Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Merkel vs. Clinton

Heika, of whom we haven't heard for a while, posed an interesting question about women as politicians and the expectations they face in different countries, exemplified by Angela Merkel, chancellor (i.e. head of government) of Germany, and Hillary Clinton.

18 comments:

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich, As part of my New Year's resolution, I have been going through old magazines to see which ones I need to throw out, and I found an old New Yorker article on Hillary Clinton. In the article, Clinton says "the world is only beginning to recognize that women should be permitted the same range of leadership styles that we permit men." Then she says this about Angela Merkel " I followed with great interest the election of Angela Merkel as Germany's first woman Chancellor. Many of the things that were said about her would certainly sound familiar." It's not clear what she means although it sounds to me as if Clinton feels that Merkel was criticized in the way Clinton was by louts like Chris Mathews who, before he was reprimanded, couldn't stop making comments about Clinton's, in his mind, overbearing style. I'm no Clinton fan, but I thought Mathews and many others were out of line in attacking Clinton for being, from their weak-kneed perspective, too aggressive. Was this what Merkel faced as well? And in general, in Germany, do women have to lay out their good wife and mother credentials before they make their political case? I'm thinking here, for just a few instances, of Governor Jody Rell, who had an ad where she held a baby in her arms and talked about the joys of being a grandmother--I know politicians always have to kiss babies but this went beyond that--or of Caroline Kennedy's supporters pointing out what a great mother she is when they are asked about her qualifications for office(So was my mother by I wouldn't want her in the Senate). Since I don't have a husband or kids, I always find this nauseating as well as irrelevant, and I wondered if the Germans are as old school in their view of women politicians as the Americans still are. When I lived there many years ago, I thought the Germans were ahead of us and women didn't have to present their ideas in a "feminine" way, i.e. questioning and tentative, so I was surprised by Clinton's comment about Merkel and wondered what you thought. Did Merkel take a lot of flack for having a take-no-prisoners style of campaigning, which was probably the only thing I liked about Clinton, until it degenerated into the schizophrenic lunacy of the final months.

Ulrich said...

@Heika: Interesting topic. I hope someone from Germany will pipe up to give us a perspective from closer up. I have watched German politics, and especially the last election of the Bundestag (the federal parliament that elects the chancellor) only from afar, and my impressions are very incomplete. So, with this proviso, let me say this:

Merkel is not a career politician--she started an academic career in the former GDR with a PhD in physics and entered politics only after the unification, when she joined the Christian Democrats (CDU--Christian-Democratic Union) ) and became a protégé of Helmut Kohl. Infighting in the CDU can be brutal, and the fact that she rose through the ranks to become her party's candidate for chancellor demonstrates that she can be tough, when needed. Toughness, however, is not what she projects to the outside, either by design or b/c that is her nature--someone closer to the action would know better.

There was a revealing incident during the election. Gerhard Schröder was running for re-election as chancellor, i.e. he was his party's candidate, and his (third or fourth) wife, Doris, saw it fit to remark publicly that Merkel wasn't a "real" woman b/c she had no children. Now, this caused a storm of criticism, especially from feminists, and didn't do Schröder any good, as far as I can see. I can't say, however, what this incident and its aftermath says about the issue you raised in general--I wish I knew more.

After all is said and done, German politics remains a men's club, with the possible exception of the Greens, where women have risen to equal footing with men as far as can tell.

Heika said...

Thanks Ulrich, That tells me more than I knew about Merkel already, although I think I do remember reading about her being a protege of Kohl's, whom she was said to have undermined in some way on her way up the political ladder. I am going to see if I can dig up the article so I can be more specific. As for Schroeder's comment, I always wonder--as I said I don't have husband or kids so I guess she wouldn't even consider me a woman, let alone a "real" woman--how those women then view themselves or other women after menopause. Do they see themselves and others as, perhaps, eunuchs. In any case, it's depressing to hear that someone would attack Merkel on account of her not having children and it suggests Hillary might have a point, although I notice in the current confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, she was careful to put Chelsea right in back of her in full view of the cameras. But then I might be letting my Clinton cynicism show. For all I know men do the same thing and I've never noticed it.

mac said...

