How Merkel does female leadership


Liv Hambrett

How Merkel gets away with being a woman.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Sean Gallup

With our own federal election over and done and our first female Prime Minister but a dusty dream, there is another election taking place with a more female face – a female face that has, at various points in time, been called a bulldog, a mother, a minx and a monster.

The German federal election will happen this weekend and the eyes of the international media are firmly fixed on the woman set to enter her third term as Germany's Chancellor – one Angela Merkel,  the most powerful woman in politics.

Despite Germany's general avoidance of the political spotlight, for historical reasons we're all well aware of, the result of the forthcoming elections will have a huge influence on the future of an uncertain European Union – the UK Guardian  has called it 'the election that will affect us all' - and consequently is the object of a fascinated global gaze.

Supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Sascha Schuermann

The woman at the centre of it all, Merkel, is Germany's first female Chancellor, and, as leader of the strongest member state economy, at the helm of the EU as it navigates the still choppy waters of the  Euro Crisis. While saving the euro, she has managed to guide her own country through a period of economic prosperity to a twenty year unemployment low.


She has made the Forbes Most Powerful Women list eight times out of the past ten years, seven of those times - including 2013 – coming in at number 1. She's currently at number 2, behind Obama, on their World's Most Powerful People list. Fluent in Russian and English, she has her Doctorate in quantum chemistry, favours austerity, dislikes confrontation and is currently enjoying enormous popularity and solid approval rates.

She isn't, of course, without her critics, political and otherwise. She's female, so there's endless discussion about her appearance. In the televised election debate between her and her rival, Peer Steinbrück, it was Merkel's necklace (in the colours of the German flag) that stole the show. Just this week The Huffington Post published an article in which Andrew Marr claimed she's too unattractive to ever be elected in Britain (but that's okay Britain, because she's not leading you) and a BBC blog from Matt Frei went for the classic 'Angela Merkel: more minx than matron' (why not just combine the two and have a minxy matron running the western world?)

Indeed, courtesy of her preferred uniform of sensible suits and an utterly no-nonsense demeanour, the term 'matron' has long followed Merkel. As a result, this year she made the decision to align herself with a nickname given to her by members of her team - 'mutti' (an affectionate word for 'mother').  Her move to embrace the 'mother of Germany' image has been both praised and criticised, but is generally seen as preferable to the other other 'm' word Merkel has to contend with, 'monster'. That name was a result of the contentious and still furiously debated austerity measures put in place in the wake of the Euro Crisis.  Monster or ''European overlord, cracking the whip on budgetary discipline'' which doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

A notable politician and a notable woman, it is other women who are a big part of Merkel's bid for a third term. The German election, weeks after the Australian election in which female voters were repeatedly (and, often oddly, addressed) by the candidates, and a year after the US elections in which Obama's re-election was largely seen as having plenty to do with his stance on female issues, is an interesting part of the ongoing female voter discussion.

Merkel, a woman herself, is both extremely popular with female voters, of which there are 32 million eligible to vote, and extremely aware of the importance of the female vote. Merkel does not call herself a feminist, rather ''an interesting case when it comes to potential female role models." She's never been being particularly vocal about gender equality, something she perhaps should be given Germany's unimpressive pay gap is one of the largest in Europe. Neither has she introduced particularly radical measures for specifically female-interest issues. Merkel's population with female voters remains relatively mysterious and suggestions abound: it could be that her rival, who possesses an Abbot-esque talent for blunders, makes himself relatively easy to dislike, it could be her decision to soften her image has made her more liked by her gender, it could be female voters are more interested in Merkel's education, environment, or foreign policies. Whatever it is, the women are Merkel's.

And so will be, it seems, a third term as the most powerful woman in the western world.