Shattering the Glass Ceiling A Woman Who Showed What's Possible

Lore Marie Peschel-Gutzeit is one of Germany's best known female lawyers. At 84, she still works six days a week. She managed to break through just about every glass ceiling there was in law and politics on her way to the top. But at what cost?

Maria Feck

By and (Video and Photos)


Some people are successful even in situations where others would have given up. They surmount hurdles that lead others to fail. How have these people managed to succeed in the face of adversity? On the search for answers, SPIEGEL ONLINE has assembled five profiles of inspirational examples. They all have ambition -- but that's not all.

Nothing dilly dallies here -- not even the elevator that takes you to Lore Maria Peschel-Gutzeit's office. The doors slam shut quickly and those who don't slip through swiftly enough will get crushed. It's fitting of the fast-pace work for which this respected professional, who holds a doctorate of jurisprudence and is one of Germany's best-known attorneys, is known.

Even at the ripe age of 84, Peschel-Gutzeit continues to work as a family law attorney at a firm located on Berlin's world-famous Kurfürstendamm boulevard. She clears a little less than two hours from her busy schedule for an interview. "That should suffice," she said on the phone.

She wears a navy blue pantsuit, a gold watch and a pearl necklace; her hair is pinned up just as it has always been. Her eyes peer through varifocal lenses and her handshake is astonishingly gentle. It would be understandable had she become hardened by her many battles over the years. But she sounds more determined and amiable than stern when she says: "I never wanted to come in third or fourth."

Her leather chair makes the same creaking noise as the parquet floor beneath it. Faded grass and peacock feathers fill a vase in her pleasant meeting room. When it comes to her career, however, aesthetics have been of little importance to Peschel-Gutzeit. It was discipline and a combative spirit that propelled her to the top. "I'm a Scorpio," she says. "They're fighters, everyone knows that."

Peschel-Gutzeit studied law during the 1950s and then worked for a law firm in the city of Freiburg in southwestern Germany. In 1960, she returned to her hometown of Hamburg, where she took a position as a judge. In 1984, she rose to become the chief judge at the city's Higher Regional Court, the first woman ever to be appointed to the post. In 1991, she became justice minister in the city-state government and in 1994 she took on the same position in Berlin. Then, in 1997, she returned to Hamburg to serve as the city's justice minister again, a post she would hold until leaving politics and moving back to Berlin, where she established herself as a lawyer. German feminist magazine Emma has described her as "one of the country's most influential lawyers" and she published an autobiography in 2012.

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Throughout her career, Peschel-Gutzeit learned to adapt. She forced herself to wear gray suits to court to avoid standing out, only to quickly change out of them when she came home at night and put on clothing she felt more comfortable in.

In a working world where women had no place, she learned to adopt the appropriate tone, opting for humor, openness and diplomacy. "If I had created the impression I was the enemy, I would have lost," she says.

Then, with a slight smile on her face, she shares an anecdote. It was 1968 and Peschel-Gutzeit wanted to switch to a different chamber, but the chamber's head judge, a certain Mr. Engelschall, wouldn't accept any women. So she knocked on his door and pleasantly said, "Mr. Engelschall, I heard that you would like to have a woman in your chamber. You can be helped!" The chief was silent, and then he scolded her before hemming and hawing -- and ultimately agreeing.

Peschel-Gutzeit attributes her self-confidence largely to her parents. Her father, a major general in the military, encouraged her to use her talents while her mother, a teacher, forgave her wool-gathering just as she did her temper tantrums. "She was very delicate in the way she treated me," Peschel-Gutzeit recalls.

Then the war arrived, enabling Peschel-Gutzeit, a young girl at the time, to see that women were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves -- that they could work as tram drivers or lawyers when men were called to the front. After the war, though, the men returned and drove the woman back into the kitchen.

But Peschel-Gutzeit wanted both: career and family. In her job, she pushed herself mercilessly. Ultimately, power followed success and with it came the freedom to shape things. "I found it interesting to be at the top," Peschel-Gutzeit says. She wanted to show men just what women are capable of achieving.

At times, she admits, she didn't give her family the time it needed. Peschel-Gutzeit raised her children on the side and then as a single mom after divorcing her husband in 1973. "It was extremely exhausting," she says. Nannies helped take care of the day-to-day, and it all somehow worked out in the end, but not always that well. "I made mistakes," Peschel-Gutzeit says. "I should have made more time for my youngest daughter."

When Andrea was three years old, she suffered heavy bleeding after knocking her head against a heating unit. But Peschel-Gutzeit had an important appointment in court that day, so she called a physician and asked how long the wound could go untreated. Three hours, the doctor said. The nanny stopped the bleeding while the mother rushed to her meeting, taking her daughter to the doctor afterward. She wanted to be there when the doctor put stiches in -- that's part of a mother's job, she says.

So where did this willingness to push herself to the limit and to pay for success with a guilty conscience come from? "There was never a point in my life where I was used to having it easy," she says. Even today, she works six days a week, putting in at least eight hours a day.

She doesn't just do it for herself, either. She's constantly fighting for the rights of women, children and, when necessary, also for men on issues like custody disputes. One issue close to her heart is the right for children to grow up in an environment free of violence. In 2000, a law pertaining to the issue finally got passed in Germany after years of lobbying on its behalf by Peschel-Gutzeit.

There are other goals she hasn't yet achieved -- the fact that children's rights still aren't anchored in the German constitution, for example. Germany's family minister, Manuela Schwesig, said recently she would support such an amendment, but it still faces an uphill battle. "I will not give up," says Peschel-Gutzeit. It's these kinds of goals, she says, that continue to drive her -- even after 84 years, an age at which many others have long since become more forgiving of themselves.

Peschel-Gutzeit's desk
Maria Feck

Peschel-Gutzeit's desk

Peschel-Gutzeit never needed much free time. She says she still has the gift of being able to unwind fairly quickly when she's not working. In earlier days, she would do so with a glass of water and whisky that her children would bring her. These days, she spends a lot of time in her Berlin apartment reading mystery novels, tending to the flowers on her balcony or listening to Bach.

She also still has an old house in Hamburg, but she hasn't put her name on the mailbox. "I don't want any unexpected visitors at my door there," she says. "It's the one place where I can get away from everything."

Peschel-Gutzeit would like to see more women pursue leadership positions. "They often don't do so out of fear, insecurity or a lack of self-esteem," she says. "The wind blows harder at the top." Perhaps the price of success is simply too high for many young women.

The lawyer stoops slightly when she walks, a product of her advanced age. Or is it perhaps the wind that so often blew in her face? "I don't know exactly how deeply success changed me," she says. But there is one thing she always promised herself: never to put herself above others.

So it's no surprise that she remains amiable and relaxed throughout our two-hour interview and Peschel-Gutzeit says thank you for the talk several times. Surely the questions, the photos and the filming must have been exhausting, but if it was, she hides it well.

The next client is about to arrive. The empty yoghurt container on her desk betrays the fact that, once again, she skipped her lunch break.

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sirajul 12/02/2016
1. Anything is possible with honesty, determination and staying focused
Anything is possible with honesty, determination and staying focused. Shattering the glass ceiling, too!
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