From misfit to the most powerful woman in Germany

By Political Parity on April 30, 2015

Sexist media coverage is certainly not a US phenomenon. As a partner in the Name It. Change It. initiative, Political Parity is all too familiar with the double standard placed on women across all platforms of journalism. Yet, in other countries, despite unfair and even cruel media coverage women continue to ascend to the most powerful positions. Ninety-nine countries around the world have had a female leader, while the United States still hasn’t elected its first woman president.

Looking across the Atlantic ocean, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany since 2005, suffered through her fair share of sexist media treatment: the media has called her a murderer of men (Männermörderin), boss without mercy (Chef gnadenlos), and Angela Machiavelli to describe her ascent to power. Her perseverance in the face of criticism paid off and she is now considered one of the most powerful leaders in the world, with her appearance a problem of the past.

Merkel was born in Eastern Germany and is an accomplished PhD chemist. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she joined the Christian Democratic Union (Germany’s conservative party) and was directly elected to the Bundestag (the German national parliament). Over the course of 15 years, she served as Minister for Women and Youth, Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety, and became the first female party leader in the history of the CDU. Despite her impressive CV, from the moment Angela Merkel entered the spotlight of German politics, the media could only talk about one thing: her appearance.

Angela Merkel was never a woman who cared about her looks: she wore frumpy clothes and an unflattering bowl haircut. It didn’t matter—she had things to do. After all, she was a highly accomplished woman and more than qualified to become Chancellor. Yet somehow, her appearance was the only aspect anyone focused on. To make matters worse, the public listened to such derogatory and sexist comments, impacting public opinion polls: her clothes were too masculine, her voice was too whiny, and her haircut was awful. Heinler Geisser, a party colleague, said on national TV “I have no clue who gives her style advice.”

Merkel eventually agreed to have a full makeover—celebrity hair stylist Udo Walz gave her an updated look. According to one newspaper, he clasped his hands in horror and then publicly discussed a step-by-step plan for giving her a more fitting and modern (read: feminine) haircut. He is widely credited with “saving” Angela Merkel and putting her hair out of its misery. If you Google “Angela Merkel haircut” you will find many photo galleries devoted to the topic (herehere, or here). Once she dressed and appeared more feminine, polls numbers improved and she won the 2005 election.

Powerful women are often forced between a rock and a hard place, or a high-heeled shoe and a skirt, if you will. If they are too feminine, they’re incompetent. Too masculine becomes synonymous with aggressive. Angela Merkel’s experience is certainly not an isolated case. Kirsten Gillibrand experienced sexism in her role when male colleagues publicly called her honey badger and awarded her the backwards compliment of hottest member of the Senate.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can buy a Hillary nutcracker or read endlessly about her wide array of pantsuits. Julia Gillard’s tenure as first female Prime Minister of Australia was marked by a flurry of misogynist comments, including by Tony Abbott, the opposition leader. Gillard was featured in pornographic cartoons (too graphic to be linked), some nicknamed her the witch, and her butt size was the subject of many conversations. Finally, Gillard was fed up and fought back in a now famous anti-misogyny speech (watch it here), which propelled her to the global status of feminist icon.

What lessons can we learn from Merkel to advance women in politics in the United States? While she triumphed in the end, interestingly, to some extent she also gave in to the attacks. Her hair now has a modern and stylish look and she wears flattering but similar outfits day in and day out. The media moved on and no longer waste time focusing on her appearance. She is now lovingly called Deutschland’s Mutti (mommy of Germany) and proudly considered the Iron Chancellor or Iron Lady for her leadership role within the European Union. Does this mean that we should encourage women to always listen to the criticism?

Absolutely not.

The broader lesson to learn from Merkel is that she never stopped doing what she does best: leading Germany. Today, the coverage is about her leadership. She may have started as the butt of the joke, but her persistence outlasted the laughter.