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Merkel and the Female Question

DW staff / AFP (tt)September 1, 2005

With less than three weeks to go to the elections, Germany is wondering what it will mean to have its first woman chancellor. Angela Merkel, however, is not promising a feminist or even a particularly feminine future.

Angela Merkel is not exactly a feminist dream come true

Angela Merkel has come a long way from her early days in politics when former chancellor Helmut Kohl referred to her as his "girl." And although the plainly dressed 51-year-old, now a chancellor candidate for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is unlikely to bring gender into politics, her party is trying to capitalize on the fact that Merkel is a woman.

"We support her because she is a woman and as chancellor she will bring new perspectives and emotional intelligence to politics," said Emilia Müller of the CDU women's league at a meeting in Berlin this week.

"Merkel has made it clear, women are no longer standing on the sidelines; they have seized power. We want the future to be female, and in many ways," said another league official.

Feminists remain unconvinced

The political left is distinctly skeptical that Merkel will put women's issues at the forefront of her reform plans.

Alice Schwarzer 3. Dezember 2002 60. Geburtstag
Alice Schwarzer does not believe that Merkel will do much for women's issuesImage: AP

"She has not shown any enthusiasm for so-called woman's politics," Germany's best-known feminist, Alice Schwarzer, remarked recently.

Although Merkel holds a commanding lead in the polls, they also show that the large percentage of voters who are still undecided ahead of the September 18 election are unlikely to be swayed for Merkel simply because she is a woman.

In interviews and speeches, Merkel rarely misses an opportunity to mention the importance of the family and has promised to improve the plight of working mothers in a bid to raise Germany's low birth rate.

But beyond that she has not courted the female vote, just as she has refused to play on her roots in former communist eastern Germany.

German iron lady?

Merkel bristles at the inevitable comparisons with Britain's Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, saying there are "limited" similarities.

Margaret Thatcher
Limited similarity: Margaret ThatcherImage: AP

But like Thatcher, Merkel is a woman leading a conservative party and faces perhaps the added constraint of looking to govern a country that has only gradually shed the notion of women's traditional role involving the so-called three K's -- Kinder, Küche and Kirche (children, kitchen, church).

Figures published by the electoral commission on Wednesday showed that one third of candidates put up by all parties are women, but the Greens and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats are miles ahead of the Christian Union in terms of gender representation.

Schröder on Wednesday at his party's congress reached for the gender card, telling supporters that the policies of many of Merkel's closest aides on women's issues "date from the 19th century."

Criticism, woman to woman

Bildergalerie Gerhard Schröder 10
Doris Schröder-Köpf, the wife of the German Chancellor, is highly critical of MerkelImage: dpa

Schröder's wife, on the other hand, dared what nobody else has so far and pointed out that, being childless, Merkel did not know what she was talking about when she championed the plight of women.

"Ms. Merkel's life is not such that she can represent the experiences of the majority of women," Doris Schröder-Köpf, who has one biological and one adopted daughter, told the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

"They are busy trying to juggle a family and a career, or deciding whether to spend a few years at home after having a baby or wondering how best to bring up their children. This is not Angela Merkel's world," she said.

Mrs. Schröder-Köpf said that Merkel's policies while she was family minister in Kohl's cabinet in the early 1990s "are to blame for the low birth rates we have today."

Merkel recently conceded that she would not have achieved what she did in politics if she had had children, but sought to use that as an argument for her new policies.