As Merkel bids farewell, German women wish for more equality

Sep 20, 2021, 11:52 PM | Updated: 11:58 pm
FILE - In this combo from file photos taken between 2009 and 2016 German Chancellor Angela Merkel i...

FILE - In this combo from file photos taken between 2009 and 2016 German Chancellor Angela Merkel is shown wearing her iconic blazers in different colors, as she leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin. Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a look at her track record in fighting gender inequality in 16 years running Germany reveals missed opportunities in promoting women's issues. (AP Photos/Markus Schreiber, file)

(AP Photos/Markus Schreiber, file)

BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a look at her track record over her 16 years at Germany’s helm reveals missed opportunities for fighting gender inequality at home.

Named “The World’s Most Powerful Woman” by Forbes magazine for the last 10 years in a row, Merkel has been cast as a powerful defender of liberal values in the West. She has easily stood her ground at male-dominated summits with leaders such as former U.S. President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Millions of women admire the 67-year-old for breaking through the glass ceiling of male dominance in politics, and she’s been lauded as an impressive role model for girls.

On trips to Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Merkel has often made a point of visiting women’s rights projects. She has always stressed that giving women in poor countries better access to education and work is key to those nations’ development.

But when it comes to the situation of women in Germany, Merkel — who said in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek reelection in this Sunday’s general election — has been criticized for not using her position enough to push for more gender equality.

“One thing is clear: a woman has demonstrated that women can do it,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most famous feminist. “However, one female chancellor alone doesn’t make for emancipation.”

Schwarzer, the 78-year-old women’s rights activist, is the most prominent founding member of the German women’s liberation movement, both loved and loathed in the country.

“She’s the first one who made it all the way to the top,” added Schwarzer, who has met Merkel for several one-on-one dinners over the years. “But has she done anything for women’s policy aside from her sheer presence? Honestly, not a lot.”

German women have even seen some setbacks during Merkel’s reign. Before Merkel took office in 2005, 23% of federal lawmakers for her center-right Union bloc were women. Today, the figure is 19.9%. Only the far-right Alternative for Germany party, with 10.9%, has fewer female lawmakers.

Germany also lags behind other European countries when it comes to equal political representation.

In 2020, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and governments was 31.4% in Germany, well below Sweden’s 49.6%, Belgium’s 43.3% or Spain’s 42.2%, according to the European Union statistics agency Eurostat.

Women also remain second-class citizens in Germany’s working world. Last year, only 14.6% of top-level managers in big listed German companies were women. Germany also has one of the biggest gender pay gaps in the EU, with women earning 18% less than men in 2020, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

Some experts say Merkel has pressed for more power for women in indirect ways.

“Angela Merkel did not take up her job with the claim to use her role as chancellor for the support of women or making gender equality her vested interest,” said Julia Reuschenbach, a political analyst at the University of Bonn. “However, she did very much engage in promoting other women in politics.”

Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel Cabinet stalwart, became the European Commission’s first female president in 2019. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as leader of her CDU in 2018, though she failed to impose her authority on the party and stepped down earlier this year.

In 2007, von der Leyen, who was then family minister in Merkel’s Cabinet, pushed through a progressive reform of the country’s child-raising allowance which encouraged fathers to take some parental leave after the birth of a child. However, it was one of few legal changes during the chancellor’s tenure that actively sought to improve the situation of women.

One reason for Merkel’s reluctance to fight more openly for feminist issues in Germany may be her own struggle to get to the top of German politics, Schwarzer said.

“Merkel got a lot of pushback as a woman,” especially early in her political career, she said. “She didn’t expect that, so that may be a reason she didn’t pick out the fact that she is a woman as her central topic.”

Influential men in her conservative, traditionally West German and Catholic-dominated party didn’t exactly welcome the Protestant former East German physicist with open arms, and male politicians from other parties initially did not treat her respectfully, Schwarzer said.

German journalists’ comments on Merkel’s appearance were often openly sexist, particularly in the beginning. German media first dubbed her “Kohl’s girl,” because Merkel was initially promoted by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and later called her “Mutti,” or “mommy,” even though Merkel has no children.

Leonie Pouw, a 24-year-old election campaign manager in Berlin, was eight years old when Merkel came to power, so she says it was the most normal thing for her to have a female chancellor.

“It was only in school, when I started to have political awareness, that I realized how much it meant, especially for the older generation, that a woman is leading Germany,” said Pouw, who grew up in southwestern Germany. “When I understood that, it made me proud, too.”

Nonetheless, Pouw thinks that Merkel could have done more for women’s rights and noted that none of Merkel’s Cabinets throughout her four terms achieved gender parity.

“I wish that in the future there will be as many women as men representing us,” Pouw said.

When Merkel herself was asked in 2017 whether she was a feminist, she answered evasively, saying: “I don’t want to embellish myself with a title I don’t have.”

Only in the last few years did Merkel take up the topic proactively and speak out for more gender equality in Germany. In 2018, as Germany marked the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, she said in a speech in Berlin to the loud applause of mostly female listeners that there was a lot still to do to achieve gender equality.

“The goal needs to be equality, equality everywhere,” she said. “I hope it becomes natural for women and men to split up work, raising the children and doing the household equally … and I hope it’s not going to take another 100 years to get there.”

