Angela Merkel: What Does It Mean to Run as a Woman?

Article excerpt

Considering Angela Merkel as a female candidate raises questions of the extent to which political leadership has become degendered in recent decades. Three issues of gender and politics are considered here: the changes in expectations for women in public life, the shift in defining what is a "woman's interest" and how women may represent such interests, and the degree to which women challenge the "old boys' networks" with alternative connections to women and provide a critical mass rather than just an individual in office. The implications of each of these dimensions for assessing the impact of Merkel on German politics are considered. I suggest that her role can be seen as a feminist one, even if her own politics are not.

Keywords: gender, candidates, Angela Merkel, women, feminism

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Question: Do you intend to run as a woman?

Answer: Do I have any choice?

(Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Co)

The year 2006 marks almost a century after women worldwide began to gain the right to vote. It is still only half a century after it became internationally commonplace for the ideal of democracy to include both women and men as participants. (1) Yet as this year begins, we not only see Angela Merkel in office as Germany's first woman head of government, but a variety of women leaders emerging around the globe. On January 15, Michelle Bachelet was elected president of Chile, one of the most conservative countries of Latin America, and the next day, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated as the first president of Liberia. Japan is poised to open its imperial succession to women, after a favorable report from its government.

That these are newsworthy events underlines the reality that women are still far from commonplace in positions of national leadership. But the political context into which Chancellor Merkel leads her government has changed dramatically, both domestically and internationally. This transformation is ultimately rooted in the achievements of the women's movements of many nations, whose long-term efforts detached the meaning of citizenship from the family-centered right of an independent head of household, the pater familias, and made it a relationship that all individuals had with their governments.

Developing the idea of citizenship as based in the personhood of the individual regardless of gender has been a slow and still incomplete process. Laws establishing women primarily as mothers and wives, dependents with special disabilities and limited rights, have been undone only gradually. (2) Separating the welfare of dependent women and children from the absolute authority of the family patriarch has demanded concrete political struggles. Detaching the meaning of political authority from its literal roots in patriarchy is an even more precarious and partial process, but the signs that it is underway are unmistakable.

This long-term process of degendering politics provides a significant backdrop for any contemporary woman's rise to and exercise of power, including that of Angela Merkel. Unlike the women who held political authority on the basis of their family relationships, whether as hereditary monarchs or "over the dead bodies" of their politician husbands or fathers, she and other women making political news today around the world are rising through their own campaigns and with their own agendas. This could not have happened without women's movements driving the world toward a more gender-inclusive understanding of politics. Considering Angela Merkel as an individual woman as well as a symbol of women's greater role in politics raises the question of how her position should be understood in relation to the state of gender relations in the 21st century. Without in any way claiming her as an exemplar or advocate of feminism, I nonetheless argue that the opportunities and obstacles facing her need to be analyzed in feminist terms. …