Dear Annalena Baerbock,
I grew up with a woman in charge. Merkel’s steady hand has guided Germany through differing interpretations of the status quo. I have never agreed with Merkel’s politics, I remember rhyming her name with profanities as a child, making fun of her conservatism to amuse my more progressive parents in the car.
A woman in political leadership is either like a man or is mocked. Merkel is the former. Her leadership has always been neutral, stable, factual. Her pantsuits belong to her as much as the way her hands fold together during every speech. And yet, every time German citizens disagree with her decisions, she becomes Mommy Merkel. See, I may have grown up with a woman in charge, but she has always been disguised as a man. Her femininity is a weapon used against her every time her actions demand it. So really, her chancellorship is an exception to the rule, and men are always quick to remind us.
You are the second woman to have ever been a chancellor candidate in a German federal election. This way you are already another landmark in the snail-like progression toward something like equality. Before you, many men could have pointed to our chancellor to argue that feminism is not necessary anymore. But watching your campaign be gradually derailed by nit-picky criticisms blown out of proportion paints a picture of Germany that I did not want to see confirmed.
I don’t remember when I realized that I was a woman, or when I realized what that means. For a long time I saw my life through the lens of universal human-hood that men have claimed for themselves. Over time, not being able to walk alone at night gradually turned into being talked over in class, in being followed home, in being shamed for my sadness over breakups. But nothing radicalized my feminism as much as my year in student politics. Almost weekly, I watched my male colleagues take credit for my female colleagues ideas and efforts and getting away with it. I watched the easy companionship that my male counterparts fell into with the male dean, a level of understanding that us women were excluded from. I watched male teachers get rewarded for bare minimums, and move up in the ranks while being the most incompetent people I have ever worked with. I saw how my female friends got tired of having to fight to get credit for their work, for having their ideas heard. Only then I really understood the roadblocks ahead in my way.
I cannot imagine the way you experience those obstacles. I am sure you wouldn’t commend my female rage. After all, Germans value pragmatism and productivity, and you have exemplified those values throughout your campaign. You have answered each question posed to you calmly, directly, extensively. Never have you been irrational or avoidant of answers, you have always done your best to be concrete. Although I do not agree with everything you say, I look up to you. You are young, and passionate, and successful. You are mother and politician and do not even think about it twice. You want change, and you fight for it, and all throughout you remained calm in a way I never could.
But still, German voters see you as incompetent. That word again and again. You, explaining in detail your plans to guide Germany through the climate crisis while your male competitors quarrel over minute details, incompetent. Oh, but she may have exaggerated parts of her resume, while the Christian Conservative party swerves questions about embezzlement related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Oh, but she used other people’s work in her book with improper citation, while the SPD candidate Olaf Scholz is involved in a major tax scandal. I can see that you have made mistakes, but I can also see that this election was not about that at all. I think this election showed us again that even after 16 years of female leadership, a woman’s mistake is much more visible than a man’s.
I hope you can understand that I will be angry on your behalf. I am only 23, and my rage shall be accredited to my youthful indiscretion, to my emotionality. But I think that us women, we all carry it once we realise what the world is like. I am convinced you feel it too, although right now you are making space for your male counterpart, giving more credit to your failure than it deserves.
I don’t know what to do with my rage other than feel it. I will happily defend you to all the people I know and read them the scientific articles that prove my points. But I also wish I knew how you felt. In politics there is always more space for facts than for feelings, and I am sure you have many of both with all the lessons you have just learned, but you may not have many places to put them. I think you could put your lessons here with me, and women my age in general. We are in our early twenties, we need to know where to direct our anger, how to take credit for ourselves, how to face the world of politics as young women.
So Annalena, where do we go from here?