BERLIN — It’s been a rough few weeks for Kristina Schroeder.
Already under fire for her plans to introduce a new subsidy for stay-at-home moms, as well as her adamant refusal to enforce gender quotas in companies, the German minister for family and women has published a controversial book that has galvanized her critics.
"Danke, emanzipiert sind wir selber!" ("Thanks, we're emancipated ourselves!") has been heavily criticized by the media and opposition politicians. In it, the minister claims that feminist roles are as oppressive as traditional ones.
Several prominent politicians and women’s groups are now supporting a campaign calling for the minister to start representing their interests or step down.
“We feel unrepresented by the minister responsible for women and family policies,” states an open letter which will soon be delivered to the minister.
“Kristina Schroeder leaves us to deal with our structural problems alone and dismisses them as individual problems.”
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The letter, which appears on the website NichtMeineMinisterin! (Not My Minister!) , was initiated by the Green party’s Berlin branch and is supported by the feminist blog Mädchenmannschaft, the women’s rights group Terre Des Femmes as well as the Pirate Party and the Social Democrats’ women’s organization. Since it was launched two weeks ago, it has gathered close to 23,000 signatures.
“When we wrote the letter, we said we would try to get at least two or three thousand signatures with this action,” says Yvonne Weber of the Berlin Green Party. “We were surprised ourselves with how many have signed already.”
Like many of those who back the campaign, Weber is angry with Schroeder for failing to tackle the huge problems that women in the country face. At 23 percent, Germany has the highest gender pay gaps in Europe, and the OECD has recently criticized the country for failing to provide adequate daycare, which is seen as one of the main barriers to women entering the labour market.
Germany also looks backward when it comes to the glass ceiling, with women currently only occupying 4 percent of top corporate jobs in Germany.
While Schroeder’s predecessor Ursula von der Leyen, now the labor minister, was seen as someone who ambitiously tackled these issues head on, Schroeder has disappointed many.
During her term as family minister, Von der Leyen extended parental leave and made moves to massively expand the state’s daycare facilities.
In contrast, Schroeder is planning on implementing the Betreungsgeld, or a subsidy for stay-at-home mothers that is regarded as reactionary and counter-productive by the opposition. Critics say it would discourage women from returning to work, or putting their children in kindergarten. Even members of her own party, the Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), are now openly questioning the wisdom of the policy, arguing that the money could better be spent on providing more much-needed kindergartens.
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Furthermore, while Von der Leyen supports a rigid gender quota, which would stipulate that 30 percent of advisory boards of top companies are women, Schroeder is against it. Instead, she champions a so-called flexi quota, whereby companies would simply volunteer to introduce their own quotas for women.
The release of Schroeder’s highly controversial book was tantamount to pouring fuel on an already smoldering fire. It takes a look at a number of issues through the prism of her own experience as a working mother. Schroeder was the first female minister to have a child while in office, and took 12 weeks maternity leave after the birth of her daughter. In the book she pleads for women to be liberated from the “dictatorship” of strict gender roles, both liberal and conservative, and be free to make their own choices.
The minister attacks traditional conservatives who want mothers to stay at home, yet she reserves most of her anger for feminists, and what she sees as their narrow view of how women should combine careers and family. Several chapters are dedicated to dealing with the negative impact of what she sees as harmful feminism.
“The feminists as Schroeder describes them are dogmatic and want to force all women into certain roles and to live their lives according to their ideals,” says Bettina Jarasch, the Green Party leader in Berlin. “That is not appropriate for what has actually developed in recent years and for the many very different positions that exist.”
A core theme in the book is that women should be left to decide on these matters in private. Women should fight their own battles, for example, by negotiating for better wages and conditions with their bosses.
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Jarasch argues that a relatively privileged woman like Schroeder has more options open to her than many other women, particular single mothers, who face very different problems and challenges. And that it is up to the minister to make sure that affordable childcare is in place. Without this, women’s choices are severely limited.
“She doesn’t see the structural factors in society and acts as if they don’t exist, and says that this is all a woman’s personal, private decision, when that is definitely not the case,” says Weber.
Weber is puzzled by the fact that Schroeder, a career women herself, takes such a stance. “She is doing everything that many women wish to achieve, but she says she achieved it all herself and women can achieve anything themselves, and so they don’t need support.”
“Women need support,” Weber argues. “And they need structural changes in society so that they have better opportunities and she says, well I did it, so others can, and there is no problem.”
The hostility that the book has provoked was evident at the recent book launch in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg district, home to many well-educated young mothers.
"We want kindergarten places — not Betreuungsgeld" some women shouted, while others held up a banner reading: “Your theses are from yesterday," and others chanted: "Thanks for our place in the kitchen."
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Many of her critics also wonder at the logic of a women’s minister releasing a book that essentially says that issues that affect women are not a matter for politics.
“She is the minister who is responsible for changing things,” says Jarasch. “To then say, it is all a question of freedom of choice, that means effectively she can dispose of herself as minister. One simply doesn’t need her anymore. She is denying responsibility in a political area that is her own.”
Yet, while the minister proves to be increasingly divisive, that may actually turn out to be something of a boon to Chancellor Merkel’s conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU. After all, many conservative voters have been dismayed at the party’s shift to the center, seeing it becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the center-left opposition. For example, policies like extending maternity leave and building more kindergartens are anathema to many more traditional CDU and CSU supporters.
Schroeder’s approach to gender politics gives them something to hold onto. In particular the subsidy to stay-at-home mothers is aimed at this constituency, argues Jarasch.
“It is a gift to conservative voters who have run away from the Christian Democrats because Merkel and Von der Leyen are not as conservative as the party once was.”