The last macho of German politics?

This is a 4 minute read

You might be too young to remember, but 16 years ago Germany was ruled by fist banging, hair-dying Kanzler with a weakness for expensive cigars and pin-striped suits. 

The last macho of German politics, Gerhard Schröder, is a cliché from a long gone age. 

Gerhard Schröder - the last macho of German politics? © imago images / teutopress

In the Germany of 2020 young boys ask if they too can become Bunedskanzlerin. And old boys like SPD Chancellor hopeful Olaf Scholz muse at being called the “male Merkel”.

Merkel’s cabinet is almost gender equal and the CDU have promised that their electoral lists will have an even male-female split by 2025.

Had it not been for two recent remarks by members of the political elite, you could have been be forgiven for thinking that Germany - where a generation ago women had to ask their husbands for permission to work - was making progress on gender equality in politics.  

"I like to recollect, Linda, how over the past 15 months we've started the day together about 300 times... I'm talking about our daily, morning calls about the political situation... not what you’re thinking now," guffawed FDP-boss Christian Lindner as he bade farewell to his party secretary, Linda Teuteberg, in front of a nervously laughing crowd. 

Mr. Lindner insisted that he’d just wanted to lighten up the mood. Arch-conservative journalist and former Helmut Kohl confidante Roland Tichy played the satire card after he was mauled for remarks about up-and-coming SPD politician Sawsan Chebli:

"What does Sawsan have going for her? Her female journalist friends have thus far only been able to identify the G-spot as a plus point in the Special Democratic Party of Old Men”

If Mr. Lindner’s and Mr. Tichy’s Herrenwitze aren't proof enough that German politics is still a man’s game, the numbers don’t lie:

When MPs took their seats under the glass dome of the Reichstag after the 2017 election not even a third of them were women - fewer than in 2013.

In state parliaments that ratio drops to as little as 22 percent in Saxony-Anhalt. And there are just as many ‘Michaels’ leading the 16 Bundesländer as there are women - two. 

While the ratio is even more dire in the business world, equality in politics is particularly important. Parliaments should mirror the societies for which they legislate.

Why is it then that Europe’s largest and richest nation has so few women in politics?

When Madeleine Henfling (Greens) entered Thuringia’s plenary chamber in 2018 with her sleeping baby in her arms, the chairman threw her back out.

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Perhaps she brought her child for fear of ending up on the list of Germany’s laziest parliamentarians - as happened to Franziska Brantner (Greens) and Kristina Schröder (CDU) in 2014 when they missed sessions for the sake of their children. 

"We shouldn’t be labelled ‘lazy’ because we take care of our kids,” thundered Brantner at the time.

Why one might ask, didn’t these women just take maternity leave?

Here’s the Bundestag press office’s answer:

“In accordance with Article 38 of the Grundgesetz, members of parliament exercise a free mandate, in which they are not bound by orders and instructions. Therefore the regulations of the Parental Leave Act are not applicable."

Simply put, members of parliaments - state or federal - are not entitled to parental leave. 

In a country where family is still the domain of women (the few men who take parental leave spend on average three months with their children) that becomes a problem for anyone wanting to combine motherhood with politics. 

And, as the stories of the women in this article prove, for the ones that try there is no flexibility in the system.

“I didn’t even question it. It didn’t even occur to me that it wouldn’t be possible,” Luise Amtsberg of the Greens said of the time when she rolled her stroller into the Bundestag in 2015 and was promptly asked to turn around.

Tannaz Falaknaz, from the Helene-Weber-College, which promotes women in politics, believes that one needs to start at the local level, where political careers begin.

“In particular in the countryside the roles are such that men do politics and women take care of the family,” she told HOCHHAUS. She added that, since so few men take parental leave, political structures need to change to “make politics more family friendly” - e.g. fewer meetings in the evening.

But as the state of Baden-Württemberg shows, progress is possible.

In 2014, Kai Schmidt-Eisenlohr became the first German legislator in history to go on parental leave, taking advantage of a new state regulation allowing him to do so. 

No state has followed suit, while for the Bundestag, such regulation, which many other countries have, is still a distant reality. 

And with Friedrich Merz leading the polls for the CDU chairmanship, Mr. Schröder might get to pass on the baton of the last macho of German politics after all. 

Two years ago the political comeback of a man who once voted against banning marital rape and said that he didn’t care that former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit was gay “as long as he didn’t come close” seem farfetched. Next year he might become Chancellor.


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.

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