A Woman for All Seasons

When an 8-year-old girl on the Berlin subway asks her mother if it’s possible to have a male chancellor, you know something profound has changed in Germany. A woman ruling the country is not just the new normal; for millions of German children — including my daughters, ages 7 and 10 — it is the only normal they have ever known.

I am thankful for the example that Angela Merkel is providing for my daughters. But her quiet revolution raises questions about what it means to have a woman in charge.

Germany is by no means the champion of gender equality. It is still hard for a woman to move up in the business world. In the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, Germany is in 13th place (Iceland is on top and the United States is 22nd).

But Ms. Merkel has nevertheless had a dramatic, positive impact on the country. When she became head of the Christian Democratic Union party 13 years ago, German politics was dominated by alpha males. The idea of a woman running for the top job in the chancellor’s office was considered a losing proposition.

Today those same alpha males, like her main opponent in the last election, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats, seem to have fallen behind the cultural times.

And they have a hard time finding the right tone when running against a woman like Ms. Merkel; every attack that is seen as condescending toward her as a woman costs them dearly with female voters. That’s why Mr. Steinbrück did particularly badly among women.

Ms. Merkel’s example has unleashed a surge of female politicians. In 2005, when she was first elected chancellor, only one woman had ever been at the helm of one of Germany’s 16 states, the breeding ground for national politics. Today there are four acting female governors, and many of the hopefuls vying for leadership positions in German parties are women.

Most importantly, Ms. Merkel has changed residual stereotypes. A century ago many people believed that women were too emotional, and needed a male guardian, a prejudice that faded but never quite disappeared.

Ms. Merkel, however, has flipped that assumption on its head, coming across as a solid anchor of rationality in what is at times a sea of male irrationality.

In 2008, after the outbreak of the Russian war with Georgia, I traveled with her to Tbilisi to meet the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Ms. Merkel had just come from a meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and she briefed journalists in the plane about how she saw the crisis. What she said remains confidential, but she seemed to feel those two men didn’t have their emotions under control, and were therefore leading their countries into disaster.

The female chancellor as a refuge of cold reason was also a leitmotif of the euro crisis. Consider some of her male European peers at the time: Silvio Berlusconi, who can’t get his libido under control; the mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy; the cast of oscillating Central European populists, like Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Or take the Greek prime minister George A. Papandreou, who, after reaching a refinancing agreement with international partners, suddenly called for a national referendum on his work; after chaos ensued, he had to step down. Ms. Merkel would have never made such a hot-headed mistake.

Unlike some other leading politicians, Ms. Merkel is able to check her ego at the door when she enters one of the endless negotiations at European summits. “She just focuses on the issues at hand and is not as vain as some other heads of states and governments,” said Silke Mülherr, a colleague of mine at Die Welt who covered European politics in Brussels.

Let the alpha males fight it out, then take advantage of the holes they dug up for themselves — that’s one of Merkel’s tactics.

And of course it helps that they always underestimate the “little girl,” as former Chancellor Helmut Kohl once called her. That was before the “little girl” drove him from power in the Christian Democratic Union.

Part of what makes Ms. Merkel effective, both as a conservative leader and as a role model, is that she doesn’t stress women’s issues.

But that concerns many traditional feminists. “Among women there is annoyance at the fact that she has made a lot of concessions unfavorable to women,” said Alice Schwarzer, editor of Emma, a feminist magazine. “She doesn’t want to stress the women’s aspect in order not to irritate people further.”

The result is something of a paradox. Young professional women in Germany respect the ease with which she fills the post, as if it should have been that way all along. That naturalness, they say, has helped them imagine themselves in similar top positions.

But also they find it hard to identify with her, because her biography doesn’t offer a solution to a problem on the minds of many well-educated young women: how to combine a rewarding professional career with children and family.

Ms. Merkel doesn’t have children, and never had to reconcile home and career. This is a particularly tough issue in business, where it can be harder to carve out space for a life outside of work, and where sexist stereotypes still have currency.

So what does Ms. Merkel mean for our little girls and others, who have never consciously experienced a male chancellor? They will consider it very odd when a man finally takes over the chancellor’s office. It will, hopefully, not even cross their minds that they might not be fit for the highest positions because of their gender.

And as a father, I hope that after another term of the Merkel administration, even Germany’s male-dominated corporate culture will begin to open up — and not only to women like Angela Merkel, who has proven that she can beat men at their own game.

Clemens Wergin is the foreign editor of the German newspaper group Die Welt and the author of the blog Flatworld.

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