New Europe: Why Baby-making Is At The Heart Of Germany's Gender War
The country's great taboo has been broken but the birthrate remains low, despite the increase in state-subsidised childcare
By Zoe Williams
In 2002, Renate Schmidt, then German minister for families, came out and said it: they needed to get the birth rate up. "Without children we look old," was the slightly puzzling title of her proposition but, according to an academic, Sandra Gruescu, the problem was a bit deeper than that: "I actually calculated once that, if Germany continued with its birth rate, Germans would be extinct within 300 years. Which is not a long time, I would think."
It was a hugely controversial thing for Schmidt to say. When a German government entreats its people to procreate faster and better, the twin resonances are nazism and communism.
The Nazis were terrifically keen on large families, as is well known; in East Germany, the exhortation to breed never went away. Meanwhile, in West Germany, no one talked about birth rates at all, and post-unification, the taboo became national. And yet, when Schmidt brought it up, there was very little outcry. Gruescu remembers: "There were a few people who said, 'we've been here before, we don't want to start a population expansion'. But the main controversy was the conservative party making these ridiculous points, 'you will force the fathers to the crib, you will force them to change the nappies'. As a young woman, it was hard to believe this opinion still existed."
The intriguing question is how the birthrate manages to define, characterise, explain and distil the relationship between men and women in Germany. How is making babies, that most collaborative enterprise, at the heart of their gender war?
When the wall came down in 1989, East German women and West German ones had had very different experiences. In East Germany, there was universal early-years childcare, women were encouraged to have children then go straight back to work; it was rigid and it horrified West Germans. Photos circulated of 20 toddlers, sitting in a line of potties, instructed to pee at the same time, as if bodily functions could be collectivised if you started young enough.
Jeannine Kantara, a journalist on Die Zeit magazine, lived in the east until she was 11, and remembers it rather differently. "I know it was strict, but I was happy. My mother always seemed happy, she had a job in a large bookstore and she loved books. Of course she was always guilty because she didn't look after me, but I don't think she would have changed things."
Dr Annette Vowinckel, a historian who grew up in Bielefeld in the west, describes her childhood differently. "My mother thought that everybody living behind the iron curtain must have been unhappy 24 hours a day. But now I look at her life and I think she must have been unhappy 24 hours a day.
"She was dependent on my father and sometimes she hated him, she was at home with us kids for 13 years."
This was the reality in the west: no state childcare, and apparently no appetite, except among a few boho Berliners, for making private arrangements.
Women were expected to stay home for the first three years of each child's life: anyone who didn't was labelled a Rabenmutter (or raven mother).
The cult of the German mother is incredibly strong, and there was an ideological defensiveness in this feminine ideal: looking after your own children was one of the core "western" freedoms, along with the fabled Levis. Wiebke Guse, head of IT at the Institute for Advanced Studies, recalls: "My mother wouldn't even say the word Krippe [creche] because it was an East German word."
The result of these long absences from the workplace was, in the language of social policy, very low female labour force participation. This wasn't helped by the fact that the German school day ended in early afternoon, so that even when their children were school age, mothers still could not get a "proper" job. Consequently, there is a large pay gap (it stood at 23.2% in 2008; the European average is 18%), and female representation at board level is so low that its closest correlative is India.
There is some equal opportunities legislation in the public sector, but no law against sex discrimination in the private sector. The current minister for families, Kristina Schröder, is openly uninterested in women's rights.
There was no golden age for the women's movement: until the late 1970s, there were bizarre laws, such as men could forbid their wives to work if the housework wasn't done well enough.
Until even later, a husband had to sign a consent form if his wife wanted her own bank account. Women won't describe themselves as feminists; if they do, they're Kampflesbe (warrior lesbians; not camp ones). "People are afraid to appear unfeminine. You cannot make a feminist point without having to start off, 'I love men, I love sex, but …'" Sandra Ehlermann, a film-maker, tells me.
Historically, women in the east had better parity in the workplace, but Ulrike Winkelmann, a journalist on Freitag newspaper, says: "The bulk of the chores were still done by women. Figures differ, but you see that between 70 and 100% of chores were done by women, even though they were working the same hours as men. One theory goes that they had perfect equality. I would guess that was bullshit, and was ideologically inspired."
Since there's no political mileage in gender equality, when you want to change something for women, specifically mothers, you have to bill it as an economic solution to the timebomb of the 1.3 fertility rate.
Gruescu was the architect of many of the changes, though she now lives in London and works at the independent thinktank ResPublica. She had the idea for Elterngeld, the maternity/paternity leave deal, whereby a couple could have 14 months, but two had to be taken by the father or they were forfeited.
The financing of maternity leave was changed, so that women would receive 67% of their salaries, rather than the previous flat rate. There has been a radical increase in the amount of state-subsidised childcare, so that Ehlermann, Vowinckel, Kantara and Guse, whose children have all at various times been at the same nursery, could – if they made a good enough case to the relevant authority – have a 10 and a half hour day for €200 a month.
And yet, the birthrate hasn't gone up. Gruescu blames the recession.
Martina Wittman-Hohlbein, another academic who was born in the east, but was only eight when the wall came down, now lives in Oxford: "It's much more expensive here, to have childcare, and yet it doesn't affect the birthrate. So I don't know what we were so afraid of."
The question is dispatched swiftly by Winkelmann: "Well, we're Germans. Everybody knows how the Germans are. We have an obsession with security. We are incredibly productive. You are not export world champion for no reason. We do it because we are working like crazy. If you want your women to be working like crazy at the same time, while making deep cuts in the social benefit system, you can hardly wonder why they don't want children."