Angela Merkel: What did Germany’s first female chancellor do for women?

As Germany's first woman chancellor, Angela Merkel smashed the glass ceiling and became a leading player in global politics.

Angela Merkel: What did Germany's first female chancellor do for women?
Chancellor Angela Merkel at an event recently. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP Pool | Odd Andersen

But only now, at the end of her 16 years in office, has she declared herself a feminist – too little too late for some in Germany.

In 2017, Merkel was at a rare loss for words when she was asked if she was a feminist, and dodged the question.

But earlier this month, during a joint interview with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Merkel was less coy. “I am a feminist,” she said.

READ ALSO: ‘Im a feminist’ says Merkel 

Merkel, who is bowing out of politics after Germany’s September 26th election, admitted she had been “shy” about the label but said her thinking on the issue had evolved.

“Essentially, it’s about the fact that men and women are equal,” the 67-year-old said.

Ines Kappert, head of the Gunda Werner Institute for Feminism and GenderDemocracy in Berlin, called Merkel’s belated realisation “a slap in the face” women.

“She had 16 years to listen to feminists and improve the situation of women in Germany and she decided not to,” Kappert told AFP.

While Merkel’s career “deserves respect”, Kappert said the chancellor failed to make structural changes for women in German society.

Germany’s gender pay gap remains among the highest in the European Union and stood at 19 percent in 2019, not least because many German women work part-time.

READ ALSO: An era ends – How will Germany and the world remember the Merkel years?

Chancellor Angela Merkel and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about a range of topics including feminism. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Rolf Vennenbernd

Eye roll

Merkel’s conservative CDU-CSU bloc has resisted a long-standing feminist plea to reform Germany’s tax system for married couples, which makes it less attractive for the lower-earning spouse, usually the woman, to work full-time.

Merkel’s cabinet only last year agreed to a mandatory quota for women on management boards, a reform spearheaded by her coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

A law on gender wage transparency was meanwhile passed after much conservative foot-dragging.

And there are now fewer female lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament than earlier in the Merkel era, falling from a peak of around 36 percent in 2013 to 31 percent today.

“Merkel discovered feminism late in her tenure,” said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund think tank in Berlin.

“Perhaps she didn’t notice being one of the few women on the global stage all these years since she had her nose to the grindstone working out one crisis after another.”

READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

The no-nonsense chancellor is famed for holding her own against the likes of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump — only the
occasional eye roll hinting at exasperation with macho posturing or mansplaining attempts.

“She showed that women can do power jobs well and that women can serve the country,” said Kappert.

In the twilight of her reign, Merkel has spoken more frequently about women’s rights and her own experiences.

‘Patriarchal backlash’

Merkel grew up in former communist East Germany, where free childcare enabled women to work and equal pay was written into the constitution, benchmarks of equality that were not carried over after German reunification in 1990.

She recently said it was her physics studies that taught the pastor’s daughter to stand up for herself in a male-dominated environment, recalling the scramble to snag a table during experiments.

Merkel, who is married but does not have children, said in March that the pandemic must not be allowed “to lead us to fall back into old gender patterns”, as parents struggled with school closures, working from home and job cuts.

But her government has also been criticised for not prioritising families during the coronavirus crisis.

On Merkel’s watch, her one-time defence minister Ursula von der Leyen became the first female president of the European Commission.

Current German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is also a woman and was tipped as Merkel’s preferred heir before several political missteps
thwarted those ambitions.

Kappert said Merkel had not held the door open for progressive, feminist politicians.

As a result, her CDU party is experiencing a “patriarchal backlash” with “all these super sexist, conservative men coming back,” Kappert said.

The conservatives’ pick to succeed Merkel, Armin Laschet, recently said a chancellor could play a key role towards more gender equality “perhaps a man even more than a woman”.

The only female chancellor candidate is mother-of-two Annalena Baerbock from the Greens, whose party is not expected to win but stands a realistic chance of being part of the next coalition government.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Germany’s ‘traffic light’ parties sign coalition agreement in Berlin

Two and a half months after the federal elections on September 26th, the three parties of the incoming 'traffic light' coalition - the SPD, Greens and FDP - have formally signed their coalition agreement at a public ceremony in Berlin.

