Rage Against the Baby Machines: Germany's Neo-Housewives Spark Debate on Gender Roles

By Khuê Pham in Berlin

A new wave of anti-feminism is taking hold of Germany. Former career women-turned-housewives are spreading the word about a "new femininity" which encourages women to stay at home and embrace motherhood.

The anonymous letter makes for heartbreaking reading. "Dragging myself from job to job, I used to feel so useless. I wanted to be special but didn't know how -- I was neither fish nor flesh." For this angst-ridden career woman, salvation finally came in the full-bellied shape of motherhood. "With my husband and daughter at my side, I'm so happy and free now," she proclaims.

The face of the anti-feminist revolution: Eva Herman, author of "The Eva Principle" and its follow-up "Dear Eva Herman" (pictured).
AP

The face of the anti-feminist revolution: Eva Herman, author of "The Eva Principle" and its follow-up "Dear Eva Herman" (pictured).

What sounds like a scene out of a 1950s TV sitcom is in fact a letter written to Eva Herman, the German author of the controversial bestseller "The Eva Principle" ("Das Eva Prinzip"), sub-titled "Towards a New Femininity." The principle in question rests on a series of tenets so old-fashioned they seem almost revolutionary again: Motherhood instead of emancipation, child-rearing instead of career-climbing, devoted marriage instead of egoistic self-fulfillment.

The 262 pages behind the pink cover of "The Eva Principle" are full of anti-feminist anger. Herman feels that nothing less than the survival of the country is at stake -- Germans will "die out" if women don't change their behavior, she says. She sees herself as courageously breaking a "taboo" by criticizing women's liberation.

"Let's just say it loud," Herman writes. "We women have overburdened ourselves -- we allowed ourselves to be too easily seduced by career opportunities." She recommends women exchange the cold sphere of work for the "colorful world of children" and discover their "destiny of nurturing the home environment."

Herman, a good-looking blonde with blue eyes and a toothpaste smile, certainly makes an attractive figurehead for the new gender revolution. Her well-groomed appearance is no coincidence -- the 49-year-old used to be a newsreader and talk show host on German national television.

With the birth of her son ten years ago, the three-times divorcee transformed herself into a devoted wife and wannabe mother of the nation. Since then she's been spreading her new-found wisdom in literary oeuvres like "The Joy of Breastfeeding" (2003) or "My Child Sleeps Through The Night" (2005).

Last year Herman graduated from child-rearing to sociology with "The Eva Principle" -- and became the target of scorn from all sides of the political spectrum. Critics accused her of sending women back to the 1950s and said that she, as someone who successfully combines her career with child-rearing, was guilty of hypocrisy. Several German women have written their own books in response, damning Herman's thesis.

Now the über-Hausfrau has published a sequel in an attempt to rebuke her critics. "Dear Eva Herman," which came out last month, is a collection of positive readers' letters or, as she likes to put it, proof that "ordinary people" agree with her. "The fact you've been criticized as being a traitor towards women shows just what sort of femi-fascism we have to live under nowadays," writes one reader in an expression of solidarity.

Another case of career woman-turned-outspoken-housewife is Christa Müller, the wife of the left-wing former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. Just five years ago, the economist and left-wing politician lectured the public that she was unsuited for the role of the ornamental wife. But now she, like Herman, has radically changed her mind.

As mother and homemaker, she devotes her remaining political energy to the rhetorical elevation of housewives to professionals. A book is already in the making, with the promising title of "Careful, Housewife Ahead!" ("Achtung, Hausfrau!") sub-titled "A Career with Prospects." She is also campaigning to introduce welfare payments which will compensate housewives for their domestic labor.

Baby machines

On the political level, too, the role of women has moved into center stage. Germany's controversial Minister for Family Affairs Ursula von der Leyen, who belongs to the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, has sparked a political discussion which has polarized not only the general public but also her own party. The underlying question is: Do young children suffer from psychological damage if they go to nursery rather than stay at home?

