The Reichstag (German Parliament) building

When I went to Germany this past summer to visit friends, I observed some differences in gender roles between the US and Germany. For example: men pushing strollers. I pretty much never see a man with a stroller in the US, so the German strollers caught my attention for sure.

But there wasn’t enough time to really delve into the nitty-gritty of feminism in Germany, so in order to learn more I decided to partner with Her Story Arc’s German contributor, Johanna, to take a look at gender roles and the feminist movement in Germany. Here are Johanna’s thoughts on just a few topics:

Angela Merkel IMG 4162 edit
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

1. How do the Germans feel about Angela Merkel in a gendered sense? When they don’t like her politics, does she suffer from gendered attacks?

First of all it should be pointed out that Angela Merkel is not only a woman, but also from former East Germany, or, more correctly, the former GDR. The fact that that part of Germany is seen as a little “backward” compared to the rest of the country adds to the “emancipation” aspect which has been a recurring topic when it comes to Angela Merkel in the German media.

What I personally realized is that during Angela Merkel’s early time as Federal Chancellor, there was an effort to make her look more feminine in public. I noticed her wearing (more) make-up on posters, magazines and the like. She is not considered a beauty, and never has been – but should beauty really be relevant in a field like this? I did not like this turn, because it seemed to me like attractiveness is a must even for the political leader of a nation, just because she happens to be female. (We have incredibly ugly, male politicians in Germany who do not seem to care!)

At least – from my point of view – gendered attacks do not seem to increase when people complain about her political course (which they do a lot). Actually I feel that this kind of attack was most prevalent at the start of her time as chancellor, but has decreased since. Jokes about her “upside-down smile” have also grown old by now.

This is why strollers were invented.
This is why strollers were invented.

2. Do German men really push strollers more often than American men? What are gender roles in German relationships like?

Good question! This may be answered by a look at parental leave statistics: As of last year, a quarter of the German men took paid parental leave, a model which (as I just Googled) is very rare in the US. Mostly due to a change in German legislation, there was a great increase in numbers of fathers taking parental leave–from 3.5% in 2006 to 21% in 2008! Paid parental leave can be claimed for 12 months, but if both parents share it, the maximum possible is now 14 months.

I must add that most of those men who take parental leave do so only for the minimum of two months necessary in order to get the extension I just mentioned. However, this time of intense childcare seems to motivate many to reduce their working hours by an average of 4.5 hours per week after their parental leave (compared to before) in order to have more time to spend with their children in the long run. So yes, chances are good that you will come across more men pushing strollers in Germany than in the US!

One might ask: If there is such a well-working parental leave system, are the other 75% not interested in taking time off and building a closer relationship with their children? The problem is not only the traditional image of mothers as housewives and fathers as breadwinners or the need for breastfeeding. There are other, very concrete obstacles, e.g. the economic issue: whether or not a father earns more than his partner (which is mostly the case in heterosexual partnerships). It is not wise economically for him to take parental leave, since people on leave are paid only a certain percentage of what they would normally earn – and the gender pay gap is even wider in Germany than in the US.

Concerning gendered behavior in relationships, it is hard to come up with neutral statistics. From what I observe, there are a variety of patterns. Some German men are dominant in their relationships with women, some are submissive, and many treat their partners equally – and the same goes for women. Interestingly, some women seem to pick the advantages from their traditional role while profiting from emancipation too: having a well-paid job and still expecting their date to treat them to dinner, even if that date is a penniless student, does not seem fair to me. While I have had reports of such conduct, I do hope that this remains the exception.

Traditional Bavarian clothing in a shop in fashionable downtown Munich
Traditional Bavarian clothing in a shop in fashionable downtown Munich

3. What are the cultural differences in different parts of Germany? I know Bavaria is supposed to be a lot more traditional. What about Eastern and Western Germany and their different influences?

I mentioned earlier that former East Germany is considered “backward” in some respects, but the truth is that in the GDR, the integration of women into the labor market was established as a cultural ideal and so even today women in that region take less part in household chores and childcare than their West German counterparts.

4. What is the feminist movement like over there? Is the Internet a big part of it like it is here?

That is difficult to sum up. At any rate the Internet plays a big part in today’s feminist movement in Germany, and the American feminist movement has also had its influence. Unfortunately, here like elsewhere, the term feminism (“Feminismus” in German) is, in Emma Watson’s words, “unpopular.” Although feminism has brought us far–from a time when women were not even allowed to have their own bank account (only 60 years ago), to today, when female ministers fill 5 out of 15 federal ministry posts–German feminism has not managed to sell its success stories.

Many women, Angela Merkel included, refuse to call themselves feminists, and a lot of times the mere existence of any inequality between men and women is called into question. To put it shortly, the German feminist movement is not what it could be, and could definitely use a fresh coat of paint!

The Cologne Cathedral-- one of Germany's many, many churches
The Cologne Cathedral — one of Germany’s many, many churches

5. Is there an intersectional aspect to German feminism? What role do minorities/recent immigrants play?

In general, I would suspect that discrimination based on race is encountered much more often and is by far a bigger problem than discrimination based on gender in Germany.

This question reminds me of the “headscarf debate.” The largest ethnic minority in Germany is the Turkish  minority, and since most Turkish immigrants came from a  rural, rather traditional context, the headscarf is seen more frequently in Germany than one might expect. Prominent (and infamous) German feminist Alice Schwarzer claimed that headscarves were symbols of the oppression of women in the Islamic world, and this opinion was shared by many. But should the headscarf be banned from public life? Even if the headscarf means oppression, does a ban really help the women concerned? Or is it not rather an intrusion to their personal freedom, a forced limitation to their personal identity?

A constitutional court ruling determined that a teacher cannot be forbidden to wear a headscarf at school, except by law. Since educational law is handled by the German state government, not the federal government, half the German states took the opportunity and banned religious symbols from public schools altogether. So quite a few women have had to make a decision whether they should stick to their personal identity or face heavy employment obstacles. Also, consequently, the presence of religious symbols at schools and town halls, e.g. a nativity scene during Christmas time, has been the subject of heated debates, and not only in Germany – but that is a different topic.

Brandenburger Tor nachts
Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
6. What changes do you hope to see for women in Germany in the future?

I personally want to see women (myself included…) have more self-confidence in their professional lives. They should be aware of and actively work against gender based injustices whenever they encounter them. Don’t be afraid of being called a bitch or self-centered – fight for what you deserve (but don’t be that princess that exploits men just because you can). And if you want your children to be able to become engineers and nurses regardless of their gender, for God’s sake, stop falling for gender specific clothes and toys and instead make your children like what they are good at, not what they’re supposed to like.




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2 thoughts on “Feminism Around the World: German Edition

  1. I’ve been wondering what feminism looked like in other countries recently, and ta-dah! here’s an article on it. Thanks for the great thoughts and added perspective!


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