In an interview with Spiegel published on Monday, German Family Minister Kristina Schroder challenged several central beliefs of feminists. Politicians and leading feminists are not impressed. Leading women's rights activist Alice Schwarzer says she is unqualified for her job.
There is little doubt that Germany is not the easiest place to live and work if you are a woman. According to statistics released earlier this year, women earned an average of 23.2 percent less than men in 2008 -- a number that has been going up in recent years. There is also an extreme paucity of female executives at leading German companies.
Indeed, the situation is such that European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding saw fit to censure Germany in March. "In economic terms," she said, "Germany is one of the most developed countries. As such, it should be a good role model rather than a straggler. I expect more ambition and more drive."
Given such a background, the biting criticism of German Family Minister Kristina Schroder, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, this week is perhaps unsurprising. In an interview with Spiegel published on Monday, Schroder, 33, expressed opposition to the idea of legally mandating a certain percentage of women in executive positions. She also gave short shrift to concerns over unequal pay.
"The reality looks like this: Many women like to study German and humanities; men, on the other hand, electrical engineering -- and that has consequences when it comes to salaries," she said.
'Crude and Antiquated'
Schroder also dismissed feminists by saying "I don't agree with a core statement by most feminists, the statement by Simone de Beauvoir: 'One is not born a woman, one becomes one.' Even as a schoolgirl I wasn't convinced by the claim that gender has nothing to do with biology and is only shaped by one's environment."
Her comments have not been universally well received. Renate Kunast, co-floor leader of the Green Party in parliament, said she was "flabbergasted" by Schroder's interview and said her comments on feminism were "crude and antiquated." She accused Schroder of having a "split personality -- another word for schizophrenic."
Manuela Schwesig, deputy head of the center-left Social Democrats, also blasted Schroder. "I haven't read so much nonsense in connection with women's issues in a long time," she said. "Ms. Schroder has absolutely no understanding of the historical significance of feminism." She also accused Schroder of having "no idea" about the very real problems facing women today.
Perhaps the fiercest broadside, though, came from Alice Schwarzer, Germany's leading feminist voice and the editor of the influential women's magazine Emma.
In her interview, Schroder took direct aim at Schwarzer, saying "I have read a lot of her work -- first 'The Little Difference,' later 'The Big Difference' and 'The Answer.' I found all these book very well argued and worth reading. But I found that many of her theories went too far. For example that heterosexual intercourse was barely possible without the submission of the woman. I can only say to that: Sorry, that's wrong."
'A Hopeless Case'
Responding to a question as to whether feminists oppose relationships between men and women, Schroder said: "There was indeed a radical movement that argued in this way and saw being lesbian as a solution. I didn't find it very convincing that homosexuality should be the solution to the problem of women being disadvantaged."
An open letter published by Schwarzer on Monday didn't mince words. "Whatever the chancellor's motives were in choosing you to become minister of family and women's issues, competence and empathy for women was certainly not it," Schwarzer wrote.
In response to Schroder's direct accusation, Schwarzer said that the minister was referring to something she had written in 1975 and that Schroder had both misinterpreted what she wrote then and ignored what she has written since. Schwarzer accuses Schroder of using "cheap clichés" and says she is "a hopeless case. Simply unqualified."
Still, Schroder has managed to find some support. "I think Mrs. Schroder is right," said Silvana Koch-Mehrin, of the business-friendly Free Democrats. "We are now far beyond the classical definition of feminism."
Here is the SPIEGEL interview with Ms. Schroder.
Interview With Germany's Family Minister - Women Need To Get Much More Self-Confident And Tough'
In a SPIEGEL interview, German Family Minister Kristina Schroder, 33, of the conservative Christian Democrats, discusses the shortcomings of feminism, how she plans to help disadvantaged schoolboys and why women don't want wimps as partners.
SPIEGEL: Frau Schroder, we took a look at your high school newspaper.
