Weekly Review

Germany's Reluctant Feminists

Angela Merkel Attends W20 Conference In Berlin
Smile if you're not sure about feminism. Source: Getty Images

For most of my life as a dual citizen of America and Germany, I’ve lived outside of Germany and maintained an image of it as basically a progressive kind of place – what Americans might call a giant “blue state.” Then, five years ago, I moved my family from California to Berlin, and we started living here. In most respects, our experience confirmed the image we had constructed. Germany really is progressive – in some ways (dare I say) even enlightened. The way it prevents and punishes crime, for example, is vastly more humane, effective and just than America’s brute incarceration culture. German ecological sensibilities are deservedly famous.

But it’s the details that make life interesting, so my wife and I were surprised by the few areas that contradicted our image of Germany as a progressive leader. One of these is the role of women. As with German attitudes toward homosexual marriage, German feminism seems to be located roughly where the country is geographically: between a more progressive West and a more traditional East.

But even that does not do the subject justice, as Sabine Devins, one of our editors, explains in her fascinating primer on “Why German Women Like Angela Merkel Don’t Like ‘Feminism.” As so often, to appreciate the full and fraught complexity of the German mentality, you need to look at the past.

And there, in the past, you discover a Western and Eastern story. The West German story begins after the war, when Germany was not only physically but also morally destroyed. West Germans had no untainted values upon which to build a postwar society, so they either imported them (democracy from the Allies, for example) or reached back to much older traditions, including conservative gender roles. If you watch films or advertisements made during the 1950s, you see a make-believe Heile Welt, an idyll of happy families with contented wives in tidy kitchens enthusiastically greeting straight-laced husbands coming home from the office. Meanwhile, the word for West German women who went back to work after having children was Rabenmutter (raven mother). Not a flattering term, obviously.

The East German story went differently. The communist “zone” dealt with the recent Nazi past by intoning the fiction that others, the “fascists” (now over there, in the West), were to blame, while “we” were good socialists. Part of socialism, moreover, was equal rights for men and women, at least in the workplace. (When it came to who did the dishes, it was another story, but then that’s not only a German phenomenon.)

In 1990 those two stories were spliced again. And one woman who embodies this splicing is Angela Merkel. She grew up in East Germany, then entered politics in the throes of its collapse and rose to become chancellor of the reunited nation. This week she shared a stage in Berlin with other powerful women, when she was asked a simple question: “Are you a feminist?” What happened next was fascinating and revealing. For that, dive into Sabine’s piece.

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