Breda O’Brien: Women in politics are denied their own identities
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s promotion in Germany has highlighted lazy stereotypes
German chancellor Angela Merkel and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK): AKK, the new chair of the German Christian Democratic Union, has to put up with being tagged a mini-Merkel. Photograph: Filip Singer
Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, the new chair of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has to put up with being tagged a mini-Merkel. It’s lazy and more than a bit sexist; as though no woman could have an identity of her own other than as a reflection of one of the few other powerful women in German politics.
But not as sexist as what the editor-in-chief of a German publication tweeted – and then hastily withdrew – after the announcement that AKK had narrowly beaten her two male rivals for the leadership of the CDU.
Franz W Rother, editor of a digital news portal and a quarterly magazine called Edison, described the 56 year old as “Another ugly old white woman”.
Certainly, Angela Merkel wanted AKK as her successor but equally, it is true that AKK is her own woman.
She does not fit neatly into any boxes. Many of the international media outlets carried the same line about her – a staunchly Catholic conservative. Derek Scally, this paper’s Berlin correspondent, cited a much more perceptive comment by AKK’s first biographer, Kristina Dunz. She says the politician is a value conservative with a left-wing social policy heart, whose differences from Merkel are more interesting than the similarities.
Let’s face it, often all you have to do is to be Catholic in order to be tagged a staunchly Catholic conservative by the media. In fact, AKK is in favour of women priests, which hardly fits the stereotype. She also wants a quota of women in leadership positions in the church.
It is true that she is anti-abortion and opposes abortion providers being able to advertise. While she is in favour of civil partnership, she did not support marriage between people of the same gender.
Although sympathetic to Merkel opening the borders, she has also said it must not happen again. She has also expressed a commitment to a European army.
AKK is in favour of women priests, which hardly fits the stereotype
Dunz’s book, I Can, I Want and I Will: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer which I read mostly using a handy little translation app called Kindle Optimiser because it has not yet been translated into English, has a lot of interesting nuggets about AKK.
For example, she worked part-time and her husband worked full-time when they were first married. It was a pragmatic decision based on how much each spouse earned. When she began to earn more, her mining engineer husband whom she married at 22 stayed home with their three children.
It worked fine when she worked locally, but when she became a member of the Bundestag, she describes driving away to Bonn in her little Seat Marbella, crying all the way, her baby Julian left behind in her husband’s arms, wondering desperately whether she was doing the right thing.
But when she lost her seat in the same year, her eldest child, Tobias, asked her: Does your not being elected to the Bundestag mean that you are now home and looking at our homework again? AKK said yes. And he said, “Oh crap.”
A lot of women who work outside the home will identify with that moment. Interestingly, AKK says that she encountered more criticism from women than men because, even in the 1990s, there was a strong German cultural norm, Kind oder Karriere – children or career. She used to bring her babies to women’s political meetings and was not exactly greeted with open arms.
Aside from having children, there are other differences between Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer. Merkel is an East German Protestant: Kramp-Karrenbauer is from the tiny province of Saarland, close to the French border. Merkel has a reputation for cerebral caution and not being that comfortable pressing the flesh, but AKK is known for her fondness for pre-Lent Carnival antics, dressing up as an imaginary cleaner called Gretel who dishes the dirt on politicians. She has been interviewed by television reporters while still in role. It is hard to imagine Mutti doing any such thing.
She used to bring her babies to women’s political meetings and was not exactly greeted with open arms
AKK has served until recently as premier of the Saarland state and has held virtually every cabinet position to boot. The population of the entire region is slightly less than that of Dublin and therefore, the politics there are local in a way that Irish people would recognise.
As premier, AKK held coffee mornings for voters and other interest groups. She prided herself on listening to the needs of ordinary people, which inspired both her attempts to improve conditions for women in work and to ensure the police are sensitive and well-trained in their work with victims of domestic violence.
But she is operating on a much bigger stage now, and at a time of unprecedented volatility in Europe. She could carve out a distinctive and valuable niche for herself or she could crash and burn. Either way, she is unlikely to be either predictable or dull.