The women they call 'raven mothers'

03:17, Jun 18 2013
'RAVEN MOTHER': Politician Kristina Schroeder received hate mail for returning to work 10 weeks after her daughter's birth.

Kristina Schroder could one day be her generation's Angela Merkel. After all, the 35-year old conservative is Germany's youngest female minister.

But for many German women, this powerful politician is a very bad mother. Last year, Schroder gave birth to her firstborn, Lotte Marie. She returned to her day job as family minister 10 weeks later, to find that some Germans thought she had done the wrong thing.

"I got a lot of hate mail," Schroder told a German newspaper last year. "[People wrote] wishing they hoped I missed my daughter's first steps or her first laugh."

Even today, old cultural attitudes on motherhood persist among a significant number of Germans. Schroder complains she was labelled a "Rabenmutter", a raven mother. The insult describes selfish career women, who flit off to work soon after birth, leaving babies squawking in the nest.

One of those whom Schroder offended was Eva Herman, once Germany's favourite newsreader and now a best-selling author on motherhood. In a public letter to Schroder, Herman accused the minister of being more interested in doing what she enjoyed (her job) than in caring for her newborn.

"If Ms Schroder had made the same decision as I did, she would have given up her job and looked after her baby," Herman told Daily Life. "That would have been best, she would have been a role model for thousands and thousands of women."


Kristina Schroeder congratulates Chancellor Angela Merkel after Merkel was re-elected Chairwoman of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty 

For German feminists, stories like Schroder's show just how present old-fashioned ideas on men and women are here. Take a closer look at sleek economic superpower Germany, they say, and you'll find a country run by men, for men.

Statistics show that career woman Schroder is an exception in Germany. Merkel, who is likely to win a term in September, may tower over German politics. But as a woman in a leading role, she is still a unique phenomenon in Germany.

For example, few of her peers have made it to the top of German business. Just 4 per cent of German companies have a woman on their boards, a recent study by think tank DIW Berlin found. It's just the latest study of its kind. Three years ago, a McKinsey study on equality placed Germany equal last among 11 major economies, due to its low number of female managers.

And German bosses aren't concerned about statistics like those, complain businesswomen. In 2011, then Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann said he would welcome more women on his board. Because women make company boards "more colourful" and "beautiful", he said.

"When Ackermann made those comments ... the uproar came from America, because that's just not PC any more," says businesswoman Monika Schulz-Strelow. "In large part the view [from German business] is that women have their place, but they aren't equal business partners."

For that reason, German feminists and Brussels bureaucrats are fighting for a female manager quota at public companies. But Angela Merkel has reportedly vetoed Europe's attempts to have a quota introduced.

Instead, her government has passed a law offering payments for parents to stay home and mind their under-threes. Feminists call that payment a "stove" bonus, designed to put women back in the kitchen.

Indeed, Merkel, say confidants, may be the world's most powerful women, but she's not a fighter for women's rights.

"In the eight years since she's been in government, [Merkel] has hardly ever said anything about women's issues," says Merkel biographer Margaret Heckel.

Despite that, Merkel's nickname among men in her party is Mutti ("Mummy"). Her biographer says Merkel may have attracted that nickname because she wears the suit pants among German conservatives.

"Merkel has had her way in the party. She's the unquestionable number one and all the men who have tried to stop that from happening have failed," Heckel says.

But Merkel's supremacy in Berlin and Brussels hasn't helped other female pollies, complain MPs.

As politicians, "women are still judged on their appearance much more than men", says Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a European MP for the Free Democrats, a minor party in Merkel's coalition government.

A leader of Koch-Mehrin's party, Rainer Bruderle, inadvertently started a big debate over sexism in Germany two months ago.

Bruderle, 67, caused what Germans call a "shitstorm" in cyberspace by reportedly taking a 29-year old female journalist's hand and telling her that she'd look great in a dirndl, a traditional blue-and-white-checked low-cut Bavarian dress.

After the journalist published her article recounting Bruderle's remarks, thousands took to Twitter to denounce sexist experiences they'd suffered.

Meanwhile other top leaders in Bruderle's party attacked Stern, the magazine that published the story on sexual harassment, for printing trivialities and "twisted journalism".

"Unfortunately, the debate has become about what it's like to be accused of sexual harassment as a man," says Nicole von Horst, one of the instigators of Germany's Twitter anti-sexist movement.

Still, for many feminists, any debate over sexism in Germany is taboo breaking. Because, they argue, Germany is a conservative society, one that clings to old behaviour and habits. And to dated concepts like "raven mother".

"If the attitude that something is good, that it's worth keeping just because it's been around for a long time, then: Hell yeah! Germany is old-fashioned," says von Horst.

- Daily Life