Celebrity in a pantsuit: Germany's Chancellor Merkel is considered the world’s most powerful female leader. However, women's rights were never at the heart of her agenda. Can she serve as a role model for young women?
"My daughters love her, and Merkel can basically do as she pleases," the journalist Kathrin Spoerr wrote in the newspaper "Die Welt" in 2013. "Merkel doesn't need pretty clothes," she added. The chancellor "can even miss her hairdresser appointments." Even if they were just children, Spoerr's daughters already aspired to be chancellors.
Despite her career as a world leader, not much has been made over whether Angela Dorothea Merkel - born in 1954, married, childless - is a hero to girls and young women. It depends on the person, of course.
Twenty-nine-year-old German social psychologist Thekla Morgenroth recently earned her Ph.D. at the University of Exeter and has chosen role models and gender stereotypes as her main research topics. In order for role models to have a positive psychological effect, they must meet two crucial criteria, Morgenroth said: "The respective person has to represent something I want to achieve, and I need to be able to believe that I can be like that person. Their success should be attainable, so likeness is an important factor. This can refer to skin color, gender or social status.”
Queen of the tightrope walk
Achievable success? Likeness? When talking about Germany's first female head of government - a woman who has been guiding or at least co-guiding Europe's fate for several years - this is beyond wishful thinking. Nevertheless, or maybe for this exact reason, German students both male and female named Angela Merkel as their biggest role model after their parents, friends and partners in a 2014 study conducted by the accounting firm Ernst & Young (see chart below).
Nora-Vanessa Wohlert (right) and Susann Hoffmann (left) founded the online career community Edition F
Dr. Morgenroth said young women especially could learn a thing or two from Merkel: "She has perfected the art of appearing assertive and proficient but at the same time not bossy or aggressive. For many women in leading positions, that's a tightrope walk." Morgenroth is convinced that Merkel's gender-neutral presence is key to her success. "For a woman who is constantly in the public eye, Merkel has rarely been scrutinized over her looks during recent years," she said. "I guess that might make her a more appealing role model than many other high-profile women." The fact that Merkel has been able to remain in office for ten years "proves that women can achieve anything, that obstacles like prejudice and discrimination can be overcome."
Success comes with a price
Thirty-four-year-old-year-old Anne Wizorek would like to look up to Merkel: "She's a female in a position of power, and she's from East Germany, which is where I grew up. But I personally don't consider her a role model." The writer and online activist promotes a modern take on feminism. In 2013, she was awarded Germany's prestigious Grimme Online Award for launching the Twitter campaign #Aufschrei (Outcry), which addressed sexual harassment and sexual violence and soon snowballed to an international level.
When it comes to gender politics, Merkel keeps her distance from controversies - be it implementing a quota for women in boardrooms of leading German business enterprises, scrapping the prescription requirement for emergency contraception or legalizing marriage equality. Furthermore, her role as a woman rarely comes up. "No one ever asks federal chancellors about their work-life balance," Wizorek said. "People just expect them to work 24/7. Let's not forget that Merkel is only able to do this job because she doesn't have to worry about reconciling her workload with nursing a care-dependent family member."
Though Wizorek acknowledged the symbolic importance of a woman in the federal chancellery for future generations, she said Merkel herself had not broken any new ground: "She's ended up in this position because she's made the most of the existing system of power. You can give her credit for that, but, from a feminist point of view, this system is precisely what needs to be changed."
For some women, especially those who are not fond of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, the chancellor has only recently demonstrated qualities worthy of emulation. "In my opinion, the refugee crisis is the first issue on which Merkel has shown perseverance," said 31-year-old Nora-Vanessa Wohlert, a co-founder of Edition F, an online career community for young women. "To stand firmly by your beliefs, even if the public and your own party are giving you a hard time - this is the first time I've considered her a role model."
Though she never voted for the Christian Democrats or found the chancellor's political agenda especially clear, Wohlert used to admire Merkel's diplomacy skills. And the young manager appreciates the message Merkel's long tenure has conveyed to the youngest Germans: "I enjoy seeing how small kids can't even imagine that a man could ever be chancellor."
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