For many people, it is a given that the most powerful woman in the world would be a feminist. As someone who has risen to the top echelons of power in a world dominated by men, she must inherently understand the barriers that women across the globe still face and advocate for gender equality, right? Actually, as she would tell you, the answer is (apparently) a little more complicated. In fact, it isn’t until a few weeks ago that Angela Merkel finally embraced the feminist label.
For the past 16 years, Merkel has served as the first female Chancellor of Germany — the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest economy in the world — and every year (except in 2010) she has been named the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes. Merkel, who grew up in former Eastern Germany, has led her country through multiple crises: first the European debt crisis in 2009, then the 2015 refugee crisis — during which she decided to welcome more than 1 million refugees — and now the COVID-19 pandemic. She is beloved by the German people (her popularity stands at over 80%), and she is trusted across the globe. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 77% of respondents in 16 advanced economies in North America, Europe and Asia expressed confidence in her leadership, outdoing any other world leader. She is seen as the “leader of Europe,” and during the Trump administration, she was hailed by some as “the leader of the free world.” In a few weeks, once the next chancellor is named, she will step down after 4 terms in office.
As both a scientist and a politician, Merkel is no stranger to being the only woman in the room. In 1986 she earned a Doctorate in Quantum Chemistry, a field dominated by men, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall she quickly rose through the ranks of the CDU, the center-right party in Germany. In 2005, she became the German Chancellor after serving as Minister for Women and Youth and Minister for the Environment. She has worked with four American Presidents, four French Presidents, five British Prime Ministers and eight Italian Prime Ministers — all of whom were men. She also has had to deal with her share of inappropriate behavior from male politicians; most famously, at a G8 conference in 2006 President George W. Bush tried to give her a shoulder massage. Can you imagine him trying this on any male leader?
This entire background thus makes her comments at the 2017 G20’s Women summit even more puzzling. When asked if she was a feminist, Merkel gave a somewhat awkward and deeply unsatisfying answer: “To be honest, the history of feminism is one with which I have common ground but also differences,” she replied, “and I don’t want to embellish myself with a title I don’t have.” However, at a recent event in Dusseldorf with award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Merkel seemed to change her tune, declaring that “Yes, I am a feminist.”
So, which is it? If Merkel’s words are so hard to follow, what does her tenure as Chancellor say?
For some, Merkel has achieved little in the realm of gender equality. Even after 16 years under female leadership, Germany still has one of the highest gender-pay gaps in Europe at over 18%. Last year the European Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index ranked Germany 12 out of 18. In 2019, according to the European Institute for Gender Equality, 47% of German women still worked part-time; for comparison, that figure stood at just 30% and 41% in France and the United Kingdom respectively. Moreover, only a third of seats in German national parliaments and governments are held by women — during her chancellorship, the number of female lawmakers in Merkel’s own party fell from 23% to 19.9%. Women make up only around 40% of her cabinet, and many important Ministries, such as Interior, Foreign Affairs and Finance, are led by men.
Yet these issues belie Merkel’s progressive legacy when it comes to gender equality. It will take years to achieve gender parity in the fields of politics, work and income, and having one female leader will not make every inequality disappear. In areas where it could enact change, though, Merkel’s government did so rather boldly. Early in her tenure, Germany passed The General Equal Treatment Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race or ethnicity, sex, religion, disability, age or sexual identity. It also reformed the country’s childcare system and created a new paid leave policy, which encouraged fathers to take time off as well. In 2021, the German cabinet approved the mandate of quotas for women on boards of large companies. And in 2013, Merkel appointed the first woman to be Minister of Defense.
Most importantly, Merkel has changed the face of leadership around the world. “Nobody laughs any more if a girl says she wants to become a chancellor,” she said at an event in 2018 commemorating the 100th anniversary of female suffrage in her country. And this will undoubtedly be an integral party of Merkel’s legacy – she is quite aware of the importance of role models. On many of her foreign trips, everywhere from Niger to South Korea, she made the point of stopping at schools or women’s rights organizations to talk to young women. Angela Merkel’s story has inspired countless people across the globe, including myself. Not only has she proven that women can be anything from a quantum chemist to the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world, but she has also demonstrated the importance of compromise, deliberation, compassion (and sometimes firmness) in leadership. At a time when demagogues are on the rise, her approach is even more remarkable.
When it comes to feminism and Angela Merkel, it seems that actions speak louder than words. And so do numbers: According to the European Gender Equality Index, Germany’s progress on gender equality policies between 2005-2017 was faster than the European Union’s as a whole. Who was in charge then? None other than Chancellor Merkel.
Rafaela Uzan is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]