We asked Germans what Angela Merkel's leadership has meant to them. Here’s what they said.
#WomenLead (Issue 68): A special edition to mark the end of an era
Hello, and welcome to Issue 68!
This edition is dedicated to Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful and iconic leaders of our times. So please bear with us, as we skip our quick updates section this week (we will make sure you have all the important updates next week)!.
Before we begin, a big shout-out and all our gratitude to everyone who helped us put together this edition - from sparing the time to answer our questions, and for going out of their way to help us get in touch with people from Germany. This edition would not have been possible without the #WomenLead community!
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Spotlight: GERMANY 🇩🇪🇩🇪🇩🇪
As we send out this edition, Germans are voting to elect a new government, and more importantly, a new Chancellor.
After sixteen years in office, Angela Merkel is retiring from politics.
Merkel’s departure will not just be felt in Germany, but around the world. As one of the towering leaders of Europe and of the entire world for so many years (not to mention often the only or the rare woman leader in key global events), she has become a familiar face for people everywhere.
As this era comes to an end, #WomenLead reached out to several people in Germany to understand what Merkel has meant to them, how she impacted the country’s notions of leadership, and if all those years of her being at the top has made it any easier for women to be a German chancellor in the future. (Names marked with asterisks have been changed on request.)
We got a range of responses. There’s appreciation, but also frustration. Some see her tenure as a period of stability, even prosperity, but not necessarily of transformative change. There are ifs and buts, and a good amount of criticism, but one thing is clear: Merkel’s tenure will stand out as a distinct era in German and global politics.
When Merkel became chancellor in 2005, she was the first woman to hold the position in the country’s history. And this disruption of what had thus far been a male-exclusive territory showed in the way she was scrutinized.
The people we spoke to recall the judgments and commentary from the early years.
There were remarks about not looking “good enough” and criticism for her hair style. Merkel once wore a dress with a deep neck to an opera, but never made that “mistake” again after it led to a public outcry, recalls Esther Somfalvy, a research fellow at the University of Bremen. Rather, she took to wearing her characteristic pant suits, in “every imaginable colour”.
The reasoning behind all those colours might have been a considered one, though. Merkel once recalled the reactions she got if she were to repeat a colour. “For a man, wearing a dark blue suit for a hundred days in a row is no problem at all, but if I wear the same blazer four times in two weeks, citizens write to me,” she once said.
Merkel in fact started picking the colour of her suits as part of her political messaging, says Sofia Weber*, a cultural anthropologist. “For example, she will often wear blue when she is to make a statement regarding the EU,” Weber says.
It wasn’t just Merkel’s sartorial choices or appearances. She was also spoken of in a demeaning way. Even before she became chancellor, she was often called “Kohl’s girl”, a reference to her former mentor and chancellor Helmut Kohl. “She was already 40 and far away from being a girl,” says Gudula Kilias, a development professional from Jena. “It shows that people couldn’t imagine that a woman could lead Germany. [But] she stepped out of Kohl‘s shadow and showed that she can do it as good (or as bad) as any male person.”
And step out of those shadows and labels, she did.
The people who spoke to #WomenLead noted how Merkel carved out a distinct leadership style from her predecessors. In doing so, she may have left an impact on how Germans perceive leadership, especially from their chancellor.
“It was very tough for Merkel to climb the stairs in her very conservative male-dominated party and step out of the shadow of Helmut Kohl,” says Berlin-based management consultant Ibrahim Körana. “But she made it and…obviously did a very good job, earning her three re-elections with different coalition partners.”
Esther Somfalvy adds: “Merkel is known to have a very sober, level-headed, and ‘moderating’ style of leadership, in stark contrast to her predecessor (Gerhard) Schröder who was said to have liked to smack his fist on the table and say how things must be done. Merkel resolves conflicts outside the public eye and has the ability to weather any storm. This has been associated with a more ‘female’ style of leadership.”
Petra Ahrens, a researcher from Tampere University (Finland) and who is co-editing (with Phillip Ayoub and Sabine Lang) a forthcoming issue of German Politics on Merkel and gender equality, has more observations:
“Merkel's leadership style has in general generated some discussions about what leadership actually means, or, at least, what many in Germany expect from a leader. Merkel has been equally criticized for being too restrained and not taking a determined position on many questions and heralded for acting thoughtfully instead of too impulsive.
“With this 'leading from behind' style, she clearly deviated from Schröder, who was infamous for his ‘Basta-Politik’ (‘the buck stops here’ politics) and for dismissing progressive gender equality policies as ‘Gedöns’ (useless fuss). Against that background, I would assume that the German public is - after 16 years of chancellorship - quite used to the often passive and indirect facilitation of Angela Merkel in many policy fields. Some decry it, others praise it.”