Traffic light coalition
Germany's next Chancellor Olaf Scholz (front, left) on stage in Berlin with other members of the new coalition government, and their signed agreement. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The move marks the final stage of a 10-week week process that saw the three unlikely bedfellows forming a first-of-its-kind partnership in German federal government. 

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is now due to be elected Chancellor of Germany on Wednesday and his newly finalised cabinet will be sworn in on the same day. This will mark the end of the 16-year Angela Merkel era following the veteran leader’s decision to retire from politics this year. 

Speaking at the ceremony in Berlin on Tuesday morning, Scholz declared it “a morning when we set out for a new government.”

He praised the speed at which the three parties had concluded their talks and said the fight against the Covid crisis would first require the full strength of the new coalition.

Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck, who is set to head up a newly formed environment and energy ministry, said the goal was “a government for the people of Germany”.

He stressed that the new government would face the joint challenge of bringing climate neutrality and prosperity together in Europe’s largest industrial nation and the world’s fourth largest economy.

Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock spoke of a coalition agreement “on the level of reality, on the level of social reality”.

FDP leader Christian Lindner, who managed to secure the coveted role of Finance Minister in the talks, declared that now was the “time for action”.

“We are not under any illusions,” he told people gathered at the ceremony. “These are great challenges we face.”

Scholz, Habeck and Lindner are scheduled to hold  a press conference before midday to answer questions on the goals of the new government.

‘New beginnings’

Together with the Greens and the FDP, Scholz’s SPD managed in a far shorter time than expected to forge a coalition that aspires to make Germany greener and fairer.

The Greens became the last of the three parties to agree on the contents of the 177-page coalition agreement an in internal vote on Monday, following approval from the SPD and FDP’s inner ranks over the weekend.

“I want the 20s to be a time of new beginnings,” Scholz told Die Zeit weekly, declaring an ambition to push forward “the biggest industrial modernisation which will be capable of stopping climate change caused by mankind”.

Putting equality rhetoric into practice, he unveiled the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet on Monday, with women in key security portfolios.

“That corresponds to the society we live in – half of the power belongs to women,” said Scholz, who describes himself as a “feminist”.

READ ALSO: Scholz names Germany’s first gender-equal cabinet

The centre-left’s return to power in Europe’s biggest economy could shift the balance on a continent still reeling from Brexit and with the other major player, France, heading into presidential elections in 2022.

But even before it took office, Scholz’s “traffic-light” coalition – named after the three parties’ colours – was already given a baptism of fire in the form of a fierce fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Balancing act
Dubbed “the discreet” by left-leaning daily TAZ, Scholz, 63, is often described as austere or robotic.
But he also has a reputation for being a meticulous workhorse.
An experienced hand in government, Scholz was labour minister in Merkel’s first coalition from 2007 to 2009 before taking over as vice chancellor and finance minister in 2015.
Yet his three-party-alliance is the first such mix at the federal level, as the FDP is not a natural partner for the SPD or the Greens.

Keeping the trio together will require a delicate balancing act taking into account the FDP’s business-friendly leanings, the SPD’s social equality instincts and the Greens’ demands for sustainability.

Under their coalition deal, the parties have agreed to secure Germany’s path to carbon neutrality, including through huge investments in sustainable energy.

They also aim to return to a constitutional no-new-debt rule – suspended during the pandemic – by 2023.

FDP cabinets
Volker Wissing (l-r), FDP General Secretary und designated Transport Minister, walks alongside Christian Lindner, FDP leader and designated Finance Minister, Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP), the incoming Education Minister, and Marco Buschmann, the incoming Justice Minister. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler


Incoming foreign minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens has vowed to put human rights at the centre of German diplomacy.

She has signalled a more assertive stance towards authoritarian regimes like China and Russia after the commerce-driven pragmatism of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

Critics have accused Merkel of putting Germany’s export-dependent economy first in international dealings.

Nevertheless she is still so popular at home that she would probably have won a fifth term had she sought one.

The veteran politician is also widely admired abroad for her steady hand guiding Germany through a myriad of crises.