Heika, I'm afraid I find you are showing a lot of cynicism. I'm pretty much convinced that Chelsea makes up her own mind and decides where she wants to be, or if she is going to show up at all. She does have a job, you know.

Ulrich said...

I would like to repeat my encouragement for German readers to give us their perspective on this issue, which really interests me.

mick said...

@Ulrich & Heika,the genderquestion is a very interesting topic in todays politics. When Angela Merkel made it slowly but steadily to the top she was never criticised for not beeing housewife and mother. It was generally accepted that she began an academic career in the GDR academy of sciences and in 1989 helped to organize a movement 'Demokratischer Aufbruch', for a change in the East.She held a political position in the GDR as secretary for agitprop, propaganda and information in the eastgerman socialist youth organisation FDJ, thats where she obtained her association work skills.The GDR was far ahead of the West in equal rights and equal opportunities questions. Merkel was never blatant or agressive but used soft skills to build up her powerbase. She is not a creative politician, no visionist and she never took a risk not even when she challenged the alpha male Kohl. My main criticism is that her conflict avoidance behaviour anticipates a clear position of Germany in human rights questions ,near- east conflict and her dancing on eggshells during the Iraq war.
On the other hand her lack of charisma is pleasant, because whenever Germany had charismatic, agressive (male)leaders,it was the spearhead of a major worldcrisis.

Ulrich said...

@mick: Thx--clearly, my knowledge of Merkel's career is very limited, and I very much appreciate your setting me straight.

As to Merkel's style, I always called it unaufgeregt, a German word for which I haven't found an exact equivalent in English yet--neither "unexcitable" nor "staying calm" captures it precisely: Even when personally insulted, e.g. by Polish politicians or media, she never responds in kind--she just proceeds to the next item on the agenda. I think this helped her on many occasions, especially in foreign affairs, and it is the exact opposite of an alpha-male's behavior. What's remarkable is that this style seems to be part of the reason why she has remained popular with the German electorate (is that still true?)

However, I wouldn't call it an explicitly "feminine" style. On our side of the Atlantic, we will have, in two days, a president whose behavior, so far, has shown an almost preternatural calm in the face of even the vilest accusations, insults, and slanders. And again, it has been working for him, nor against him.

Heika said...

@Mick Thanks so much for your response. It makes me think that Hillary Clinton may not have been commenting on similarities between Merkel's struggles and her own but actually alluding to the "soft" style you mention, which may have helped bring Merkel to power.

Clinton may well have been alluding to earlier problems during her campaign (and even before that) when her bold assertiveness (which I always admired) seemed to set many male commentators' nerves on edge. Merkel clearly does not have that effect, and I wonder if you think that's intentional on her part because, while colleagues and the public might accept her not being a mother, they might be put off by her being as unabashedly assertive as "alpha" male politicians.

Also you mentioned Merkel's not speaking out on a host of issues you thought she should have been more forceful about. I'm curious. Did she issue a statement on the war in Gaza? I thought our government, including Clinton, although she has come a long way, was woefully one-sided in its support of Israel and I was wondering if Merkel had issued a more even-handed statement.

And lastly, and away from my original topic, this question: Not too long ago, one of our leading economists, Paul Krugman, criticized Merkel for baulking at government spending because she is an old line, fiscal-restraint conservative. In fact, he called her "Frau Nein" and said she just didn't get it, that a stimulus plan with plenty of spending was needed. Then less than a month later, "The Economist" said Merkel and the coalition" had done an about face and come up with a stimulus package. Is she finding herself forced to become less conservative?


I lied about that being my last question because I just thought of another one: Are there other female politicians in Germany who are rising to power and who are more charismatic? Does Germany have a Hillary Clinton or, heaven forbid, a Sarah Palin? Thanks again for your comments. I hope we can get some more of them. And by the way, your command of written English is awe-inspiring.

mac said...

This is turning in a very interesting, international thread! Thank you, Mick, for the information, Heike for the interesting questions, and Ulrich, I so agree with you in your comparison of Angela Merkel with Barack Obama. We need levelheadedness (is that a word?) in this volatile world.

mick said...

