No, the European Commission Isn’t Fighting the Patriarchy

Both the last two German defense ministers have been women, and one of them is about to become European Commission president. But Ursula von der Leyen’s rise through the ranks has nothing to do with feminism.

New German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (L) and former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen (R) attend a ceremony with military honors at the Defense Ministry following Kramp-Karrenbauer's appointment to the position earlier in the day on July 17, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Omer Messinger / Getty Images)

The end of patriarchy is nigh. So numerous commentators have claimed, in response to the recent election of Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s nomination to become her successor as German defense minister. Both women hail from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s largest party. Following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s resignation as party chairwoman in December, Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK) has herself become CDU leader.

In one prominent photo doing the rounds, von der Leyen and AKK hold hands with each other while smiling against a backdrop of German soldiers. It’d be easy to conclude that the aesthetics of politics — or perhaps even politics itself — have changed. Commentary on the photo has been strongly reminiscent of the response to the “situation room” photo of Hillary Clinton, taken during the pursuit and execution of Osama bin Laden. Already, back then, some claimed that Clinton’s visibly emotional expression, her hand over her mouth, her shocked eyes, revealed a qualitative difference in feminine reactions to war. They even went so far as to suggest that the way in which foreign policy was being conducted had changed.

But putting women in power isn’t the same thing as feminism — or, at least, not all kinds of feminism. The notion that women will naturally be “motherly” or “more caring” rulers isn’t just sexist, it’s manifestly untrue — Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel didn’t exactly prove to be champions of the oppressed. It would, perhaps, be unfair to judge von der Leyen or AKK simply by invoking these other women’s actions in office, even if they belong to the same political family. So let’s look at their own records.

Not All “Feminisms” Are Made Equal

First, let’s take the incoming European Commission president. Von der Leyen’s version of feminism is rooted in the conservative political culture of the CDU. As such, it clings to a traditionalist image of what families should be, while also making concessions to some of the real difficulties that actual families face. And, indeed, this is exactly what von der Leyen did in her capacity as Germany’s family minister — a job she held before taking over as defense minister. Herself a mother of seven children, von der Leyen projected a motherly public persona. She did this while implementing a reform package that encouraged new fathers in higher-earning traditional families to share parental leave time with mothers, but also cut benefits for single parents and people on welfare.

Such measures were lauded as compromises, in spite of the harm they inflicted on large sections of German society. After all — so the logic went — what is politics, if not the business of compromise? This fundamentally conservative view of politics emphasizes “keeping up appearances” — the public display of smoothing over conflict — over the actual problems that people face. And when it came to “issues” such as creeping militarization or the rise of a far-right underground in the German military, who could have smiled these problems away better than von der Leyen?

Style Over Substance

What does it mean for von der Leyen — a politician who, in her public persona, consciously projects a traditionalist version of femininity, motherhood, and “Europeanness” — to talk about the importance of gender equality, like in her speech to the European Parliament shortly before she was voted in as the next Commission president? Doubtless, in the run-up to her narrow “election” victory (she was appointed as the sole candidate, then voted through by a small majority of MEPs) she sought to make concessions to both conservative factions as well as liberals and the center left.

Yet rhetoric, political intrigue, and polished public images shouldn’t be confused with empowering women, let alone with the end of patriarchy. Especially not when the women depicted in these images stand for the politics of militarism, as in the case of both von der Leyen and AKK. In their respective turns as defense minister, both women have backed increased military spending and launched new deployments in as clandestine and opaque a manner as possible, just like their predecessors did. That women can also master this “art” is hardly progress.

Without a doubt, as prominent women in politics, von der Leyen and AKK are consistently confronted with idiotic, sexist rhetoric. Nicknames such as “Flinten-Uschi” (Shotgun Ursula), “Knarrenbauer” (Blazin’ Guns Karrenbauer), and the like are the result of a macho culture now laced with the bitter fear of a female superior in the military chain of command. Yet just because these women are victims of patriarchy themselves — at least in this regard — does not mean that they cannot also be oppressors.

If feminism is to be understood as liberation from domination, it must be judged by what it actually does. If we put style over substance and cite hand-holding women as evidence of a politics of peace, we only set ourselves up for disappointment. Drones, soldiers on hoverboards, Frontex: all of this represents the present and future of German and European militarism, a militarism that women are helping implement.

Whoever thinks women aren’t capable of cold-blooded murder has never read a crime novel. For some, it seems, the example of Hillary Clinton wasn’t enough to demonstrate that power does not equal feminism. Now, von der Leyen and AKK each provide fine examples of their own.