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‘The most powerful woman in the world’ is stepping down. What is Merkel’s legacy on gender equality?

As a conservative woman in government, the German chancellor has often ‘led from behind’ on gender issues

A thank-you message for Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Sept. 23. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Angela Merkel’s tenure as German chancellor draws to a close this month after 16 years. The four-term chancellor leaves office having steered Germany through international and domestic crises. In so doing, she has earned the Forbes title of “most powerful woman in the world” every year for a decade.

The rise of populism and nationalism in many advanced democracies — including the United States — cemented Merkel’s image as the “leader of the free world.” Her science-based leadership has been widely praised as exemplary in taming the coronavirus pandemic. At home, her legacy includes abolishing compulsory military service; phasing out nuclear energy; legalizing (with significant constraints) dual citizenship; adopting marriage equality; implementing a gender quota on corporate boards; and instituting a minimum wage.

This legacy is all the more noteworthy given that many saw Merkel as an interim leader when, in 2005, she became the first woman, first East-German-socialized, and youngest chancellor in German history. While her powerful leadership in many domains is widely recognized, her record on gender-equality policy is mixed. Merkel has a complicated relationship with feminism. Where she has led on gender-equality policy, it has been mostly from behind.

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What is Germany’s record on gender?

Historically, scholars have viewed Germany as a laggard in adopting gender-equality measures. For example, it took until 2020 for the Bundestag to adopt the comprehensive “Federal Government’s Gender Equality Strategy,” promoted by Women’s Minister Franziska Giffey of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

But Germany’s role as laggard is changing. The 2019 European Gender Equality Index ranked Germany No. 12 among all European Union member states. While that puts it roughly at the E.U. average, the European Institute for Gender Equality concludes that “Germany is progressing toward gender equality faster than the EU,” particularly in the domain of “power.” This is all the more surprising since Merkel’s center-right Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) has long been known for promoting traditional male-breadwinner families.

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Conservative female leaders in government

Research shows that conservative women can be effective advocates for gender equality, even though they might shun feminism. Having women visible on the highest political stages delivers what social scientists call the “symbolic empowerment of women,” or offering role models to girls who may be able to see themselves in the highest office. Merkel’s mere presence in German politics opened the door for other women, including Ursula von der Leyen, who is president of the E.U. Commission, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German minister of defense, to step into more ambitious political roles.

The growing number of women — of all political affiliations — in parliaments also correlates with stronger public demands for gender justice and LGBTI rights. For example, in 2020, conservative women in Merkel’s CDU challenged party leadership to institute a 50 percent quota for women on its roster by 2025. Merkel has enabled these demands by signaling that she would not oppose them, showcasing what we call leadership from behind.

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Leading from behind

Merkel herself, like many conservative female leaders, has played an ambivalent role in modernizing German gender relations. For example, she helped usher in marriage equality by calling a vote, knowing it would pass, while voting against the actual legislation herself. The Merkel era helps illuminate the conditions under which gender equality change can occur in democracies governed by conservative leaders more broadly.

Our research examines the status of gender equality in various policy fields. Using mixed-method policy analysis, contributors look at legal, social and political outcomes over 16 years of four CDU-Merkel-led governments. We find that Merkel’s pattern has been “leading from behind.” For the most part, she passively and indirectly facilitated gender equality efforts by not blocking policy proposals and by quietly allowing civil society groups and rival parties to push forward gender-equal policies.

For example, after a Constitutional Court ruling, Merkel allowed the German parliament to introduce and pass new legislation creating a legal third-gender option on identification documents. And on such issues as women’s quotas and migration, Merkel actively supported policy changes. In child-care policies, she backed von der Leyen in modernizing the CDU’s traditional plank of “kinder küche kirche,” or “children-kitchen-church” as women’s ideal concerns.

Merkel’s government is not singularly responsible for Germany’s gender-equality reforms. Some changes have made it through despite her being in power. Her thrice-coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), proposed and helped pass many progressive gender policies. But this is part of leading from behind: Folding such compromises into two-party coalition agreements, Merkel stepped out of the spotlight publicly and positioned herself backstage.

Similarly, Merkel often allowed crucial changes — such as better protecting women from violence and the right to public child care — to pass and then blamed them on international norms or E.U. policies, thus avoiding CDU and voter censure.

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The office shaped its occupant: Merkel, over time, became a feminist, perhaps despite herself. In fact, with her time in office ending, she has finally announced, “Yes, I’m a feminist!”

Merkel’s leadership on gender policy is consistent with that delayed identification, cautious and evolving. She recently acknowledged that electoral gender quotas — in which a party must nominate a minimum percentage of female candidates — might be necessary to reach gender parity in the Bundestag, conceding that a gender-just society is an important goal that can be reached only through laws and regulations.

Further, the chancellor instituted progressive gender policies in more ways than might be expected from a conservative party. While her motive may not have been gender equality, her East-German-infused sensibility insisted that women are an important part of the labor market and that Germany’s business culture must be socially entrepreneurial. As a result, Germany invested considerably in public child care and paid-leave policies, putting it into the top 10 of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries for family-friendly policies.

However, leading from behind on gender equality had its costs. Merkel’s backstage way of handling gender justice issues left many missed opportunities. For instance, her voice has been absent from countering the aggressive anti-feminist, anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, whose masculinist messaging has been picked up by some of her own party members and branches.

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Petra Ahrens (@petrahrens) is Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the gender studies department at Tampere University, Finland, and author of “Actors, Institutions and Making of EU Gender Equality Programs” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Phillip M. Ayoub (@Phillip_Ayoub) is associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and author of “When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Sabine Lang is professor of European and international Studies at the University of Washington and author of “NGOs, Civil Society and the Public Sphere” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).