Three Female Veterans of German Politics 'There Was an Assumption I Would Be Docile'

What's life like for women in the top echelons of German politics? DER SPIEGEL spoke with three former cabinet ministers about their experiences as women in government. Things have improved, they say, but there is still much to be done.

German politician Rita Süssmuth
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German politician Rita Süssmuth

Interview Conducted By and


There is an instant camaraderie between the three women when they meet in the Berlin offices of DER SPIEGEL, having known each other for so long and experienced so many things together as they have. Rita Süssmuth, 81, was family minister for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 1985 to 1988 in the cabinet of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (also of the CDU) before falling out of favor. Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, 75, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), served as development minister under both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, likewise of the SPD, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU. She ultimately occupied the post from 1998 to 2009, longer than any of her predecessors. Sixty-seven-year-old Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), headed up the justice portfolio in Kohl's cabinet before resigning in 1996. Thirteen years later, she was back in the same position for a four-year stint under Merkel.


DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Süssmuth, you were the first minister for women's affairs at the national level. How were you treated?

Süssmuth: Like a woman and not like a person. Back then, when women spoke in the Bundestag (Germany's federal parliament), everyone thought: "Oh well, it'll be over soon." There were complaints about high-pitched voices and about external appearances. I also experienced disregard of my competence. I was denigrated in discussions on issues for which I was responsible. Instead, men were allowed to speak and negotiate. It was extremely offensive.

Rita Süssmuth
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Rita Süssmuth

DER SPIEGEL: You quickly got a reputation for being a rebel.

Süssmuth: There was an assumption that I would be docile. I don't think that Chancellor Kohl was particularly committed to having a minister for women's issues. But the CDU had realized that when it came to women's issues -- things like social justice, equality, recognition of ability and responsibility -- things couldn't remain as they were. I was appointed to the cabinet at a time when the Green Party already held seats in the Bundestag. The SPD was also further along than we were. Kohl should have known that I'm not the meek sort. In a discussion prior to the appointment, I told him: "When it comes to the abortion paragraph 218 (which criminalized abortion), I have a different opinion." He said we would find a solution. In personal discussions, Helmut Kohl was extremely open. He was a liberal from the bottom of his heart. But he didn't want any trouble with the party.

DER SPIEGEL: And did you create trouble?

Süssmuth: Back then, 30 years ago, you were considered an immoral woman if you even uttered the word "condom." Despite all the resistance, I was still able to achieve a lot when it came to HIV prevention. But I supported a ball in Hamburg, for example, that was held in support of helping prostitutes out of prostitution. Afterward, Kohl wrote me a letter to complain. When I stood up for single mothers, it was said that I was glorifying them, as though it was better than being married. I used to get a lot of critical letters.

DER SPIEGEL: Ultimately, you were removed from the cabinet after just three years, promoted to a less troublesome position as president of the Bundestag.

Süssmuth: I didn't want to be parliamentary president. I wanted to be able to have a say on political issues. I actually cried when I lost my cabinet position. But then I regrouped. I had underestimated the powers that come along with the parliament office.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Wieczorek-Zeul, what were your experiences like as a young woman in politics?

Wieczorek-Zeul: I wasn't born into feminism. But I quickly realized that I was seen differently as a woman. Everything was fine as long as I was well-behaved, but at the top, you are either the naïve fool who doesn't know a thing about politics or you are vilified. I was the snake, the witch, the bitch. In parliament, I often felt a subliminal disregard for women.

DER SPIEGEL: In the 1970s, you became the first national leader of the SPD's youth wing, known as the Young Socialists.

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Wieczorek-Zeul: My first experience in politics: In 1966, I was at a conference of the local Young Socialists chapter and was the only one who stood out a bit from the serious-looking young men dressed in gray. When it came time to elect a secretary to take minutes, the local chapter head said: "There's a comrade sitting in the back. She can surely write." I just swallowed it and then replaced him as chapter head the next year. When I later ran to become head of the SPD, I found myself faced with disgust: How could a woman dare to run when men like Gerhard Schröder and Rudolf Scharping wanted the position? But I received 130,000 votes in the ballot.

DER SPIEGEL: You were development minister in the cabinet led by Gerhard Schröder. He referred to women's issues as "palaver." What was your relationship like with him?

Wieczorek-Zeul: Gerhard Schröder only respected you if you took a clear position. And he was still learning, that much has to be said. Sometimes it took awhile for him to see reason.

