As Merkel bids farewell, Germans want more equality

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September 21, 2021 9:10 a.m.

By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) – Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female Chancellor, has been hailed by many for her pragmatic leadership in a turbulent world and celebrated by some as a feminist icon. But a glance at her track record during her 16 years at the helm of Germany reveals missed opportunities to tackle gender inequality at home.
Named “The Most Powerful Woman in the World” by Forbes magazine for the past 10 years in a row, Merkel has been touted as a powerful advocate of liberal values ​​in the West. She easily withstood male-dominated summits with leaders such as former US President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Millions of women admire the 67-year-old for breaking the glass ceiling of male domination in politics, and she has been hailed as an impressive role model for girls.
While traveling in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Merkel has often made it a point to visit projects for the defense of women’s rights. She has always stressed that giving women in poor countries better access to education and work is the key to the development of these nations.
But when it comes to the situation of women in Germany, Merkel – who said in 2018 that she would not stand again in Sunday’s general election – has been criticized for not using her position enough to push for greater gender equality.
“One thing is clear: one woman has shown that women can do it,” said Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s most famous feminist. “However, a single female chancellor does not allow emancipation.”
Schwarzer, the 78-year-old women’s rights activist, is the most important founding member of the German women’s liberation movement, both loved and hated in the country.
“She’s the first to reach 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 outside of her mere presence? Honestly, not much. “
German women even experienced setbacks during Merkel’s reign. Before Merkel took office in 2005, 23% of federal lawmakers in 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 women parliamentarians.
Germany also lags behind other European countries in terms of equal political representation.
In 2020, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and governments was 31.4% in Germany, well below 49.6% in Sweden, 43.3% in Belgium or 42, 2% of Spain, according to the statistical agency of the European Union Eurostat.
Women also remain second-class citizens in the German working world. Last year, only 14.6% of senior executives at large German listed companies were women. Germany also has one of the largest 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 lobbied for more power for women in an indirect way.
“Angela Merkel did not take office claiming to use her role as chancellor to support women or to make gender equality her interest,” said Julia Reuschenbach, policy analyst at the University of Bonn. “However, she has been very involved in promoting other women in politics.”
Ursula von der Leyen, a pillar of the Merkel cabinet, became the first female president of the European Commission in 2019. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as head of her CDU in 2018, although she was unsuccessful to impose his authority on the party and resigned earlier this year. .
In 2007, von der Leyen, then Minister for Families in the Merkel cabinet, pushed through a gradual reform of the country’s child-raising allowance that encouraged fathers to take parental leave after the birth of a child. child. However, it was one of the few legal changes during the chancellor’s tenure who actively sought to improve the situation of women.
One of the reasons for Merkel’s reluctance to fight more openly for feminist issues in Germany may be her own struggle to reach the top of German politics, Schwarzer said.
“Merkel suffered a lot as a woman,” especially at the start of her political career, she said. “She wasn’t expecting it, so maybe that’s one reason she didn’t choose the fact that she is a woman as her central subject.”
Influential men in her traditionally West German, Catholic-dominated conservative party did not really welcome the former East German Protestant physicist with open arms, and politicians in other parties did not treat her with open arms. respect initially, said Schwarzer.
Comments by German journalists about Merkel’s appearance were often overtly sexist, especially at first. The German media first dubbed her “Kohl’s daughter”, because Merkel was initially promoted by then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, and later called her “Mutti” or “mum” even if Merkel has no children.
Leonie Pouw, a 24-year-old campaign manager in Berlin, was eight when Merkel came to power, so she says it was the most normal thing for her to have a female chancellor.
“It wasn’t until school, when I started to have a political conscience, that I realized how much it meant, especially for the older generation, for a woman to rule Germany. “said Pouw, who grew up in southwestern Germany. “When I understood that, it made me proud too.”
Nonetheless, Pouw believes Merkel could have done more for women’s rights and noted that none of Merkel’s cabinets during her four terms have achieved gender parity.
“I hope that in the future there will be as many women as men to represent us,” said Pouw.
When Merkel herself was asked in 2017 if she was a feminist, she answered evasively, saying, “I don’t want to beautify myself with a title that I don’t have.
It is only in recent years that Merkel has approached the subject proactively and spoken out in favor of greater gender equality in Germany. In 2018, as Germany marked the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, she said in a speech in Berlin to overwhelming applause from predominantly female listeners that much remained to be done to achieve gender equality. sexes.
“The goal must be equality, equality everywhere,” she said. “I hope that it becomes natural for women and men to separate from work, to raise children and to do housework equally … and I hope that it will not take another 100 years for get there.
Merkel has said little about her experiences of discrimination or her personal life, and her husband, quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, has kept a low profile in public.
Over the past few weeks, Merkel has taken a notable step forward in embracing women’s rights, saying in a discussion with women in Düsseldorf: “I am a feminist.
“Yes, we should all be feminists,” she added.
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Pietro De Cristofaro contributed reporting.
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Follow AP’s coverage of the German elections at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election

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