In 2005, upon becoming Germany's first woman to serve as chancellor, Angela Merkel asked: "Who would have thought that the highest government office would be taken up by a woman this year?" Now — almost 16 years later and on the brink of a fateful election — there is an entire generation in Germany who know no other chancellor but her. "I have been told that there have even been questions on whether a man can also do it. I did not make that up," joked the chancellor in 2018 when Germany celebrated 100 years of women's suffrage.
Hailing from former East Germany, Merkel is the daughter of a teacher and a Protestant pastor. She earned a doctorate in physics, and her role model was scientific pioneer Marie Curie — the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice.
Merkel was often underestimated on her way to the top, including by colleagues within her own party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). When she began her political career after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German political newcomer — who was divorced and had no children — was "completely out of place" in that party, says Merkel biographer Jacqueline Boysen. Yet Merkel would later go on to become Germany's first female head of government and one of the most powerful and influential women in the world.
Merkel, sexism and men's power games
She had to get used to the power games of alpha men in international politics. In front of cameras, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made her wait while he took an apparently more important phone call; Russian President Vladimir Putin brought his large, unleashed dog to a meeting, well aware that Merkel is afraid of them. And US President George W. Bush gave her a surprise shoulder massage without asking her consent. Merkel was later admired by women around the world for her subtle handling of sexism and mansplaining. Her eye roll during a conversation with the Russian president at the 2017 G20 summit became legendary.
"She learned to assert herself in a male environment, maybe sometimes also to play out the position of women a little bit. But she has never made herself a real fighter for women," says Merkel biographer Boysen.
Merkel, who earlier served as minister of women's affairs, has had a complex time advocating and implementing equal opportunity policies, "because she also wanted to be elected by men," says Jacqueline Boysen. She long hesitated to call herself a feminist, and for years rejected calls to introduce a gender parity quota for top management of major companies. She prefers policies that limit government intervention and hoped that companies would naturally bring more women into management positions — which did not happen, finally prompting a legal change in late 2020. Earlier this year, Merkel confirmed the difficulty of bringing such progress: "When I entered politics in 1990, I honestly would have imagined everything to be easier."
Strategy vs. policy to advance women's rights
There is a tactic behind all of this: In order to stay in power, Merkel needed the support of her party. Yet her center-right conservatives were often miles away from a feminist agenda. For Merkel, who grew up in former East Germany, it was not unusual for women and mothers to still work outside the home. In her party, however, a traditional view of the family has prevailed for decades: a family composed of a mother, father, and children, with the man working and earning money, while the woman stays at home with the children.
But together with her governing coalition partners, new laws were passed during Merkel's almost 16 years in power that would contribute to a more updated and modern image of the family: parental leave and parental financial allowances were introduced, daycares are being expanded nationwide and a new regulation has been implemented to make it easier for young mothers to return to work after maternity leave.
But has all that been successful? Billions have been invested to open up more daycare availability, but hundreds of thousands of toddlers still need a spot. And it is still mostly women who put their careers on the back burner and take care of the family. Almost half of the women in Germany work only part-time outside the home. More men are now taking parental leave, but far fewer and for shorter periods of time than women do.
The Green Party parliamentarian Franziska Brantner said in a DW interview that the first female chancellor — holding so much power and influence — could and should have done more: "An effective fight against violence against women; financing shelters. A fight against inequality of pay of women and men in Germany; women on [corporate] boards, more effectively fighting family [and] child poverty ... There are many things that she could have done."
Surrounded by female advisors
At the same time, under Merkel, more women have made it into high office and functions within the German government than ever before. The Ministry of Defense has been filled with women several times over the past few years, and Merkel's closest advisers are also women. There are four female ministers of state in the Chancellery. One of them is conservative politician Dorothee Bär, who says of her boss: "She certainly didn't get in touch every day on women's issues and women's rights. But when she did, it actually always resonated."
During her trips abroad, Merkel has repeatedly addressed women's and girls' rights: In Niger, she visited a women's refuge, in South Korea she encouraged female students to go into politics. But is that more than just symbolic? The Green Party politician Franziska Brantner says: "I haven't really seen her push for gender equality at the UN or at the EU level or within Germany."
Progress in gender equity — despite or due to Merkel?
But Merkel's legacy for women is, experts agree, complex. Much may have changed because of Merkel being at the helm — such as the various family policies enacted under her tenure. Other things may have changed in spite of Merkel's own positions — society's prevailing view has progressed, for example, on the rights of LGBTQ people, for example in marriage equality, which Merkel only spoke in favor of in 2017, finally prompting German law to change. Like so many other countries around the world, Germany has not yet achieved full gender equity or equal opportunity in many respects.
Merkel's greatest legacy is probably her demonstration that a woman can lead the country — and do so successfully through so many crises. "Today, no one laughs at a girl when she says that she wants to become a [government] minister or even chancellor," said Merkel in 2018. Today, she is a role model for women all over the world.
As her chancellorship comes to an end, Angela Merkel appears to be more free to speak on gender issues; after all, she no longer has to win an election. Just recently, she publicly — finally — declared herself a feminist, adding: "We should all be feminists."
Check out the other installments of DW's series "Merkel's Era: The Women of Power" here:
Episode 1: Belarus' Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
Episode 2: Denmark's Margrethe Vestager
Episode 3: Chile's Michelle Bachelet
Episode 4: Indonesia's Sri Mulyani
While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.