Is the World’s Most Powerful Woman Finally a Feminist?

Angela Merkel at a cabinet meeting last week. Credit Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Angela Merkel at a cabinet meeting last week. Credit Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The day after the British Parliament voted down a deal on Brexit, with political instability dominating international headlines, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany sat down for a 45-minute interview with a journalist from the German newspaper Die Zeit.

They didn’t talk about Britain, however, or the future of Europe or even really about German politics. Instead, Ms. Merkel gave a rare and candid account of her experience as a female politician, her thoughts on feminism and how she has been shaped by her gender. It was her first time broaching the topic at such length in more than 13 years as chancellor.

Ms. Merkel is the most visible and powerful woman in the world: whether consciously or not, she’s served as a role model to women and girls across the globe, and as proof of the political heights to which a woman today can rise.

But she has built her political persona precisely by downplaying that female identity. When she was climbing the ranks of the conservative, male-dominated Christian Democrats in the 1990s, Ms. Merkel consistently sought to create a brand that transcended her gender, rejecting the label of feminist and opting not to vocally pursue women’s issues.

As she eyes an impending exit from political life, however, and contemplates her legacy — Ms. Merkel has announced that she will not run again as chancellor when her term expires in 2021 — her reticence to discuss such issues is clearly changing. The interview in Die Zeit is the clearest example yet, but follows a string of markedly more frequent comments about gender and women’s representation: The same day last fall when she announced she would step down as leader of the Christian Democrats, Ms. Merkel opined on the gender pay gap at an event; earlier that month, she’d called out the youth wing of her party for its disproportionately male leadership; that same month, appearing on a business round table in Israel with only men, she said “it would be better” if the next such gathering included a woman.

Those hoping for a full-throated embrace of the role of feminism in politics were likely still disappointed by the interview. Ms. Merkel drew a distinction between herself and those she considers real “feminists” — those who “fought all their lives for women’s rights” — and people like herself, who merely had to find “my way” to contribute. Throughout, Ms. Merkel suggested her importance to women came “automatically” — that is, by simply being a woman and being powerful — rather than from any specific outreach or advocacy on her part. “I rarely address only women,” she said. “The fact that women compare themselves to me arises from the fact that I am a woman and other women also sometimes face difficult tasks.”

She downplayed the idea that she’d been an important role model, calling it “a bit exaggerated” and noting that other women on the world stage — Hillary Clinton, Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher among them — have contributed to women’s equality.

Still, Ms. Merkel called for gender parity in all areas, by saying such an idea “just seems logical.” And she spoke of her own personal experience as a female politician, from how to be taken seriously — “radiating authority” is something women must learn, she said — to the focus on her wardrobe. “It’s no problem at all for a man to wear a dark blue suit a hundred days in a row,” she said, “but if I wear the same blazer four times within two weeks, the letters start pouring in.”

Of course, drawing attention to an issue is different than actively advocating change. Ms. Merkel’s historic ascension to the chancellery has had seemingly little effect on women’s representation at the mid- and high-levels of business, politics and technology here, a point on which women’s rights activists have long criticized the chancellor. Less than one-third of positions on the supervisory boards of German public companies are held by women, statistics from 2018 show. And while several of Germany’s major political parties are led by women, the percentage of women in the German Bundestag (31 percent) actually declined after the 2017 elections; women are underrepresented in local- and state-level politics.

“When it comes to actually fighting for gender equality — to making it part of her agenda — she is really not championing it,” Anne Wizorek, a German feminist and writer, told me.

And yet the shift in tone is significant. Ms. Merkel is an intentional and careful politician. Wide-ranging, sit-down interviews are rare for her; agreeing to this interview and these topics was a deliberate decision. So what is she trying to accomplish?

Ms. Merkel is in the end stages of her political career, and in many ways she is in a unique position: After handing off leadership of the Christian Democrats to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer last month, she retains the power and bully pulpit of the chancellery without being subject to the day-to-day concerns of party politics.

Depending on your perspective, Ms. Merkel is either notoriously or appropriately cautious as a politician; if she has avoided embracing her gender up until now, it is because she worried it would weaken her political standing. But Ms. Merkel has no elections left to win — and, in fact, knows that her likeliest successor is another woman, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer. And attitudes toward feminism, once seen as a radical concept in postwar West Germany, have, while still complicated, begun to shift in recent years.

Her comments to Die Zeit come at a time in which Ms. Merkel, and everyone else, is already considering her legacy. Though the central questions surrounding that legacy don’t actually have much to do with gender — was Ms. Merkel the chief defender of liberal democracy, for example, or the one whose actions created the conditions for the forces challenging it? — her role as a female politician will surely figure into such discussions, and her acknowledgment that, although “automatic,” she has contributed to women’s equality could be an attempt to shape that narrative while still in office.

In any case, these comments on gender hint at a final new phase in Ms. Merkel’s political life, one in which she simultaneously has the position to exercise influence and the political freedom to choose which issues to highlight. It seems unlikely that Ms. Merkel will become an outspoken champion for women’s rights over the next two years. (“Are you aware that many women in our country have developed a particularly strong emotional bond with you?” the interviewer asked. Ms. Merkel: “No, that isn’t especially clear to me.”) But as the chancellor herself acknowledged this month, “when I say or do something, I am saying or doing it as a woman.” It may not be much, but it’s further than she has ever been willing to go before.

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about German politics and the rise of populism.

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