Your are right Ulrich, by describing Merkels attitude as unaufgeregt, my english translation would be unagitated. To GAZA: she was rather reluctant, when an immediate and courageous reaction would have been appropriate. Same with the economic crisis: Paul Krugmans criticism was a wake-up call for her economic avisors. I bet she wanted to see first, how the rescueplan worked out with our european partnerstates before making a decision and she does not read NYT, she can't speak or read English.
@Heika:The upper positions in parliament and government are still held mostly by men: the type of old-boy country-club, thigh-slapping guys, making jokes about Merkels pit-stain fotos taken at the Wagner-festival in Bayreuth last year.
Germany has a crossbreed of Clinton and Palin in the government, our secretary of Family and Youth, Ursula von der Leyen. Born into a wealthy conservative family, her father was Ernst Albrecht, the former Ministerpräsident(State Governor)of Lower Saxonia, she studied medicine, gave birth to seven children and hadvessedi worked as a doctor (if she's not telling lies)and is 47 years of age. She goes with her motherhood obsession to political discussions to explain the compability of profession, carreer and family. She had always staff and unlimited means to organize her family. Her postulation to follow the example she had given is a slap in the face of other young females,who were not born with a silverspoon in their mouth, regarding the dramatic cutting of public spendings for family and education.

Ulrich said...

@mick: I also get the impression from here that she is extremely cautious and tries to avoid taking positions not shared by a majority of voters. Again, that doesn't seem to be a typically "female" thing--the Democrats over here are a case in point: They have taken this attitude to such an extreme during the Bush years that they were unable to take a principled position on anything--there was always a demographic (like suburban Catholic housewives between 45 and 60 with family incomes between $75,000 and $100,000) that would disagree.

We (i.e. the people I talk to) hope that that will not be their attitude under Obama, but there are already disturbing signs that they will continue with this.

BTW I thought Merkel DID speak English, on account of her science background, which demands that one be able to read English publications in one's field--but then again, being able to read texts in a language doesn't mean being able to converse in it. For instance, I can read publications on architecture in all the Romanesque languages I've tried (including Catalan!) b/c of my background in Latin w/o being able to speak any of them, except for a little Italian.

ArtLvr said...

Hi all -- I've always been impressed with the professional women I've met in the US who are foreign-born, from English to Chinese. It seems to me that our lag in that area has to do with the teen culture, with heavy commercial emphasis on externals of looks and clothes, rather than academic achievement.

Maybe, with the current hard times and our smarter new president, we'll finally see a de-emphasizing of avid consumption and entertainment, and a more serious younger generation emerging? It will take radical maturing of the "good old boys" attitude toward women too! Mainly, female alums aren't old school chums...

mick said...

hadvessedi is not a neologism : the verificationword just slid somehow into my text, creating nonsense. It should read:'and had even worked as a doctor'.
@Ulrich:I don't want to judge about Merkels language abilities.The few words I heard her speaking in English sounded clumsy, but what I know is, that her first foreign language was Russian and that her Russian is still fluent in spoken and written.

foodie said...

Interesting discussion! My German scientist friends tell me that a leadership role for women in science has been quite complicated to achieve in Germany. There are a few very distinguished german women scientists in my own area, but you get the sense that only the smartest and toughest make it, and it drops off quickly from there.

I find it interesting that the two most powerful female politicians in Europe in the last few decades (Thatcher and Merkel) were both scientists. This is not a standard path to politics amongst men, but may be the need to combine a strongly analytical mind and a great deal of determination to break through the ranks of hard sciences (physics and chemistry) makes it more likely that they have the strength to handle the world of politics.

Artlvr, this may also be relevant to your comment. You have to be rather determined(or a little crazy) to be a woman from certain restrictive cultures and pursue a demanding career. So in a way, there is a selection bias. For every professional woman who makes it to the US and is successful there are many, many who have either been blocked or fallen by the wayside. But I agree that we have a lot of growing up to do in the US as well.

Ulrich, I agree that in many cases the style is more unique to the individual than necessarily associated with a given gender. Certainly, anything related to temperament-- whether someone remains unruffled or reacts strongly for example, will cut across genders.

