What Women Want Merkel Scoring Points With Female Voters

The German left used to have a corner on the market when it came to progressive social issues. But Chancellor Merkel has transformed the conservatives, attracting huge quantities of women voters along the way. They've become a hot political commodity in this year's upcoming election, with the opposition struggling to catch up.



In the 1953 election campaign, German Economy Minister Ludwig Erhard knew which voters he needed to address. "Dear Hausfrau!" he wrote in his "Letter to Women Voters" ahead of the vote. "You know what it means to be an economy minister. As your family's economy minister … ." His missive then continued -- from one economy minister to another, so to speak -- with a full page about cooking pots, jacket potatoes and roast geese.

The father of Germany's economic miracle also praised German women as "allies of economic reason" and "incorruptible guardians of the family's wealth." Erhard's appeal had the desired effect. In this, the second general election in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received 20 percentage points more of the female vote than its main competitor, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Sixty years later, the country is once again witness to a battle for the female vote. Women voters are a hot political commodity in this year's upcoming election, though politicians no longer try to reach them by using the housewife routine. Women make up a strategically important block of voters for all of Germany's political parties -- who attempt to appeal to them as career women and retirees, as single mothers, working mothers and first-time voters -- not least because there are simply so many of them. In the election on September 22, nearly 32 million German women will be eligible to vote, compared to 30 million men.

"It's the women, stupid!" is the latest buzz phrase on both sides of the Atlantic, a play on the Clinton-era slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." The re-election of Barack Obama last year was a fresh reminder of how important the women's vote is. How a candidate comes across to women can often tip the scales of an election. In Germany, both Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder became chancellor thanks to the female vote.

Women More Conservative Than Men

And so the woman voter, that mysterious creature, has come under the scrutiny of polling institutes and researchers. What does she want? Do women vote for policies or personalities? What influences their decision -- are they issues relevant to women, such as gender quotas in the workplace or a childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers, or are they other factors that are more difficult to influence, such as the candidate's sex appeal? Do women vote for women? Or is the opposite in fact true?

This question of women voters is ever-present for election campaign planners. The CDU attaches "extremely high strategic importance" to women. The party is mobilizing everything at its disposal that could possibly appeal to women voters, from its female ministers to its women's organization -- the Frauen Union -- to the well-integrated immigrant women within its ranks. Ultimately, though, the party doesn't really need to worry. It already has Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose approval ratings are far higher with female voters than with their male counterparts.

Under Merkel's leadership, the CDU is on the way to once again becoming what it was for so long -- the country's leading women's party. From the introduction of women's suffrage in 1918 until 1933, and again from 1949 to the early 1970s, German women voted more conservatively than men. This didn't change until Willy Brandt (SPD) came along. He was chancellor from 1969 to 1974, and he appealed to women with his policies of Cold War détente and international reconciliation, his education reforms and his amendment of Paragraph 218 -- which had previously forbidden abortion in Germany. In addition, his personal charisma helped boost his attractiveness for female voters. The SPD came to stand for a new, emancipated era and received as many or even more votes from women as from men.

But under Merkel, a Protestant from former East Germany, the CDU has been becoming a women's party once again. It is no longer seen as embodying an outdated image of women. Merkel's "female bonus," as her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück termed it, is offsetting the negative impact of her party's conservative positions. In fact, with its many high-profile female politicians, the governing CDU has come to seem like the more progressive party, challenging the SPD for its traditional role as the party of social progress.

SPD Failing to Attract Female Voters

This poses a real problem for the SPD. On women's issues, the SPD and CDU are barely distinguishable from each other, apart from a controversial childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers reluctantly backed by the CDU at the insistence of its arch-conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. And the SPD has far fewer high-profile women than the CDU. Worst of all, Steinbrück, the SPD's chancellor candidate, doesn't seem to appeal to female voters, who find Steinbrück boorish, insensitive and technocratic. According to a survey commissioned by public broadcaster ARD, Steinbrück has just 24 percent support, compared to Merkel's 63 percent. Among male voters those percentages are 33 and 54 respectively.

Merkel has recently attended a number of events that have allowed her to score points with female voters, including a public talk organized by women's magazine Brigitte and a conference at the chancellery with 100 women in leadership positions. Merkel, it seems, has decided to actively solicit women's votes. And that's something new.

Merkel, a former minister for women's affairs under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was CDU party leader in 2002 when CSU leader Edmund Stoiber ran for the conservatives in the election that year. She was careful to conduct a gender-neutral campaign. An event with 100 top women, many of them vocal supporters of a legally binding gender quota of at least 30 percent on company supervisory boards, is something Merkel would never have dared during her days as opposition leader. In the male-dominated CDU, Merkel couldn't and wouldn't play the female card. The risk of being dismissed as a politician useful only for women's issues was simply too great.

The days when the chancellor had to keep fielding the "Can she do it?" question are over. Those close to her say she has become more relaxed about being a woman. As the most powerful female politician in Europe, the iron chancellor of austerity policies no longer needs to prove she has the requisite steel and stamina in the face of crises to hold her own in the chancellery. Merkel, it seems, is discovering herself as a woman. "She can finally afford to play the female card," says Birgit Meyer, a political scientist at Esslingen University of Applied Sciences.

At the moment, the chancellor is working on a bit of image improvement, largely aimed at women voters and meant to transform Merkel the euro zone crisis-solving machine back into a politician with a human face. In one recent instance, a misty-eyed Merkel presented her favorite film, East German classic "The Legend of Paul and Paula."

Then there was her conversation with Brigitte at Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater, where Merkel talked about men, home life and religion. "I'm not a feminist, but I'm an interesting case when it comes to possible female role models," Merkel declared. The discussion was well-attended by women who bore little resemblance to the CDU's typical voter base, and the atmosphere in the theater was pleasant and sisterly.

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