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5 March 2018

How Angela Merkel’s unspoken feminism transformed German politics

The most powerful woman in the world has secured a fourth term. 

By Matthew Qvortrup

Angela Merkel is back in charge of Europe. On Sunday, 68 per cent of the members of the Social Democrats (SPD) voted for another Grand Coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union CDU (and Christian Social Union in Bavaria). The turnout was 78 per cent

After almost 13 years in power, all indications are that Merkel is entering her final phase of her remarkable and unusual career. In two years, she will overtake her protégé Helmut Kohl’s record as the longest serving Chancellor of postwar Germany. Only Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century will have served longer than Merkel.

It is natural, at this stage, to take stock, and to assess what Merkel accomplished. Some have remarked that hers was a quiet power, that she changed the style of politics in the German Federal Republic

Before Merkel became Chancellor in 2005, no woman had held high political office. Her own Christian Democrat Party was dominated by socially conservative, southern, Catholic lawyers. The party’s view was that women should concentrate on was Kinder, Küche, Kirche – Children, Kitchen and Church.

This changed with Merkel. A divorcee daughter of a Lutheran Pastor, and a woman with a doctorate in quantum chemistry, she did not conform to the standard of female Christian Democrat politicians.

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Merkel will probably be remembered for her role in resolving the euro debt crisis and for opening the borders to close to one million refugees. But her main legacy is in social policies.

Her first legislative achievement as a minister in the 1990s was to introduce a more liberal abortion law. It is often overlooked that West Germany effectively banned women’s right to choose before the unification of Germany in 1990.

Merkel is not a flag-flying feminist (at a high profile gathering of women that included Ivanka Trump, she did not join those who raised their hands to identify as feminists). But her policies tell a different story.

On her watch, Germany became a more social democracy – with small “s”. Better provisions for childcare and a higher minimum wage were issues she more or less stole from the centre-left Social Democrats. And while Merkel was herself sceptical, she oversaw the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017.

All these changes also impacted political life. More women rose to prominent positions – as did politicians with same-sex partners. The late Guido Westerwelle became Germany’s first openly gay Cabinet Minister when he served as Merkel’s foreign secretary between 2009 and 2013. And the only male politician with a realistic chance of succeeding Merkel is the openly gay Jens Spahn (the coalition’s new secretary of state for health).

But what is most remarkable is the near dominance of women in the two largest parties. After an internal jockeying for position, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was chosen as the new Secretary General of the CDU. The former Premier of Saarland, a small state in the south-west of the country, was seen to have two rivals, both women: Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and the new Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner. That Merkel and her long-serving chief of staff Beate Baumann (yes, another woman) were able to effectively dictate who her successor will be says it all. Of the party members, 99 per cent endorsed “AKK” (as the new Secretary General is known).

This influence of women is not just a CDU phenomenon. When the SPD leader Martin Schulz resigned, his post as party leader was taken over by the 47 year-old Andrea Nahles, a pugnacious former employment minister

“Mother, can a man really be Prime Minister?”, a little girl asked former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland when she was replaced by Kaare Willoch back in the early 1980s. The same question could be asked in Germany. All indications are that the next election in Germany will pit two women against each other; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Andrea Nahles. In Germany, politics is a feminist issue.

Matthew Qvortrup’s book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader is published by Duckworth. Follow him @drqvortrup.

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