Angela Merkel Announces She’s a Feminist Before She Steps Down—Too Little, Too Late?

Many of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lifestyle choices and the policies she implemented supported the cornerstone of feminist principles—even if her words did not reflect it.

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Angela Merkel during the opening address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2006. (World Economic Forum / Flickr)

For 16 years, Germany’s center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which emphasizes the traditional gender values of children, kitchen and church, elected Angela Merkel—a divorced, childless woman as their chancellor. Because of the prestige of this role, Merkel has regularly been named as the world’s most powerful woman.

However, to the dismay of women’s rights activists, “feminist” has been excluded from any description of her. Gender equality advocates found themselves disappointed that Merkel often dodged the question when asked if she viewed herself a feminist—until now. In a recent event with Nigerian feminist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for the first time Merkel explained her change of heart: “Yes, I’m a feminist.”

This recent declaration on her way out of public life begs the question: Is her recent revelation too little too late?   As journalist Rachel Maddow often says, “Watch what they do, not what they say.” With this principle in mind, many of Merkel’s lifestyle choices and the policies she implemented supported the cornerstone of feminist principles—even if her words did not reflect it.

Normally, feminism is equated with granting people the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities regardless of their sex. In many ways, Merkel’s own life exemplifies that of a feminist.  Prior to entering public life, Merkel worked as a scientist for a think tank organization after she earned her Ph.D. in the male-dominated field of physics. Hence, her careers both in and outside of politics are outside the mainstream of “typical female jobs.” Her own career choices support feminist leanings that women can perform any profession—even in the traditionally male-dominated ones.    

When questioned by a journalist about repeatedly wearing the same clothing to public events, she responded that she was a chancellor—not a model. One could interpret those comments as someone who wants to be judged based upon something other than their physical appearance—again, characteristics consistent that of a feminist. 

Some of Merkel’s personal life choices are also outside the realm of “typical” choices for women. After she graduated from college, Merkel married her college boyfriend, only to divorce him four years later when she believed the two had drifted apart because both had become too wrapped up in their careers. Although Merkel has two stepchildren from her second marriage, she has no biological children of her own—again, lifestyle choices atypical of a woman who rejects the philosophy of feminism. 

As I discuss in my book, Dear Barack, Merkel’s response to the question of children was, “No, I had not concluded that I did not want to have children … But when I went into politics, I was 35, and now it is out of the question.”  Not settling down and having children are not actions consistent of someone opposed to feminism. Feminism does not condemn the option of motherhood it argues that motherhood is not mandatory for women to live fulfilling lives.

Besides Merkel’s own life choices which reflect someone who at least embraces the concept of feminism, many of the policies she implemented under her tenure helped to enhance gender equality. Atypical for Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union Party, Merkel is pro-choice. Additionally, during her tenure, women- and family-centered policies, such as expanded government funding for early childhood centers for children, were implemented as well as mandated quotas for women on corporate boards. As I argue in Dear Barack, Merkel also insisted that the G7 Summit in 2015 focused on expanding educational and economic opportunities for women and girls.  

Therefore, Merkel did use her authority to further the advancement of women.

Merkel’s policies toward gender equality has been complicated. She opposed raising the minimum wage, voted against legalizing same-sex marriage, and her current cabinet is only comprised of 30 percent women.

Nevertheless, according to the 2019 European Gender Equality Index, Germany ‘s progress on gender equality policies gained 6.9 points between 2005-2017—a growth faster than any other E.U. country. 

Admittedly, Merkel could have done more to advance gender equality, but overall Merkel exhibited behavior and policies which were mostly consistent toward the advancement of women. Of course, it would have been nice if Merkel had classified herself a feminist earlier.

However, what is important is that she does so now, and her admission helps to dismiss the stigma attached to the word when she states, “Everybody should be a feminist.” Her words will go in the history books for future generations of citizens of all genders to read, study and hopefully emulate.

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About

Claudia Clark is a speaker and the former Get out the Vote (GOTV) coordinator for the Democrats Abroad Germany Chapter. Her new book Dear Barack: The Extraordinary Partnership Between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, will be released on October 19, 2021 through Disruption Books. Learn more at her website: claudiaclarkauthor.com