Leyen doesn't think so. She is currently proposing that the government increases the number of nursery places for children below the age of three to 750,000 by 2013, three times more than at the moment. Her argument is that better childcare provisions make it easier for mothers to return to work -- as well as encouraging German women to have more children. The country, which has the lowest reproduction rate in Europe -- the national average is 1.3 children per woman -- is urgently looking for a solution to its looming demographic crisis as the population gets older and threatens to shrink.

Opponents compare Leyen's proposal to the ideology of the former East Germany. The Communist state offered comprehensive childcare provision with the result that almost 92 percent of women worked. But, say critics, the intervention of the state into the sacred sphere of the family is harmful.

"Von der Leyen's proposal is destructive for children and families", Catholic bishop Walter Mixa said two weeks ago. Women, too should be worried, he feels: "Those who entice women to give their children into state care shortly after birth degrade them to baby machines."

Some of Leyen's (male) party colleagues such as the Baden-Württemberg politician Stefan Mappus and Saxony's culture minister Steffen Flath have also expressed sharp criticism: They call Leyen's policies a destruction of fundamental values and state-sponsored displacement of children.

But many Germans feel the whole debate is ridiculous. "Only the Germans think that public care equals child abuse", says Karin Deckenbach, a Washington-based political scientist and author of "What Happened, Eva?" which she wrote in response to "The Eva Principle." Elsewhere in Europe or in the USA, women -- and men -- are used to leaving their young children in care so that the mothers can return to work, she argues.

"The Eva Principle is not the solution but the problem", she says. "German women already have the choice to stay at home and look after their children if they want to." They are not, however, given the choice of combining children with a career.

Subsidizing gender inequality

In Deckenbach's opinion, the new wave of idealising the nuclear family, complete with gender stereotypes, is an anachronistic leftover from the 1950s. Legislation dating from that time -- and which is still on Germany's books -- "subsidizes the maintenance of gender inequality," she feels. She cites the examples of tax benefits calculated on the basis of the combined income of a married couple -- making it financially unattractive for wives of high-earning men to take low-wage jobs -- or child support payments which go to all parents, irrespective of their income.

But it appears that German women's reluctance to have children is not because of a lack of financial investment on the part of the government -- far from it. The German government spends more than €60 billion ($78.6 billion) per year on family policies. At 3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), that's significantly higher than the European Union average of 2 percent. About 70 percent of that money goes directly to the family, with only €8 billion ($10.5 billion) being spent on public childcare.

However there is evidence that the money being spent is not having the desired effect. Researchers from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development compared reproductive rates in several European countries and found that Germany still lags behind other EU countries in reproductive rates.

Denmark has a reproductive rate of 1.8 children per woman, even though it adopts the opposite strategy from Germany regarding spending on family policy, with 30 percent of funds going directly to the family and 70 percent being spent on state services. And France, where almost 80 percent of women work, is the European baby champion with an average of two children per woman.

The researchers' conclusion was that the reproductive rate is highest in countries where more women work, where the divorce rate is higher, and where there is a high degree of equality between men and women. It's not exactly an argument in favor of women becoming stay-at-home earth mothers.

There are many Germans -- both male and female -- who would like their country to become more progressive in terms of child care provision. Leyen's proposals are supported by the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Left party and some progressive conservatives.

Angela Merkel -- Germany's first female chancellor -- is one of them. At the recent 20th anniversary of the Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, she emphasized that not only women, but also men, need to become more emancipated: "Equality can't happen until men change their behaviour." The guests -- who included several female ministers as well as Leyen -- issued a collective call for "active fathers" who contribute more to the family than just their paychecks and a goodnight kiss.

And this is, in fact, what many German men would like to do, according to a new study by the State Institute for Family Research at the University of Bamberg. The report found that 20 percent of fathers would like to spend more time with their children but don't do so because they fear negative repercussions at the workplace.

Maybe it's time for German men to work towards a new masculinity. Expect to see "The Adam Principle" in a book store near you soon.

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