German politician Kirsten Lühmann on how her first career in the police prepared her for sexism in parliament. Philip, Oltermann reports in The Observer 9 Feb 2014.
Germany‘s chancellor has been voted Forbes‘s most powerful woman on the planet six times in the last seven years. And even if you take Angela Merkel out of the equation, the country does better than most of its neighbours in terms of female political representation: 36.3% of members of the current parliament are women.
But getting to that point has been a long struggle. Kirsten Lühmann, 49, has more experience in fighting against male dominance than most of her colleagues. A member of parliament for the Celle region in Lower Saxony since 2009, as well as one of her party’s spokespeople on transport, she was formerly one of the country’s first female uniformed police officers.
“In my time on the beat, women were still seen as too weak, too much in need of protection. One colleague used to say he didn’t like going on patrol with female officers because he always ‘had to look after them’. So I asked him, ‘Don’t you have to look after your male colleagues as well?'”
Making herself heard in politics was easier, she says, not least because her party, the Social Democrats, had introduced a 40% quota for female candidates in 1988. She had also had children relatively early on in her career: by the time she was offered an entry into party politics, her three daughters were already 16, 17 and 19 years old.
“That’s the tricky thing for women in politics: at a certain level, you have to say yes when you get offered a chance. You don’t get asked twice. And when you are a mother with young kids, it’s really hard to make that kind of commitment.”
If it’s now easier for the next generation of women to combine family life with a political career, she says, it’s thanks to a series of landmark decisions in German politics. Lühmann points to a case in 2009, when a young politician from the Free Democrats was refused entry to the plenary hall because she had her four-month-old daughter with her. The guards had told her that she had to leave her baby outside, since the child wasn’t an elected member of parliament. A public outcry followed and the rules were changed.
Women in German politics don’t just have to fight against patriarchal parliamentary rules, but also against continuing prejudice in the German media. “Have you ever read an article analysing the dress sense of [former chancellor] Helmut Kohl, who was a fat man with baggy suit jackets? No. But every week there’ll be at least two articles about Angela Merkel’s haircut or her trouser suits.”
Lühmann herself gets several letters every week asking her why she always wears a red suit jacket in public. “Did a male politician ever get a letter complaining that they wore too many grey suits?” she says. Her answer is usually that she likes wearing red because as a tall woman in bright clothes it’s easier to stand out when surrounded by men in grey. “Breaking into politics is really tough if you are a short chubby woman. Short chubby men are legion in politics, on the other hand. It’s my luck that I am neither short nor overweight. But that’s not an achievement, that’s a coincidence.”
If Angela Merkel managed to break the mould, some say, it’s because she has managed to style herself as the “mother of the nation”. Her nickname in Germany is Mutti, or “Mummy”.
“The choice for most female politicians is still either mother or sex bomb, angel or whore, so mother it is. Will it ever change? I don’t know. We’re still a long way from people in the public eye being able to define their own roles