Opinion

How feminist is von der Leyen?

“#EuropeIsAWoman” — that was the full text of one of the first tweets German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen sent out into the world after being nominated for president of the European Commission. She accompanied it with a picture of the EUs competition chief Margrethe Vestager smiling and standing beside her. It was a clear signal that one of the most powerful women in Brussels — and a recent aspirant for the presidency — is on board with her candidacy.

Von der Leyens nomination marks a first for Europe. If confirmed by the European Parliament next week, she will be the Commissions first female president.

Faced with opposition over the circumstances of her appointment — she emerged as a compromise candidate at the 11th hour, seemingly out of nowhere — von der Leyens supporters have played the feminist card. Putting a woman at the helm of the EU would be a major breakthrough, they argue. Von der Leyen herself alluded to the argument in a tweet Wednesday, writing that “gender equality is a topic close to my heart” and highlighting a pledge to ensure half of the next batch of Commissioners are women.

“#EuropeIsAWoman,” she concluded.

If Europe wants to be about “inspiring girls and women,” as Tusk said, the choice is clear: Stick with von der Leyen for now, and then work on improving the nomination process for the Commission presidency.

But is gender balance enough of a reason to push von der Leyen through? And beyond her gender, how feminist a choice is she really?

Well, to start with, theres a lot for a feminist to like in her political career. Well before she become the first woman to lead the defense ministry, she was one of Germanys most successful politicians. She was even tipped to become Chancellor Angela Merkels successor.

As minister for family affairs, von der Leyen managed to push through what many others didnt even dare talk about in Germany: laws that made clear that raising a child is as much a fathers job as it is a mothers.

She successfully rebranded “maternity leave” as “parental leave” — no mean feat in a country where for a long time having a family meant the fathers go to work and women do the care-taking.

Even now, 10 years later, fathers are still hesitant about taking more than two months leave. But had it not been for von der Leyen, chances are doing even that wouldnt be an option.

A protester attends a demonstration during International Womens Day in Madrid Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

She also fought for better day care for children, so women wouldnt have to decide between a career and a family. And she insisted gender balance in child raising is not just a womens issue: “Men want to be accepted as active fathers.” She started to talk about measures that would include men in “care work” and help women better reintegrate into the workforce.

At the time, the changes were seen as a “revolution.” All the more so because von der Leyen pushed them through as a member of the Christian Democrats, back then a highly conservative party. (It still is, in many ways — Merkel only half-heartedly backed away from her opposition to gay marriage in 2017).

Von der Leyen was strong enough politically to weather the storm, partly because she always had Merkels support. Germanys first female chancellor never wanted to be called a feminist, and so left feminism to von der Leyen, who used the spotlight to put forward the controversial concept of the “conservative feminist.”

The emancipation of women, she claimed, had to become a conservative project if the party wanted to stay in touch with the pace of social change and with its voters.

She led by example, too. As a working mother of seven children she was a repudiation to the prevailing stigma against women who dared to go back to work before their child was three years old. This opened her up to criticism that her brand of feminism was a feminism by and for the privileged. Her detractors liked to point out she that always had a nanny on hand to care for her children.

But theres no denying that it was von der Leyen — whatever her personal privileges — who delivered breakthrough changes for average middle-class women in Germany. She was also ahead of her time in highlighting that poverty poses a huge problem particularly for women in Germany.

To be sure, von der Leyen has fared less well — and had less occasion to cRead More – Source