Schroder: Oh God, here we go …
SPIEGEL: It contains a sentence in which you say you never want to become a feminist. What was so bad about them?
Schroder: Nothing, but I don't agree with a core statement by most feminists, the statement by Simone de Beauvoir: "One is not born a woman, one becomes one." Even as a schoolgirl I wasn't convinced by the claim that gender has nothing to do with biology and is only shaped by one's environment.
SPIEGEL: Did you have real feminists in your school?
Schroder: Of course. My best friend for example still believes in the thesis I mentioned, she teaches feminist theory at university and still votes for the Greens. But that of course doesn't change the fact that she is and will remain my best friend.
SPIEGEL: Were there other differences, for example regarding the clothes you wore?
Schroder: I never wanted to express my independence by dressing in a particularly masculine way or appear particularly boyish. For me emancipation will only be truly reached if a woman can wear makeup and skirts without having her abilities doubted as a result.
SPIEGEL: Did you wear miniskirts and high heels when you were a school girl?
Schroder: That's not my style but I have indeed always liked to dress in a feminine way.
SPIEGEL: And you were never worried that by doing so you were submitting to the clothing rules of a patriarchal society?
Schroder: To be honest: No!
SPIEGEL: What do you think about (prominent German feminist) Alice Schwarzer?
Schroder: It is absurd if something that is fundamental for humanity and for its survival should in itself be defined as submission. That would mean that society can't carry on without the submission of women.
SPIEGEL: Did you think feminists fundamentally oppose relationships between men and women?
Schroder: There was indeed a radical movement that argued in this way and saw being lesbian as a solution. I didn't find it very convincing that homosexuality should be the solution to the problem of women being disadvantaged.
SPIEGEL: What do you think: has feminism made women happier?
Schroder: Good question. I think that the early feminism at least overlooked the fact that partnership and children can provide happiness. It isn't the only way but for very many people it is the most important way.
SPIEGEL: Is there such a thing as conservative feminism?
Schroder: Such artificial terms don't mean much to me. For me conservatism means accepting reality. The Left wants to re-educate people. We acknowledge that there are differences, also between men and women.
SPIEGEL: One of your first acts in office was to set up a department for the victims of feminism.
Schroder: I'm sorry but there is no department with such a name in my ministry.
SPIEGEL: A department for boys. Who gave you this funny idea?
Schroder: What's funny about it? I always thought we have badly neglected issues concerning boys and men. It's a fact that it used to be Catholic working class girls from rural areas who had the biggest problems in school. Now it's boys from low-education backgrounds.
SPIEGEL: How would you like to help boys?
SPIEGEL: Is that so bad?
Schroder: Yes. If one assumes that men and women are different then there's a lot to suggest that children benefit from being with both genders. For example a friend of mine who is a single mother keeps telling me that her little daughter wants to spend a lot of time with people she knows, uncles and brothers. She simply lacks a father figure in her everyday life.
SPIEGEL: What other help can boys be given?
Schroder: We must review what is taught in nurseries and schools to assess if fit takes enough account of the needs of boys. To put it in an exaggerated way: do we give enough dictation with football stories? That interests boys. Or is always just about butterflies and ponies?
SPIEGEL: Apparently they often deal with butterflies.
Schroder: It's a fact that boys are worse at school than girls, more of them go to secondary modern schools (the lowest tier of high school in Germany), and they have to repeat the school year more often.
SPIEGEL: That's nice of you.
Schroder: That's just the way I am.
SPIEGEL: We had the impression that men get along quite well without your help. Of the 185 management board members of DAX-listed blue chip companies in Germany, 181 are men.
Schroder: But I think it would be really rotten to tell boys that schools won't cater for them properly because men have unquestionably been dominant for thousands of years. A feminism that deliberately neglects boys is immoral in my opinion.
'A Quota Always Amounts to a Failure of Politics'
SPIEGEL: But you are the women's issues minister and not the men's minister, and you are responsible for promoting women in society. Why didn't you start demanding quotas for women in leadership positions long ago?
