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German Women Mull Woman as Chancellor

Tamsin Walker, DW-WORLD.DE
June 3, 2005

The rise of Angela Merkel to CDU chancellor candidate is a clear coup for her, the party and possibly Germany. As the first female aspirant, she could poker hard with her gender trump, but has thus far chosen not to.

A man's woman?Image: dpa

As the nation publicly ponders the more than reasonable chance of being ruled by a woman by the end of the year, the lady in question appears to dismiss the relevance of her gender out of hand. Some say that's okay, because it's her policies which count, but there is a strong feeling among other camps that a little more recognition of her fellow women-folk would not only boost Merkel's chances at the ballot box, but could be the making of modern Germany.

Although regarded from the distance of the outside world as pretty progressive, a closer look at Germany reveals it to be a straggler on such issues as genuine female equality. The sluggish birth rate, particularly among academics and women in positions of authority, is often attributed to the lack of encouragement offered to women who want the "all" of career and family.

Die CDU-Parteivorsitzende Angela Merkel beantwortet Fragen von Journalisten vor einer Gremiensitzung in Berlin am Montag, 23. Mai 2005
In her element days before her electionImage: AP

There is some hope among women in high places that Angela Merkel will inspire a change in attitudes, but in order to achieve that she would need to make more of who she is.

Brunhilde Raiser, the president of the National Council of German Women's Organizations said she finds Merkel's stance disconcerting.

"The fact is that her experience is being a woman and having been minister of women's affairs, and she shouldn't ignore that," Raiser said. "I'm not saying she has to be feminine, but she should have women on her radar."

"Women need support"

But Rita Süssmuth, a former federal minister for women and president of the German Parliament, said she doesn't think Merkel would greatly improve her chances of being elected by touting a tough gender-political agenda.

Rita Süßmuth
Rita Süssmuth

"Angela Merkel has realized that women need to be supported, but she has never made it central to her policies," she said. "The women who will vote for her don't mind this. She has her way of doing things and can support women through legislation. That's how they will judge her."

There is an unsurprising groundswell of feeling, particularly among women, that having a female chancellor candidate is a positive step, but the jury is still out on Merkel's merits.

"Germany is ready for this in the sense that the time is right, but there are of course reservations and skepticism because it's an unknown quantity," Raiser said. As such, Merkel is under extreme scrutiny which extends far beyond the realm of her political ideals.

The lear of the limelight

Women in high-places have long had to deal with the critical eyes of the press and the public, and in the case of Angela Merkel the interest focuses on the very issue she shuns: being female.

Bildergalerie Angela Merkel Bild11
Angela Merkel gets a re-touchImage: AP

She has taken much flak over the years for her appearance, but Raiser said it is just a part of a cultural phenomenon in which women have been made to put pressure on themselves in a futile attempt to please all of the people all of the time.

Yet that is not really a claim which can be laid at Merkel's door. She has done it differently and is often accused of having fallen in with the men and out with the women during her ascent to the top of the political ladder.

That in itself is a point of critique from those women who are backing a female chancellor to inspire women to break with the binding structures of motherhood and embrace the challenge of juggling work and kids with a clear conscience.

Feisty or female?

Merkel has to tread very carefully in order to prevent Germany's women from feeling snubbed whilst simultaneously remaining feisty enough to keep up with the men in the inner sanctum of the political world. Rita Süssmuth said the key is being able to play different roles.

Schröder Merkel Combo
Head to head. Schröder and MerkelImage: AP

"Ten years ago, Germany would not have said yes to a woman, which suggests that women have greater chances today," she said. "But women who do get to the top have to fit in with male behavior. Merkel has learned, as a woman, how to acquire and use power, how to develop strategies and how to get her own way."

Angela Merkel's public persona is well-worn and gaining popularity, with the latest polls putting already putting her ahead of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But voters will have the final say in September.

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