Merkel has talked little about her experiences of discrimination or her personal life and her husband, quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, has kept a low public profile.

In the last few weeks, Merkel took a noteworthy step in further embracing women’s rights, declaring at a discussion with women in Duesseldorf: “I’m a feminist.”

“Yes, we should all be feminists,” she added.

___

Pietro De Cristofaro contributed reporting.

___

Follow AP’s coverage of Germany’s election at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election

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              Election campaign manager Leonie Pouw smiles prior to an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Pouw, a 24-year-old election campaign manager in Berlin, was eight years old when Merkel came to power, so she says it was the most normal thing for her to have a female chancellor. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
            
              File - In this Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 file photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves the plenary hall after a debate about the situation in Germany ahead of the upcoming national election in Berlin, Germany. Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon but she wouldn't seek reelection in the country's Sept. 26 general election. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)
            
              FILE - In this Tuesday, April 30, 1991 file photo, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, stands behind Women and Youth Minister Angela Merkel prior to a cabinet meeting in the Chancellory in Bonn Germany. German journalists' comments on Merkel's appearance were often openly sexist, particularly in the beginning of her career. German media first dubbed her “Kohl's girl,” because Merkel was initially promoted by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and later called her “Mutti,” or “mommy,” even though Merkel has no children. (AP Photo/Fritz Reiss, File)
            
              FILE - In this Wednesday, March 14, 2018 file photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, front row center, sits in the first row in front of the lawmakers of her center-right Christian Union block when Germany's parliament Bundestag meets to elect Angela Merkel for a fourth term as chancellor in Berlin, Germany. Before Merkel took office in 2005, 23 percent of federal lawmakers for her center-right Union bloc were women and today, the figure is 19.9 percent. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)
            
              FILE - In this  Wednesday, July 17, 2019, file photo, from right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, new elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, von der Leyen's successor as German Defense Minister, attend an office over ceremony at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, July 17, 2019.Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel Cabinet stalwart, became the European Commission's first female president in 2019. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as leader of her CDU in 2018, though she failed to impose her authority on the party and stepped down earlier this year. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)
            
              FILE - In this  Monday, Jan. 26, 2009 file photo, German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the publisher Alice Schwarzer, from left, take part on a '90 years of women's right to vote' morning performance at the chancellory in Berlin, Germany. Millions of women admire the 67-year-old for breaking through the glass ceiling of male dominance in politics, and she’s been lauded as an impressive role model for girls both at home and around the globe. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)
            
              FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 file photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses with women after a conference with women in leadership at the chancellery in Berlin. Millions of women admire the 67-year-old for breaking through the glass ceiling of male dominance in politics, and she’s been lauded as an impressive role model for girls both at home and around the globe. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)
            
              FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007, file photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, asks a woman, front, to join a group photo with Indian country women during her visit to the NABARD-Bank in Mumbai, India. On trips to Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Merkel has often made a point of visiting women’s rights projects. She has always stressed that giving women in poor countries better access to education and work is key to those nations' development. (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski, File)
            
              FILE - In this Tuesday, June 18, 2013 file photo, leaders from left, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy pose during a group photo opportunity at the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Merkel has also been lauded as an impressive role model for girls both at home and around the globe for standing up to male leaders. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
            
              Election campaign manager Leonie Pouw smiles prior to an interview with the Associated Press in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Pouw, a 24-year-old election campaign manager in Berlin, was eight years old when Merkel came to power, so she says it was the most normal thing for her to have a female chancellor. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
            
              FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005 file photo, newly appointed German chancellor Angela Merkel, left, takes the oath of office in the parliament in Berlin. Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a look at her track record in fighting gender inequality in 16 years running Germany reveals missed opportunities in promoting women's issues. (AP Photo/Fritz Reiss, File)
            
              FILE - In this combo from file photos taken between 2009 and 2016 German Chancellor Angela Merkel is shown wearing her iconic blazers in different colors, as she leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin. Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a look at her track record in fighting gender inequality in 16 years running Germany reveals missed opportunities in promoting women's issues. (AP Photos/Markus Schreiber, file)
            FILE - In this Friday, May 26, 2017 file photo, leaders of the G7, from left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and British Prime Minister Theresa May pose during a group photo for the G7 summit in the Ancient Theatre of Taormina in the Sicilian citadel of Taormina, Italy. Millions of women admire the 67-year-old for breaking through the glass ceiling of male dominance in politics, and she's been lauded as an impressive role model for girls both at home and around the globe. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File) FILE - In this Tuesday, April 25, 2017 file photo, Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, Ivanka Trump, daughter and adviser of U.S. President Donald Trump and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, from left, jokingly raise their hands to support that they consider German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, being a feminist during a panel at the W20 Summit in Berlin, Germany. Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor, has been praised by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a look at her track record in fighting gender inequality in 16 years running Germany reveals missed opportunities in promoting women's issues. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File) FILE - In this Thursday, June 7, 2007 file photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, U.S. President George Bush, Italian Premier Romano Prodi, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, British Premier Tony Blair and Canadian Premier Stephen Harper walk to their family photo during the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. Merkel has also been lauded as an impressive role model for girls both at home and around the globe for standing up to male leaders. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)

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As Merkel bids farewell, German women wish for more equality