Schroder: Because a quota always amounts to a failure of politics. For me, economics is first and foremost the ability to act freely without state rules. That's why I believe quotas should only be used as a last resort. In fact, I am certain that we do not need quotas -- especially not in a time when we have a growing shortage of qualified workers. Companies are already asking head hunters to find women for top positions.
SPIEGEL: At the end of the day, economic freedom is more important to you than the goal of bringing more women into leadership positions?
Schroder: You also have to ask yourself which women would profit from a quota -- probably those who have no family obligations whatsoever. But aren't women with families precisely the people we want to help? That's why we should, if at all, theoretically introduce a quota for mothers, which would be impossible in practice.
SPIEGEL: If you don't want any quotas, could you at least help women out by banning wage disparities for the same work -- the so-called gender pay gap?
Schroder: That has already long been forbidden by the General Equal Treatment Act. But the reality looks like this: Many women like to study German and humanities; men, on the other hand, electrical engineering -- and that has consequences when it comes to salaries. We cannot prohibit companies from paying electrical engineers more than people with German literature degrees.
SPIEGEL: So women themselves are responsible for the fact that they earn less?
Schroder: At the very least, they need to be conscious of the fact that certain earnings potential is attached to specific career choices.
SPIEGEL: So there is no real disadvantage for women when it comes to payment?
Schroder: Of course there is, and in multiple regards. First, women are often years behind if they take time out from their careers for the family. Second, women who work part-time earn an average of 6.5 percent less than men. On top of that, many women are simply bad at negotiating (their salaries). Many are happy if they succeed in returning to professional life. The main thing for them is that their job is at least somewhat compatible with their family life. But that's exactly where they are wrong. We, as women, often believe that we have to endear ourselves by acting modestly. But that leads personnel directors to think: Anyone who gives themselves away so cheaply cannot be very good. On that point, women need to get much, much more self-confident and tough.
SPIEGEL: As a minister, you have an advantage when it comes to your salary. It is stipulated.
Schroder: That's true. I am happy that I didn't have to negotiate that.
SPIEGEL: Do you share the opinion of your predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, that equality can only be considered to have been achieved when average women are in positions of leadership?
Schroder: That's a good point. It is indeed the case that women often have to be much better at their jobs than men in order to get the position they desire.
SPIEGEL: Studies have shown that women aren't particularly interested in placing their careers before their personal lives. You yourself became a government minister early on in your career. What's your feeling? Do careers make people happy?
Schroder: Not careers alone. A successful professional life and joy in work are certainly a part of it, but I couldn't be happy without a fulfilling private life.
SPIEGEL: As you were graduating from high school, you said you would like to have a family and children. Now you are 33, you're a government minister and you have no children. Was it worth it?
Schroder: You don't seriously believe that I am going to answer that question, do you?
SPIEGEL: Well, you are the family minister.
SPIEGEL: We wouldn't have any problem doing so.
Schroder: Yeah, right.
SPIEGEL: Can a government minister take parental leave after having a child?
Schroder: So far, there hasn't been a case of that yet. One thing that is certain is that a member of parliament cannot because of constitutional factors. After all, they are directly elected by the people.
SPIEGEL: Your husband is a senior official in the Interior Ministry. Who will have to stay at home if the two of you have children?
Schroder: That is a decision that we will make together if it comes to that point.
SPIEGEL: You got married in early 2010. Why did you opt to take your husband's last name?
Schroder: I'd made up my mind to do so long before becoming a minister.
SPIEGEL: Still, there are women who claim that keeping your own last name after getting married is a sign of emancipation.
Schroder: That's really a matter of personal preference.
SPIEGEL: Don't you think that having a family minister who shares information about her own family life is just something that goes with the territory?
