20 Dec 2018

The mixed legacies of Mses. Merkel & May

For the nonce, Christian democracy survives. After all, a vicar’s daughter lives in Number 10, and a pastor’s daughter rules from the Bundeskanzleramt.

Lea Berriault
Lea Berriault NewsMavens, Europe
The mixed legacies of Mses. Merkel & May - NewsMavens
European heads of state pose for a family photo at the Mozarteum University during the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government in Salzburg, Austria, on September 20, 2018. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

They are often said to have parallel backgrounds and temperaments; in appearance, they are starkly dissimilar. Steely-haired, clad in dark attire, Theresa May towers over her German counterpart’s motherly figure and pastel blazers. Yet most analysts posit that Angela Merkel will stand taller in the eyes of future generations.

Yes, Die Kanzlerin has proven level-headed amidst a great crisis. But the aftermath of her reign still has to unfold. Considering the passions awakened during her long incumbency, she may ultimately be blamed for the return of fascism in Germany -- and thus cast alongside May as one of the leaders who failed Europe.

(May’s post-Brexit legacy is easier to predict. In the words of George Eaton, the Prime Minister “has played a bad hand badly”.)

But to evaluate May and Merkel’s legacies on the merits of their crisis management abilities alone would be purblind. As heads of the two most influential states in Europe, the two women represent a victory for gender balance in politics. But what of their policies? What have Mses. Merkel & May done for their fellow countrywomen while in office?

Schrödinger’s feminist and Tories in t-shirts

Merkel has sparked the ire of women on many occasions, not least when she famously said that she “would not adorn herself with [the] feathers [of feminism]”. It could be that the quantum-chemist-turned-Chancellor simply eschews labels. During the same conversation, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands offered a naive description of feminism as a desire to see women "free" and "happy", after which Merkel added that "if that is a feminist, I am a feminist". Thus her stance is best described as quantum feminism -- much like Schrödinger’s cat both lives and dies inside the box, the Chancellor both is and isn’t a feminist.

May, on the other hand, is not afraid of the label. She once appeared in a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘This is what a feminist looks like.’ On photographs, the future PM looks terminally awkward, but it can be reasonably assumed that her unease comes from finding herself in a garment generally considered as underwear by her ilk, rather than from any doubt harbored towards its message.

(I have searched the internet far and wide, and it appears this is the only existing picture of May sporting a t-shirt. One concludes that she was not only willing to call herself a feminist, she was also willing to compromise her fashion sense in order to do so.)

Maggie takes the ladder with her

But labels are not all. To be a woman politician is one thing, and to be a feminist politician is another. Did May and Merkel usher in more women in high-level politics, or did they pull a Thatcher by smashing the glass ceiling but then removing the ladder, as the old joke goes?

In 11 years, the Iron Lady promoted one single woman to her cabinet. Merkel fared much better. Her party is credited with having staffed four out of seven cabinet positions with women, and she notably nominated Annegret Kamp-Karrenbauer as her successor for CDU leadership.

The CDU as a whole, however, is no feminist party. In 2005, along with the CSU and the Free Democrats, it blocked legislation requiring that 30% of business supervisory boards be female. (The law passed in 2015, but was never fully implemented.) In fact, commentators have pointed out that, at best, Merkel could be said not to have made life harder for women -- a severe indictment for someone who has had four terms to tackle basic injustices, like the fact that abortion remains technically illegal in Germany.

By and large, the UK Conservative party is also relatively unfriendly towards women. In the 2015 general elections, 43% of Labour MPs were women, against only 21% for the Conservatives. However, throughout her career, Teflon Theresa has fought for equal gender representation in her own party -- often without the support of left-wing feminists, who undermined May’s efforts because of her affiliation with the much reviled right. During her two decades as an MP, she co-founded Women2Win -- a Conservative party group aiming to elect more women; she coordinated an impressive crackdown on female genital mutilation, introduced a law criminalizing emotional abuse, and championed paternity leave.

Krummes Holz gibt auch gerades Feuer

May did a lot for the women of Great Britain. But she has not been -- and probably never will be -- praised for this because of two caveats. First, feminism being a primarily left-wing ideology, many women resent her lack of commitment to equality and racial diversity. (If May has earned the right to call herself a feminist, she hasn’t necessarily earned her the right to call herself an intersectional feminist.) Secondly, the protracted Brexit disaster currently overshadows all her previous accomplishments, and while the disastrous negotiations are technically unrelated to women’s rights, the fact that a majority of women (80% in the 18-34 age group) voted for the UK to remain in the EU might probably leaves British feminists too much of a bitter aftertaste to ever celebrate PM May.

In comparison, Merkel did little für Frauen in Deutschland. But does a female politician, in addition to having to overcome adversity and difficult odds, need to be a benevolent revolutionary in order to deserve recognition? I am inclined to say no. Equal representation in politics does not mean that women are angels of empathy sent to right the institutions created by psychopathic and brutish men. It does not mean that women in power ought to be tied to a particular ideology, be it socialism or intersectionality or even feminism. Equal representation means women in positions of power, and nothing more.


As I write these lines, North America has yet to democratically elect a female head of state. (In my native Canada, Kim Campbell became Prime Minister by appointment in 1993, but since she was ousted in the federal election a mere 132 days later, she can safely be discounted. The ridiculous trappings of British monarchy should also be overlooked, obviously.)  But here, for most of 2018, in the bitter showdown between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, two women were at the helm of opposing factions -- an exhilarating sight to behold, no matter what the post-Merkel/May era will bring.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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