

Merkel’s overly prudent nature may have driven the alpha males in Europe such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy or British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to distraction as they competed to whip out ever bigger stimulus packages but she stuck to her guns and advised caution. Her steady-as-she-goes, “don’t spend it unless you have it” approach has appealed to women, many of whom regard risk-taking macho behavior as exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.

In fact when Vogue chose to honor Merkel it was her ability to take on the big boys that won their admiration. They praised her committed stance on China — such as meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2007 and refusing to attend the Olympics in Beijing — but they particularly liked the fact that she poked fun at their own President Sarkozy and that she pushed ahead with a NATO meeting after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused to end a phone call. “From the G-8 to the NATO summit, Merkel is the only woman in the midst of the leaders in the world, but she never loses her natural authority,” the magazine gushed. In other words, she is a heroine just by being there and being able to deal with those male egos.

‘She Has No Feminist Consciousness’

But is Merkel herself a feminist? “Definitely not,” says Hark. “She has no feminist consciousness.” And even though she was recently awarded the Warburg Prize for doing just that the chancellor doesn’t regard herself as someone who fights for women’s rights. She says this is largely because of her upbringing in the former communist East. “I come from a different socialization to the old women’s movement in West Germany,” she told Emma.

Merkel’s undeniable appeal for many German female voters could simply be that she is still sitting at that top table and, more importantly, that she now makes it look like the most normal thing in the world. “In 2005 Merkel had to fight prejudices in the population,” says Frauen Union’s Hassenbach. “There was a huge question mark over whether a woman could even be chancellor, whether she could govern the country. She has shown over the past four years that she can do so excellently and that there is no issue over whether women can lead in politics. These prejudices are now gone.”

Hark disagrees, saying that while having a female head of state can be broadly influential and can affect the general public’s views on women, that does not mean that all women are now equal and that there is no more need for policies promoting women’s rights.

Feminist, icon, symbol, or just a very canny politician? Whatever the answer, it certainly looks like Germany is in for another four years of Angie. Opinion polls differ on which party her CDU will govern with after Sunday’s election but Merkel seems set to stay on in the Chancellery in Berlin. After Sunday, only time will tell if she uses her next term to bring about a better deal for Germany’s women.

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International


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