Schroder: I don't consider that to be an obvious given, but I will grant you one thing: There is no denying that, when it comes to family policies, you are dealing with very private issues. Still, my husband and I decided that we didn't want to make our private lives a matter of public discussion. What's more, I also wanted to get away from having a minister who pretends to be a certain type of role model. I don't want my life to serve as an example for anyone.
SPIEGEL: Your predecessor in office, current Labor Minister -- and mother of seven -- Ursula von der Leyen, didn't seem to have any problems with playing that role.
Schroder: That's not true. She was also very conscious about setting her own boundaries.
'Things Have Gotten Very Rough for Men'
SPIEGEL: Where do you personally believe the boundaries of equality should lie? For example, did you ever have a problem with allowing a man to pay for your dinner?
Schroder: No. I interpret that as being a nice gesture, just like holding the door open for me. Still, these days, things are much less dogmatic that they once were. And for that very reason, we can once again be a bit more relaxed about finding such things nice. That's undoubtedly one of the privileges of my generation.
SPIEGEL: So, who does the cooking at your house?
Schroder: If I were to tell you that I'm the one who does all the cooking, you'd interpret it as me trying to be some kind of role model. And if I were to say that my husband does all the cooking, you'd say: "Ah, so that's how it is with family ministers."
SPIEGEL: So, who does do the cooking? You've already admitted to being a big fan of baking.
Schroder: I'm also a big fan of cooking. I just recently made veal cheeks. It's a pretty involved process: You have to braise them in red wine for two and a half hours.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any sympathy for the modern man who feels a bit insecure about things? On the one hand, they're expected to be loving, devoted family men; on the other hand, women don't like wimps.
Schroder: Things have gotten very rough for men -- but for women, too. For men, the problem is varying expectations about roles. When it comes to women, though, our perfectionism gives us a lot of grief. Women want to be super moms, super partners and super performers at work -- and all at the same time. That's stressful.
SPIEGEL: Who are the kind of men that the rest of us men should look up to as role models?
Schroder: For me, a male role model would be a man who, despite holding a leadership position, has the courage to say that he wants to reschedule a 7 p.m. meeting for 4 p.m. because he'd really like to be able to put his son to bed. I guarantee you that a man who did that would be loved by all the women in the company. We need to finally bid farewell to this typical German "presence culture." In the end, the person who sits at his or her desk the longest is not necessarily the best. In fact, he or she might also be the least efficient. It's also often the case that people with family responsibilities are particularly productive at work.
SPIEGEL: Most of the women of your generation grew up with posters of New Kids on the Block and Take That hanging on the wall. But you had one of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Did you find him sexy?
Schroder: This whole thing about the Kohl poster is just a rumor that won't die. During the 1998 election campaign, I had a poster on my wall from the Young Christian Democrats. Its caption was "Keep Kohl!" and it was a picture of an elephant standing in Wolfgangsee (an Austrian lake near Salzburg where Kohl often went on holiday while he was chancellor). There wasn't a single image of Helmut Kohl on the poster. I thought the poster was funny.
SPIEGEL: In any case, even when you were only a girl, you already thought Kohl was great. Why?
Schroder: I was fascinated by the role he played in Germany's reunification. The way he courageously seized this opportunity was unparalleled. What a sensational statesman!
SPIEGEL: Were you already so aware of such things when you were only 12 years old?
Schroder: I'm not sure if I would have said it the same way back then. And when I look at 12-year-olds today, I wonder what was going on with me at that age. Still, I wasn't the only one who was fascinated by the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was a truly moving moment in German history. At the time, I would record television shows about politics on VHS cassettes in the belief that it was exciting and worth preserving for posterity.
SPIEGEL: You were a downright freak!
Schroder: I was just completely enthralled, 12-year-olds can get like that. For example, I learned the names of all the members of the cabinet by heart.
SPIEGEL: Just one more question, and a serious one: Would a career like the one you've had be possible in Germany if it weren't for feminism?
Schroder: No. Before feminism, that would have been impossible.
SPIEGEL: Minister Schroder, we thank you for this interview.