Ambitious young men in Germany feel entitled to wonder when a man will ever be chancellor again. They, too, want a “role model.”
Angela Merkel has been in office and power for 12 years, the only chancellor many young adults have known. Though the public opinion polls for her and her conservative Christian Democratic Union have slipped slightly from a 15-point lead a week ago, no one expects a Hillary Clinton upset. (No one expected the Hillary Clinton upset, either.) She looks to be coasting to re-election for a fourth term Sunday, leading to idle speculation that if Mrs. Clinton had acted more like Frau Merkel, she might be president and the most powerful woman in the world.
Hillary blames sexism and misogyny for losing. Frau Merkel is regarded as a woman who dealt with consummate toughness with large men in her party and on the international stage, refusing the label of “feminist” to rally the troops.
Both men and women in Germany call her “Mutti,” meaning “Mom,” though she has no children. “Mutti” was initially a derisive put-down by men who didn’t like her politics or her exercise of power, but now it’s a term of affection and trust. Hillary Clinton suffered from a lingering negative perception, as “someone’s mother-in-law” who achieved power through her husband. Mr. Merkel, an eminent scientist, rarely appears with the chancellor, who says she relaxes by retreating to the kitchen to cook his favorite dish.
Angela Merkel was the protege of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who called her “mein madchen,” or “my girl,” and she rose to party secretary-general under his wing. After he lost an election, tainted with scandal in his party, she was his Brutus, wielding a dagger of words in a letter to a newspaper demanding his resignation. When she took his place as party leader, he said bitterly, “I put the snake on my arm.”
Both Angela and Hillary have had their difficulties with Vladimir Putin, but they dealt with them differently. In an awkward attempt to improve relations between the United States and Russia in 2009, Secretary of State Clinton famously presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a red button imprinted with the word “reset.” Unfortunately, the translation to Russian was to a word that, though an error, might have been more to the point: “overload.”
In an interview in New Yorker magazine, Hillary characterizes Mr. Putin as a “James Bond villain.” Frau Merkel might privately agree, but she has a different analysis. When she visited Russia in 2007, Mr. Putin, aware of the chancellor’s fear of dogs from being bitten by one as a child, brought a big black dog with him into the room for their meeting. She interpreted this crude attempt to intimidate as an important key to his character. “I understand why he has to do this, to prove he’s a man,” she said. “He’s afraid of his own weakness.”
She has not had to prove that she’s a woman, not in a feminist sense. On a panel on female empowerment with nine powerful women, Ivanka Trump, personally invited by the chancellor, and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, she was asked by the moderator whether she is a feminist. Women in the audience cried “yes!” The chancellor demurred. “The history of feminism is one where there are similarities with me and then there are differences,” she said slowly, weighing her words, aware of public perception and personal identity. “I would not like to decorate myself with a label I don’t actually have.”
By cultivating neutrality on the issue, she throws men off their game, keeping a focus on policy rather than sex or ideology. Criticisms of her hair and dress don’t stick. Her fashion banality may come from having grown up in East Germany, where frumpiness was a virtue.
East Germany defined women as workers, and 90 percent of East German women worked outside the home when the Wall came down. Work was a chore, not a choice. Many German women prefer motherhood to a career, and whether they work or work at home, they enjoy “kindergeld,” a liberal monthly allowance for each child until the child is 18, with occasional increases promoted by Frau Merkel.
Mutti has endured legitimate criticism for her open-borders immigration policy, but she stands firmly behind it. Even those who don’t like it understand that it stems from lingering German guilt over Nazi crimes against humanity. She says firmly now that the wave of immigration “should not and will not be repeated.” She stands astride the world’s fourth-largest economy, and many Germans are pleased that a dominant mother figure is in charge of the fatherland. There’s no glass ceiling waiting to be shattered.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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