DER SPIEGEL: He has the reputation for being extremely macho. Was he?

Wieczorek-Zeul: He was never duplicitous. But when it comes to women's rights, Willy Brandt was really the most civilized of them all. On one occasion, our party platform commission was debating whether to include the sentence: "If you want a humane society, masculinity must be overcome." There was significant resistance, but Brandt pushed it through.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, you were appointed justice minister in 1992 by Helmut Kohl, making you the first woman to hold a core cabinet portfolio. What were your experiences?

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger
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Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: Even just speaking of a core portfolio is discriminatory. A core portfolio -- meaning one only for men. Of course I ended up in the position because there was a bit of a competition going on. The FDP wanted to be the first party to install a woman in that office. But not everyone was in favor. Because as head of the Justice Ministry, you have a direct influence on draft laws and can really initiate change.

DER SPIEGEL: Even today, the FDP has a problem when it comes to women in positions of leadership. Did you feel that you were taken seriously at the time?

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: I personally hardly ever experienced sexism. But of course I had to fight: Some in the FDP thought that because an unknown was now sitting in the Justice Ministry that they could dictate what she did.

DER SPIEGEL: Did you have the feeling that you as a woman had to be better than the men?

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: Not exactly better ...

Süssmuth: But certainly a little better.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: I think women can allow themselves fewer weaknesses. Weaknesses are immediately turned against them. But a lot has changed. Today, women are seen as a threat because they can advance to the same positions that the men want. That wasn't the case 25 years ago.

DER SPIEGEL: You first served in the cabinet of Chancellor Schröder and were then part of Chancellor Merkel's cabinet. Has the treatment of women changed over the years?

Wieczorek-Zeul: She has a different style, of course. But she was never a politician who really took the lead on women's issues.

Süssmuth: When she got into politics -- back when she was called "Kohl's girl" -- much of the political environment in reunited Germany was new to her. She didn't arrive as a representative of women's issues. She didn't vote in favor of our compromise on paragraph 218. She wasn't in favor of a quota (for female managers). It was a gradual process of convergence. But once she realized how things really work in Germany, her approach changed significantly.

DER SPIEGEL: Taken together, you three have 65 years of experience as members of the German parliament and 22 years in cabinet positions. You have been key members of governments led by Helmuth Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel. How far has Germany come in terms of equality?

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: Legal equality has been largely established. That alone is a significant achievement: It used to be that women had to fight to even be allowed to work without a man's permission.

Wieczorek-Zeul: I would like to have seen someone try to forbid me from having a career.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: Yeah, but women with less self-confidence never made it out of the home. Mothers with children out of wedlock were given a guardian for their children! Plus, it was only 20 years ago that marital rape was made illegal. That was only made possible because women from different political parties joined forces. Now, equality on paper has largely been achieved -- but we need to talk about how things look in reality. And there, things are gloomy. It starts with equal pay for equal work.

Wieczorek-Zeul: If something is scandalous, then it is this pay gap. That has consequences. The fact that women's pensions are hardly more than half of men's pensions is really unacceptable.

Süssmuth: We have had both active and passive voting rights for 100 years. That is the legal situation. But take a look at the realities of who holds power and how many women are actually involved. The situation is almost better in some developing countries.

Wieczorek-Zeul: Rwanda has more female lawmakers than European countries do.

Süssmuth: There is a world that isn't totally provable, but which exists in reality. On the one hand, women have the feeling that we have achieved everything from a legal perspective. Really, that should be the end of it. But it becomes much more difficult when we look at society. Discrimination there is much subtler and more hidden.

DER SPIEGEL: In the upper echelons of leading German companies, not much has changed in the last several decades. Is the introduction of a quota a promising strategy or is it unfair?

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul
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Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul

Wieczorek-Zeul: I am 75 years old. I no longer believe in fairy tales. If we hadn't introduced a quota in the SPD at the end of the 1980s, there is no way that 40 percent of lawmakers from our party would be women today. And: Actively promoting women produces results. When I first took over the Development Ministry in 1998, only 7 percent of leadership positions were occupied by women. By the time I left, that number had risen to 36 percent.

Süssmuth: I am no longer in favor of a quota. Quotas in the parties were unavoidable, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get our foot in the door. But the quota is much too weak. I am now in favor of parity.

