German chancellor Angela Merkel has been called many things during her 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy. Some laud her as diligent, decent and trustworthy. Foreign media liked to label her the “leader of the free world.” Others see her as a savvy power-player, who waits to see how the political winds are blowing before making decisions.
Whatever labels have been affixed to this often-inscrutable woman, there is one that she herself has consistently dodged: feminist.
In 2017, Merkel awkwardly refused to call herself a feminist during an on-stage event. In an interview with German publication Die Zeit she later explained that, for her, feminists are women like the famous German activist Alice Schwarzer or those who fought for suffrage. “I don’t want to adorn myself with false laurels,” Merkel said. “I can’t say that I fought for women’s rights all my life the way they did.”
But in September of this year, with the end of her tenure in sight, Merkel appeared to have a change of heart, saying she believes that “men and women are equal” and declaring, to rapt applause that, “in that sense, I am a feminist.”
Born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954, Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany, where her father was a Lutheran pastor. She learned early on how to navigate in a man’s world, first as a scientist, then in Germany’s male-dominated political scene and her own conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Her old boss, the former chancellor Helmut Kohl, used to call her “my girl.” On the international stage, she has withstood attempts from the likes of Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin to insult and undermine her.
This kind of subtle sexism may help explain why Merkel has resisted the role of feminist hero. “I rarely only address women,” Merkel told die Zeit. “After all, I am not just the Federal Chancellor of women in Germany, but the Federal Chancellor of all people in Germany. Parity in all areas just seems logical to me. That’s not something I have to constantly bring up.”
While Merkel’s unchanging uniform of boxy jackets and black pants serves as a way to keep the media’s focus on what she does rather than what she wears, her fashion choices have also been interpreted as her way of de-feminizing herself to survive the patriarchy.
Anke Domscheit-Berg, a member of parliament from the opposing Die Linke (The Left) party, views the chancellor’s aesthetic choices as a kind of smokescreen. “It was like armor,” she said. “A type of protection against being considered a woman…She always refrained from almost all polarizing themes—and gender rights themes are always polarizing.”
In her early years as chancellor, Merkel supported female-friendly laws and initiatives such as paid parental leave, the expansion of public kindergartens, and the legal right to a kindergarten spot for children from the age of one. But she advanced few new childcare or other initiatives to improve women’s status in the latter part of her tenure.
In 2015, Merkel backed a law mandating “female quotas” on non-executive supervisory boards, but only reluctantly and after long opposing the move. In some instances, she appears to have dragged her feet on efforts to advance gender parity. Despite stubbornly low numbers of women on corporate boards, she and her party were against a proposed law requiring big, listed firms to have at least one woman on executive boards of three or more members. Under pressure from the party’s coalition partner, the CDU finally agreed and the law passed this year. Today, Germany has only one female CEO of a blue chip DAX-40 listed company.
In her own party, Merkel has sought to elevate women to high-profile roles, in some cases with unfortunate results. She moved Ursula von der Leyen from the Family Ministry to the Defense Ministry. After von der Leyen’s ministry became mired in a contracting scandal, Merkel pushed for her to become European Commission president. Her other protégé, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer became Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, and defense minister. After a series of gaffes, she resigned in February 2020.
In 2017, Merkel’s coalition government passed the Wage Transparency Act, which enables workers to know what colleagues in similar positions are earning. However, the law only applies to employers with at least 200 people on staff and puts the onus for requesting remuneration information on employees. German women suffer one of the biggest wage gaps in Europe. Data from the European Commission shows a gender pay gap of 14.1 percent in 2019 in the European Union as a whole, while Germany’s gross hourly difference by gender was 19.2 percent.
While Merkel’s record is arguably mixed when it comes to increasing women’s representation in leadership, her efforts in the key area of female self-determination—reproductive rights—are decidedly not. “Thirty-two years after the fall of the Wall, I still don’t have the same [reproductive] rights as I had in East Germany,” said Domscheit-Berg, who comes from the same area in eastern Germany as Merkel. “I find that terrible.”
Abortions were a legal right for a woman in the former East, who could have a termination on demand until up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. They also had access to free birth control. In Germany today, while abortion is permitted up to 12 weeks, women must first undergo counseling and a three-day waiting period before getting the go-ahead for the procedure. Birth control is only free for women up to the age of 22.
Another German law criminalizes doctors who publicly “advertise” abortion beyond listing it as a service, including offering information online about methods, costs or recovery after the procedure. Doctors found to be in contravention of the law can be fined or jailed.
Merkel, who has not spoken publicly for or against abortion, did not openly advocate for a change in abortion laws during her tenure. It is only now that she and the CDU are out of government that the law against “advertising” abortion is set to be abolished by the new coalition in Berlin.
That reticence to publicly weigh in on divisive issues is characteristic of the outgoing chancellor. “She is very discreet,” said Stephanie Lohaus, a Director and Head of Communication at the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business in Berlin. “We can’t tell from the outside what fights she has fought.”
For her part, Merkel has downplayed her significance for women, cautioning that “one swallow doesn’t make a summer.” But despite her spotty record on women’s rights, her symbolic legacy looms large.
“I find that in comparison to 30 or 40 years ago, what we have, not just in the German government but [more generally], amounts to more than one swallow,” said Katharina Wrohlich, a professor of Public Finance, Gender and Family Economics at Potsdam University and head of Gender Economics research at German Economic Institute.
As the de facto leader of Europe, the woman nicknamed Mutti (“mom”) has steered Germany and the EU through political upheaval, from the 2008 eurozone debt crisis to Brexit. In 2015, she deployed her political capital by refusing to shut Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees, a move that galvanized popular support for the far-right party Alternative for Germany, but that also positioned Merkel as Europe’s moral authority.
“Just the fact that she was in this office and was able to hold power for so long and has this strong sense of leadership—whether you agree or disagree with her she is a leader—in that way of course she is an example for women and girls,” said Lohaus. Many German teenagers today have only ever known a female chancellor.
Alice Schwarzer, the feminist icon evoked by Merkel to explain her discomfort with applying the label to herself, described the outgoing chancellor’s main legacy as being that she “is admired by women all over the world… The very fact of her existence is a feminist statement.” Merkel herself put it even more plainly. At an event commemorating 100 years of women’s suffrage in Germany, she noted that, “Today, no one will laugh when a little girl says she wants to be a minister or the German chancellor.”
This story was published in partnership with The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy.