The Changing Image of German First Ladies | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.03.2005
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The Changing Image of German First Ladies

To Germans, she is "the woman at the president's side" or "our version of the Queen." But do the country's first ladies merely adorn their men -- or are they at the nexus of political power?


Behind every good man...Eva Luise Köhler and her husband

Eva Luise Köhler doesn't look like a monarch. There's no crown or scepter in sight, just a smart business suit, a laptop, and a press agent trailing in her wake.

Early on a recent morning she had already gotten through her third appointment -- taking over the patronage of ACHSE, the Alliance of Uncommon Chronic Diseases. Since her husband Horst Köhler became the ninth president of Germany, the petite 58-year-old hasn't had much rest.

From her office in the president's suites, she coordinates her 12-hour work days, and looking pretty and smiling isn't the half of it. Keeping up on and analyzing the news and supporting diverse charities are part of her daily routine.

Calling attention to issues

Köhler, who was once an elementary school teacher, is well aware of the power of her current position.

"What I can do is help to sensitize the public about certain issues, and try to find financial sponsors," Köhler saic. "That is the main thrust of the job, I think. And making it clear to people: If the wife of the president of Germany is behind it, then we can see it as a serious issue, one worth putting energy into."

These days, the first lady is seen more as a promoter with managerial qualities than a good fairy. Yet the image of the first lady has undergone enormous change in the past decade. According to the book "At Power's Side" by Helene Walterskirchen, which takes a look at the role of Germany's first ladies, a first lady still needs to be charming, child-friendly and socially engaged, and lend a soft, human sheen to the country's most powerful statesman.

Old fashioned outlook

But to be restricted to that image is to be old fashioned and even retrograde.

Walterskirchen said the history of women's emancipation is mirrored in the history of the German first ladies.

Rau und Gattin

Christina Rau, with husband Johannes

"You can say the First Ladies of the 50s and 60s represented to the outside world all the virtues of the homemaker -- how to lead a household, how to cook, all these things. In the 70s and 80s for example, when women's emancipation played an important role, the first ladies started to go out and get things done. Today, first ladies are much more politically engaged."

Thus Christina Rau (above), a political scientist who was married to then-German President Johannes Rau, was able to advise her husband on foreign relations. And the current First Lady Köhler used to be involved in regional Social Democratic politics (her husband was nominated by his Christian Democratic Union party.) She is considered an expert on Germany's unions. Thus, while the job of first lady may not be official, it can be influential.

Schah Reza Pahlevi in Berlin

Wilhelmine Lübke, far right, receiving the Shah of Iran and his wife

" We all know that some women can wield a lot of influence (over their husbands,)" Walterskirchen said. "One of them was very well known for this -- Wilhelmine Lübke. (photo) She said very clearly to her husband, 'You can't do that!' And she said that in public. During Lübkes time in office, it was known that Wilhelmine was really the leader."

If you ask Eva Luise Köhler whether she influences her husband, the answer is a silent smile. She is not the woman in Horst Köhler's shadow, but a media professional who helps her husband to shine.

Would it be possible to have in the other way around -- a woman president with a first man at her side? Walterskirchen sees this as unlikely.

"We have had some female candidates, but it never worked out," she said. "Germany is still too conservative ... it isn't ready for a female president and a first man."

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