In a way, Elke Büdenbender is the exact opposite of Melania Trump. Being married to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the new German head of state, she has given up her job as a judge at the Berlin Administrative Court to fully devote her time to the job of first lady. Mrs. Trump, on the contrary, refuses to be first lady, in order to, well, to continue to do pretty much nothing.
Still, however different the two women may be, Germany is having the same discussion as the United States: Are we still in for a first lady in the 21st century? Is a first housewife still an appropriate representative of the nation we are? And does she represent the nation we’d like to be?
As for the nation we’d like to be, the German answer is quite simple: No, she does not. Most Germans like to think of women’s equality as a mission accomplished and would probably agree that the role model that lives on at the Schloss Bellevue, the president’s residence, has outlived its time.
Germany has never had a female president, which may be why it has never modernized the roles of its first couple. At the Schloss Bellevue, the 1950s have survived, turning it into a museum of social history, a “Mad Men” caricature of the domestic, patriarchal past, just plusher and less cool, exuding the stale smell of a Sunday roast gone cold waiting for Daddy to return to the familial home.
The German first lady, not unlike her American counterpart, is the woman “at his side,” as many media outlets like to put it. She is active, but in a way that postwar Germany would have approved of, too. Traditionally, she’s the patron of the Müttergenesungswerk, a charitable organization founded by Elly Heuss-Knapp, Germany’s first first lady, which is dedicated to the health of mothers. Horst Köhler, the president from 2004 to 2010, and his wife, Eva Luise, for example, started a foundation for rare diseases. The first lady is in charge of organizing the president’s New Year’s reception and other tasks that comply with traditional female role requirements such as caretaking, tending and accommodating.
All of this is based on mere convention. The first lady has no constitutional role. The fact that she is acting as a state official equipped with an office, assistant and staffer could actually raise some difficult legal questions, as Sophie Schönberger, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Konstanz, recently noted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, picking up on the question raised in the United States over whether Mrs. Trump should be paid. Or, as Norbert Lammert, president of the German Parliament, put it during Mr. Steinmeier’s inauguration, addressing Ms. Büdenbender: “Yours is an office which, according to our Constitution, doesn’t exist.” It’s as though he was trying to squeeze women’s history into one sentence: Women have always managed without holding an office, acted without recognition, worked without pay, existed outside the written.
There’s a broad consensus in Germany that this must stop — despite recent attempts by populists to discredit the feminist agenda. In the past decade, German governments and Germany’s civil society have invested considerable energy and money in promoting women’s labor-market participation and visibility in the public sphere. The thing is: All of the political energy invested in setting up quotas and all the money poured into day care and shared parental leave have really not changed that much.
Which brings me back to whether the unofficial office of first lady represents Germany as it is. The answer is clearly yes.
Women in Germany are extremely well educated. But when the first child is born, they tend to step down, and never really step up again. Germany is currently governed by a female chancellor as well as six female and nine male ministers. But the televised ubiquity of powerful political women is misleading. Only 6.7 percent of all board members managing companies listed on Germany’s major public exchanges are women.
In the lower ranks, it’s the same picture. We are a country of stay-at-home moms and part-time moms, particularly in comparison with our Northern and Eastern European neighbors, and even with the United States, where work is much more equally distributed. Figures released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in March show that over a fifth of all German women between the ages of 25 and 40 with at least one child stay at home; another third work less than 30 hours per week. In only 10 percent of all couples in this age group do both work full time.
The typical German woman’s career is still this: get educated for a low-paid job in the social, medical or educational sector, take time off for children, return to work part time (doing more hours than you’re actually paid for, but getting less recognition than your full-time male colleagues), take time off to tend to elderly parents, return to your job part time and then, when you’re retired, take care of ill husband and stressed-out children’s children, all while dwelling on a mediocre pension.
Of course this is not what Ms. Büdenbender personally stands for: she is a woman who has raised a child and had an impressive career despite a frequently absent husband (and one who, people who know her say, leaves her job reluctantly). But it’s what her new role as first lady represents: being “at his side” instead of just being you. Being a manager without an office, acting without recognition, working without pay, missing out on the book of history.
Ms. Büdenbender’s choice to be first lady painfully reminds us of the shortcomings and contradictions of emancipation in Germany, of the wide gap between public discourse and social reality. It is at least a quarter of a century wide. It will be extremely interesting to see whether she will reinterpret the role she has inherited from inequality in order to close that gap a little — at least the gap between what she really is, and what the first lady is.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.