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.
The Parlous State of Women's Issues
It's easy to forget that after two terms with a female chancellor, many women actually feel that women's issues are in a parlous state, with a disappointing family minister and no set gender quota for supervisory boards, while typical "women's" professions remain underpaid. The CDU, meanwhile, is trying to play it safe during the election campaign, preferring not to even the controversial childcare allowance when discussing policies that affect women.
One advantage for Merkel is the fact that the other parties' leading candidates are mostly old men. This includes the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) candidate Rainer Brüderle, who ran into trouble with women once and for all after a female journalist claimed earlier this year that he had made suggestive comments to her.
The FDP and the Left Party are generally considered men's parties in any case, and receive far fewer votes from women. The same applies to far-right and brand new parties. But even among the environmentalist Greens, the only political party in Germany that has long drawn significantly more female than male voters, Katrin Göring-Eckardt can't seem to step out of the shadow of co-frontrunner Jürgen Trittin.
And then there's Peer Steinbrück. Polls show no other chancellor candidate in the past 20 years has won as little favor with women voters as the blustering chancellor candidate. His comment about Merkel's supposed "female bonus" did nothing to endear him to voters. Nor is the macho declaration that his life would be "just as rich as it is today" without his party's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, likely to have improved his standing with female voters. Steinbrück's visit with his daughter to the SPD's "Red Women's Salon" did little to help.
As the husband of a self-confident teacher and the father of two working daughters, Steinbrück actually lives a life that has no cause to scare off progressive women voters. Yet his attempts to prove his sensitivity to women's issues -- for example a fiery speech he gave in front of the Bundestag against the proposed childcare allowance -- come across as trying too hard. And his well-intentioned suggestion of establishing a special women's representative at the chancellery comes across as very last-century.
The SPD, which has won both women's and men's votes in equal proportions since the early 1970s and in fact received more votes from women under Gerhard Schröder, now fears for its hold on the female vote. The situation has become all the more alarming for the party since the last federal election in 2009, when it lost a voter segment to the CDU that it had previously considered a shoo-in: young women.
When it comes to the youth vote, the CDU is now attracting more women and men than the SPD. In 2009, nearly twice as many women between 25 and 34 voted for the CDU than for the SPD. For young women, Merkel has become a symbol that women, too, can make it to the very top. And her party knows it. "We have better standing with women," say some within the party.
The Grim Reality
SPD leaders, meanwhile, are racking their brains as to how they can overcome their candidate's male disadvantage. The conclusion they've reached is that the party's positions on the issues must serve to compensate for this deficit. "It's important that we reach women with our platform," says General Secretary Nahles. "This is something we're all engaged in, from the leading candidate to the local party branches."
The reality, though, looks grim. Steinbrück is a true problem case as far as the female vote is concerned, an uptight financial expert who speaks official-ese. To bridge the distance between himself and the voters, especially female ones, the candidate would need to change his way of speaking and make it folksier. His party convention speech in April offered a sample, teeming as it was with real-life references, including a call for shared living space for senior women.
As part of its election campaign, the party is also lining up some high-profile women to come out in support of Steinbrück. Top Social Democrats such as state governors Hannelore Kraft and Malu Dreyer will explain why they want to see Steinbrück in the chancellery. The party also wants to put a spotlight on Social Democratic mayors around the country, including Susanne Gaschke in Kiel and Barbara Ludwig in Chemnitz.
Steinbrück also plans to rely heavily on female expertise within his campaign team. But he needs to find the right ones. When Steinbrück announced his first picks last week and named web design professor Gesche Joost alongside seasoned politician Thomas Oppermann and union leader Klaus Wiesehügel, it quickly spurred speculation that he had merely rustled up a token woman so as not to be seen surrounded only by men pushing 60.
Steinbrück needs to take care that his attempts to include women don't end up construed as opportunism by female voters. And why should the important labor minister post go to Wiesehügel, who opposes the SPD's Agenda 2010 package of welfare and labor reforms, instead of to General Secretary Nahles or Manuela Schwesig, current labor minister in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania? Once again, it looks as if party leaders don't trust a woman to hold a post so crucial for the SPD. Schwesig is being considered for the position of family minister instead.
As it is, the SPD is already falling short in terms of the visibility of women in its upper echelons. Aside from General Secretary Nahles, so far there's little sign that the election campaign will include many top women. The current conservative government, on the other hand, has women in four out of nine top ministerial posts. And between Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Family Minister Kristina Schröder, they cover a broad spectrum of positions on policy issues that specifically affect women.
Split Along Gender Lines
Party strategists and electoral researchers agree that a campaign strategy purely oriented toward one target group isn't an option when the target group is as large and heterogeneous as women voters. A 2010 study by the Hanns Seidel Foundation entitled "Women - a suitable target group for the CDU?" breaks female voters down into such groups as the "Christian mother segment," the "traditional widow segment" and the "aspiring, persistent East German segment," reaching the conclusion that campaign strategies specifically targeting women don't appear to be particularly efficient.
Still, both major parties want to establish specific focus areas in their campaigns in order to appeal to women, since a 2005 study by polling institute Forsa showed that women are more likely than men to be driven more by political content than individual candidates. And the subject areas with which both the CDU and the SPD want to win over female voters turn out to be extraordinarily similar: gender quotas, minimum wage, balancing family and career and equal pay.
Before designing its campaign materials, the SPD had polling institute Infratest dimap conduct extensive tests as to which subjects most interest potential voters. The results showed significant differences between men and women.
The surveys also revealed that on some controversial political issues, opinions consistently split along gender lines. "On certain topics, the differences of opinion can only be attributed to gender," says Manfred Güllner from Forsa.
For example, women oppose nuclear energy and military involvement abroad more definitively than men, and are more pessimistic in their expectations for the economy. The researchers also found that women are more interested in sociopolitical issues and educational policy than men.
Women don't automatically vote for women, though, as Merkel learned in 2005, when she received fewer women's votes than Edmund Stoiber did before her. More women chose to cast their vote for SPD candidate Gerhard Schröder, despite his statement that women's issues were all just a big "fuss," as well as his well-known disrespectful behavior toward female ministers in cabinet sessions.
Schröder had women to thank for his re-election in 2002 as well. If only men had gone to the polls, the current CDU-FDP coalition would have retaken power three years earlier than it did. As a result, the common wisdom ever since Schröder has been that a candidate who wants to win the female vote can still be macho, as long as he's charming too. And as long as he has sex appeal.