And what does it mean to have someone as a country’s leader for sixteen years, especially if this leader is a woman, a rarity in politics?
Malliga Och, an associate professor at Idaho State University, draws from her own experience to answer that.
“I was born shortly after Helmut Kohl became Chancellor. When he finally had to step down, I was 16 years old and I distinctly remember how confusing and disorientating it was to see Gerhard Schröder as chancellor. Now imagine that there is a whole new generation who cannot remember a male chancellor. Not just a specific chancellor but this generation born around 2005 has never ever experienced a man as a political leader. To me this is something to marvel at.”
And Och is right.
Ahrens recalls how her 12-year-old child once asked her: “Which woman was chancellor before Merkel took office?” When she replied that Merkel was the first woman ever in the post, “my child would not believe me”, Ahrens says.
A small boy asking his mother, ‘Can men also become chancellor?’ is in fact a common joke in Germany, according to a Reuters report. And a magazine ad by Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is running to succeed Merkel, said: “Er kann Kanzlerin” (He can be Chancellor). The important thing to note is that Scholz chose to use the word “Kanzerlin”, the feminine form of the word, unlike the otherwise generic male form “Kanzler”.
Does that mean future women politicians would find it any easier?
The larger sense is “not quite”.
It is evident that people - especially women - had a lot of hope from her. And at the end of this long tenure, there is a sense of an unfinished agenda. Merkel’s long tenure might have influenced ideas of leadership, but many see her tenure as a lost opportunity to have made a dent in the patriarchal barriers that keep German women largely out of politics. Merkel’s refusal to identify as a feminist until very recently did not help matters either.
But it’s difficult to say whether she was unwilling to push a feminist agenda, or she was just reluctant to do so in order to keep her conservative support-base intact. There is a sense that Merkel occupying the top post was used as a justification that all was well in the country when it came to gender. That there was no structural discrimination, and hence no special measures needed to fix the gender skew.
Also read: No dearth of misogyny for women in German politics even after 16 years of Merkel
Those we spoke to acknowledge that Merkel did try to push women in politics, such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. But overall, the representation numbers haven’t seen improvement. Women made up 31.8 percent of the German Parliament in 2005. Today, the outgoing Parliament has 31.5 percent women.
“I know many women who voted for the conservative party because they had a woman as their leader, only to be disappointed that their vote had led to electing mainly male conservatives who worked to preserve old role models,” notes Karl Keller*, a Berlin-based political scientist and philosopher.
Nothing articulates the stubborn persistence of misogyny more than the hate that has been thrown at Annalena Baerbock in recent months.
As we have noted in a previous edition, Baerbock who is from the Green Party has faced all kinds of misogynistic barriers in her campaign - from online disinformation and fake nude images being circulated, to sexist jibes and excessive questioning on how someone with children can become Chancellor. The attacks on Baerbock was something that nearly everyone we spoke to expressed their shock and dismay at.
That said, Och notes that Germany did see some progress during Merkel’s tenure: her government passed progressive reforms including equitable parental leave, new anti-discrimination laws, equal marriage, corporate board quotas, and reforming the outdated rape laws. There have also been many more women in the business world during her time, Keller adds.
One area where nearly everyone seems to appreciate Merkel was her leadership at international forums. In contrast to men like Putin, Trump and Erdogan, Merkel often stood out for her calm and reasonable presence, Weber notes.
“I always experienced great joy and a sense of pride to see Merkel on the world stage and putting male leaders in their place,” says Och. (Oh, how can we not agree!)
We end with the observation of Isle Müller*, who is from Bavaria and is in her seventies. We shall let her have the last word on the matter:
“It’s too early to say what impact Merkel had. However, she has done a lot for Europe. Almost more for Europe than for Germany. She was respected by many…Merkel was simply good: she is smart, she is a PhD, she was a model student. You couldn’t outsmart her that easily. Her appearance on the world stage has been impressive...
One thing is clear, whoever succeeds her has some very big shoes to fill. Merkel left a big legacy.”
Photo of the week
Reflections & Reads
How Angela Merkel changed her country, BBC
The mess Merkel leaves behind, The Economist
The Secret to Germany’s COVID-19 Success: Angela Merkel Is a Scientist, The Atlantic
The Other Side of Angela Merkel, Foreign Policy
In pictures: How the international press depicted Merkel, DW
That’s a wrap for this week! We wish Angela Merkel a restful, blissful and fruitful retired life. If you liked reading this issue, please do press the like ❤️ button, and forward this to a friend/colleague or share it on your social media - reader endorsement is the only way newsletters grow!
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