Wieczorek-Zeul: That is the goal. But my impression is that in times when the equality of all people is no longer fundamentally accepted, the value of gender equality also sinks. I am thinking of the nationalists and populists that are on the rise in Europe and around the world. There is a correlation: These parties don't respect human rights and fall back on traditional gender roles. That is something that must be fought. Nothing is achieved forever.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: The right-wing populists in parliaments across Europe, and here in Germany, have an antiquated view of women. We're back in the 1930s. It's women at the stove, supported by ideology. Just a couple of years ago, we couldn't have imagined that we would seriously have to once again talk about the image of the family that, for example, the Polish government is currently supporting.

Süssmuth: Right now, we are seeing a huge, global backlash against liberalism, humanism and feminism. It is alarming.

DER SPIEGEL: And at the same time, a debate has erupted about sexism and sexual harassment.

Süssmuth: It is appropriate for sexual harassment -- this extremely awful form of male dominance -- to be a focus. We haven't overcome absolutely anything. I ask myself where we have failed. We have managed to focus on child abuse. But when it comes to effective measures to combat the abuse of women, not enough has been done.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: I think it is good that the debate is now being conducted.

Wieczorek-Zeul: But it can't be limited to certain groups. It has to be clear that sexist discrimination is much broader in reality.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: As serious as sexual harassment is, there is more at stake: sexist power structures. I don't know if there has ever been a debate on the issue in, for example, the German parliament.

Wieczorek-Zeul: The issue is solidarity with women globally. Every year, 300,000 women die in childbirth or shortly thereafter, mostly in developing countries. That is a gruesome number. You only have to strengthen the health care system in the right ways. In 2015, we signed on to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. That means we have obligated ourselves to ending discrimination against women in all forms and to battling AIDS around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls account for 74 percent of all new HIV infections among teenagers, many of them rape victims. We can do something about that. But we haven't made money available in our budget.

DER SPIEGEL: The #MeToo debate has been criticized on many fronts for being overwrought and excessive. Have women gone too far?

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: The drivel about it being a witch hunt is rubbish. It's just an attempt to silence the debate, it's totally transparent. As if you can't make compliments anymore, or flirt, or ride in the elevator with a female colleague. Nobody is demanding a law outlining what is allowed and what is not. We don't need legal parameters outlining how sexual contact must proceed. People take care of that quite well on their own. But we also have to identify where structures exist that allow for the oppression and exploitation of women.

Süssmuth: For me, the focus should also be on the men. Not just to discipline them, but to pull them out of certain roles and behavioral patterns. We need a societal and individual learning process, the discovery of a new form of masculinity.

DER SPIEGEL: What should that new form of masculinity look like?

Süssmuth: I am hopeful when I look at the younger generation. My father would never have pushed a baby buggy through town. These days, though, young men are quite happy to do so. It's about new, enriching experiences with children, about empathy and care, about partnership and receptivity to a modified self-image. Today's society is quite strong on those points.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that #MeToo can change society?

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: Young women are very active in a world that has changed significantly, in part because of technology. They have significant capabilities and are using them. But they are taking to the streets much less often and also aren't going into the institutions. What they are doing is, of course, political action. But they aren't becoming involved in politics, in part because it apparently isn't particularly attractive at the moment. So they express themselves in social networks; they are constantly on their smartphones. And then they have the feeling that they have actually done something. But ultimately, it often doesn't have much of an effect.

Wieczorek-Zeul: Extra-parliamentary movements rooted in civil society are important. But every movement must also be implemented politically. That was also true with the 1968 movement and the women's movement. Today, I see very little of that. That is why we are experiencing setbacks, such as when it comes to paragraph 219a (which prohibits advertising for abortion services) or the number of women in parliament.

Süssmuth: We can't let the world rest on its laurels. In my time, we achieved a lot primarily by working together across parties, which the party leaders didn't always like. I have the feeling that that isn't happening today at all anymore. Without networking and solidarity, women can be constantly played off against each other.

DER SPIEGEL: Do men simply cooperate better than women do?

Süssmuth: Unfortunately, I've even seen women working against women. It was more important to them to be valued by men. Men cooperate extremely well when it comes to power, while women do so more often when it comes to specific issues. And when they cooperate there, they are exceptional. But the question of power remains an unsolved problem.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: But the desire for power must also be there. Cotton balls and intelligence aren't enough.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Ms. Süssmuth, Ms. Wieczorek-Zeul, we thank you for this interview.

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