By Joseph Nasr
BERLIN – Repeatedly questioned about how she will juggle motherhood with work, the only woman with a chance of succeeding Angela Merkel as German chancellor says many Germans don’t seem ready for a mother with young children to take over.
Merkel was Germany’s first woman chancellor but she never had children. Now the Greens believe 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock faces a lingering stereotype that the incumbent never had to deal with: mothers should be running families, not countries.
Three months before Germans go to the polls, the media has questioned whether a mother could successfully lead Germany, prompting a heated debate about prevalent sexist attitudes.
On the campaign trail, Baerbock has been asked often about her children. An editor of mass-circulation newspaper Bild asked in an interview: “You are chancellor and are in the middle of negotiations, and you suddenly get a call from your children, would you answer? Did your children find it ok that you want to be chancellor?”
The host of a popular political TV talk show, Anne Will, pressed Baerbock on whether she won the Greens’ nomination for chancellor because she is a woman, even though the party’s backing was almost unanimous.
“It’s been the elephant in the room for some time now that you only got it because you are a woman,” Will said.
Baerbock responded: “I’m not going to have a sex change in the next six months. Of course the question of emancipation played a role but it wasn’t the only reason.”
The Greens, the only party in the Bundestag national parliament with more female than male lawmakers, briefly surged in the polls to overtake Merkel’s conservative bloc after Baerbock’s nomination but is now polling some 10 points behind at around 20%.
Pollsters say this is a sign that German voters want them to be in the next coalition government but not in the driver’s seat.
The ecologist party says the relentless questioning of Baerbock’s suitability for top office is unjustified and that the media have not scrutinised her male rivals as vigorously.
It also points to a fake news campaign that appeared online soon after her nomination. This has included false claims that she was paid for a nude photo shoot – the pictures of which turned out to be of a Russian adult entertainment model that bears a striking resemblance to Baerbock – fake quotes that she wants to ban owning pets, and another false report that she does not have a university degree.
“The hate campaign against Baerbock is unprecedented in German election history and far exceeds anything we have seen against Merkel,” Michael Butter of the University of Tuebingen said. “It shows that people took it seriously that a Greens chancellor could end up leading Germany.”
To be sure, missteps by Baerbock like an unreported party bonus and inaccurate details in her curriculum vitae have invited media scrutiny, and her lack of experience in government has been picked on by critics, often with sexist undertones.
Late last month, the Greens hired a prominent libel lawyer to fight allegations that Baerbock had in her new book lifted phrases from other texts without proper citation, accusations rejected by the party as “character assassination”.
She has denied any wrongdoing.
Baerbock has shaken up the election campaign with vows to scrap a controversial pipeline project to bring Russian gas to Germany, confront China on its human rights record and permanently abolish strict constitutional limits on new debt to finance a transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
Pollsters say her style and focus on the environment are particularly appealing to young voters, especially women.
TROUSERS VS SKIRTS
Merkel also faced media scrutiny ahead of the 2005 election, in which she won her first term.
Commentators, economists and members of Merkel’s own conservative bloc cast doubt on her ability to make sound decisions on the economy. Photographers snapped pictures of sweat stains beneath her armpit as she waved to journalists on the red carpet outside an opera house, which made it to newspapers’ front pages.
“Baerbock looks more feminine than Merkel: she is younger, has longer hair, wears dresses and skirts,” Katharina Wrohlich of the German Institute for Economic Research DIW said.
“Merkel is older, has shorter hair, and wears trousers and jackets. So this makes her (Baerbock) an easier and more obvious target of gender bias and sexism than Merkel,” she said.
Baerbock’s male rivals jumped to her defence after the plagiarism accusations surfaced.
Armin Laschet, the conservative chancellor candidate mostly likely to succeed Merkel, said the media’s questioning of whether Baerbock could juggle motherhood and the chancellery was inappropriate. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate of the Social Democrats, said she was being treated unfairly.
Baerbock summed up how she feels about media coverage of her flagging campaign in an interview with women’s magazine Brigitte: “I sense, or am often told, that it is an imposition that I, as a 40-year-old woman with young children, am standing as chancellor candidate. This is where I say women must be able to everything.”