But the broader question that this started with: Are things harder for women in politics, as Hilary remarked? I would guess yes. But a remarkable woman will come along and will get elected some day, just like a remarkable African American came along and beat all the odds and transformed the entire political calculus.

Laraine said...

@Heika, Mick, and Foodie

What an irresistible topic! I remember when Clinton turned up on television to explain her health care plan and I got goosebumps watching her--not my normal reaction to policy discussions--and I realized I was excited, thrilled actually, watching a woman, in a pretty pink suit no less, put forth ideas in an assertive, informed, unapologetic way that I had rarely, if ever, seen in my lifetime--I suspect some earlier politicians like Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm fit the same bill, but I was a young mutton head when they were around and paid no attention.

Over the years, I've lost faith with Clinton's political maneuverings, but she still represents for me, in a very poignant way, how smart, tough-minded women have to struggle to present themselves as non-threatening (and here I'd like to mention I'm never sure who or what is being threatened when women don't have a more reticent style but something sure does get kicked up in both men and women) or run the risk of alienating the very people they want to persuade. It's this issue that made Tina Fey's "Bitch is the new black" sketch such a hit on SNL. It hit a nerve, I think, because a lot of people who disliked the thought of Clinton as president didn't have a clue about her policies but they knew they didn't like her "style."

So my question to Mick is, much like Heika's, do you think Merkel could have made it as a German leader if she had a more intimidating style like Thatcher's? (Thanks to Foodie for that reference because the contrast is, indeed, instructive as are the similarities in background) Do you think she is consciously careful of not being threatening? Or is her rise to serious power and her "soft style" a coincidence? I'm wondering if the Brits weren't more prepared for Thatcher's iron fist by a history that included Queen Victoria and Elizabeth I.

Naively, I actually thought that, in this country, we were past the anxiety about strong-willed, assertive women until Hillary's campaign suggested to me we had a long way to go on that score. I should say I believe she lost ultimately because of political ineptitude, and definitely NOT due to sexism, but along the way some really neanderthal attitudes toward unabashedly forceful, smart women were revealed and not just by men. I thought Maureen Dowd, for instance, was practically pathological on the subject of Clinton.

I think Foodie has it exactly right. Obama did it and so will an exceptional woman one of these days. I just don't know anymore how many days it's going to take. I was more optimistic before this election and the emergence of things like those perfectly horrid Hillary nut crackers.

Ulrich said...

@foodie: What your German colleagues say is disheartening, and I see a real difference in the situation there and here, at least from the perspective I gained when I was on the faculty of a reputed research university in the US. I was involved in various joint projects with colleagues in the engineering departments and what was then the Engineering Design Research Center. We were under considerable pressure from sponsors to demonstrate participation by women researchers or, when those were lacking, to show that we were doing our best to attract them to the faculty. The result was that qualified women were welcomed with open arms--the problem was that such women were hard to find in certain disciplines, and when they were found, we had to compete for them with other institutions that were in the same situation. That is, the problem was not so much with the scientific and engineering culture at the university level, but with secondary (perhaps even primary) education that appears to discourage women from pursuing a scientific or engineering career in the first place (in computer science, people are practically wringing their hands over the lack of women in the field).

I do not know if a similar debate and similar efforts are taking place in Germany. In fact, the problem may be subsumed by a larger problem, the insufficient number of graduates in the engineering fields period (I do not know about science), which is already forcing industry to look to an increasing degree to countries like India to fill open positions. And here the antiquated German immigration laws come into play...I wonder if your German colleagues have thoughts on this.

mick said...

@Lareine,Heika:no doubt that Merkel had very strong and able male competitors when she ran for office.If she would have shown a Thatcheresque behaviour, I bet she wouldn't have survived as politician.
No, it was her unassertiveness and her 'naive'charme, and unagitated reactions, that made her unassailably. Her simplicity goes back TMO to her sheltered past in the GDR. We had in postwar Germany so many great female heads in our political parties who could never cope with their male counterparts. Angela Merkel,a German paradox.

Ulrich said...

@Laraine: I think what Mick says reinforces your point: Merkel succeeded b/c she appears to be non-threatening, or, to use the nice English phrase, she doesn't act like a "ball-buster". [Doesn't the existence of this phrase alone show that there is an issue here?]