They are perhaps the most high-profile women in Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel: Kristina Schröder, the young, glamorous minister for families, women and pensioners, and Alice Schwarzer, the seasoned feminist intellectual and campaigner. And they're embroiled in an unseemly, vitriolic war of words over sex, the role of women and feminism. Played out in the mass media, the slanging match is providing titillating fodder for the press — but many German women fear it is also undermining their ongoing struggle for equality.
It all started when Schröder — at 33 the youngest member of Merkel's cabinet — attacked the 1970s feminist movement, telling Der Spiegel news magazine on Nov. 7 that early feminism "overlooked the fact that partnership and children can provide happiness." The conservative minister, who's known for her prim and proper attire, went on to say: "For me, emancipation will only be truly reached if a woman can wear make-up and skirts without having her abilities doubted as a result." (See Merkel in TIME's top 10 female leaders.)
Then Schröder took a dig at Schwarzer, 67, Germany's doyenne of feminism, claiming that many of Schwarzer's theories were too radical: "For example, that heterosexual sex was hardly possible without the subjugation of women." She added: "It is absurd if something that is fundamental for humanity and its survival should be defined per se as subjugation. That would mean that society can't carry on without the subjugation of women."
The comments provoked a fast and furious response from Schwarzer, author of the 1975 bestseller The Little Difference and Its Big Consequences and publisher of the feminist magazine Emma, who on Nov. 8 posted a fiery open letter on her website accusing the minister of "incompetence." Schwarzer couldn't resist pointing out that it was only thanks to the feminist movement that women like Schröder had managed to climb up the career ladder. And in a personal gibe, the feminist icon said the minister was "simply unsuitable" for the job, having failed, Schwarzer claimed, to introduce any policies to improve the rights of women and families in Germany since she was appointed last year: "Chancellor [Merkel] appointed you ... and whatever her motive was, it couldn't have been competence or empathy for women." (See a profile of Angela Merkel.)
Schwarzer's letter, which was published by the mass-market daily Bild, also slammed Schröder's initiative to help boys perform better at school and her reluctance to introduce quotas for women in leadership roles, despite the fact that out of 185 board members listed on the DAX stock index, only four are women.
After concluding that Schröder was a "hopeless case," Schwarzer delivered another personal blow: "The only exciting news to come out of your ministry this year was your name-change." (Schröder traded in her maiden name, Koehler, after getting married in February. Schröeder hit back, telling Bild on Nov. 9 that she thought it was a "pity" that Schwarzer had personally attacked her.(Comment on this story.)
As the heated exchanges between the two women grabbed headlines, female commentators worried that the row would have damaging consequences for gender equality and would only serve to divide the women's movement in Germany. "These two are arguing over who's the best woman or feminist, but the real debate should be focused on measures to break through the glass ceiling and help women in the workplace," says Marion Bredebusch, psychologist and gender equality expert. "Germany is still a man's world and when men see women bickering over petty things, they'll only say 'Here they go again bitching.'" (See more on past tensions within Germany's government.)
Women politicians in the opposition ranks were quick to use the row to score political points. The leader of Germany's resurgent Green Party, Claudia Roth, accused the family minister of "disparaging" feminism, telling the paper Die Süeddeutsche that up until now Schröder hasn't "provided any incentives for equal opportunities [for women]." Roth urged the minister to adopt "modern" policies for women, including getting more women into leadership roles, helping them juggle careers and kids, and closing the pay gap between the sexes. (A recent study found that German women earn up to 25% less than their male counterparts, and Germany is on the bottom rung of Europe's equal-pay ladder). But Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a member of the Free Democratic Party, one of Merkel's junior coalition partners, stepped in to defend the embattled minister: "I think Frau Schröder is right. We've moved beyond the classical definition of feminism."
When TIME approached the Family Ministry and Schwarzer's office for statements, they declined to comment and simply referred back to their previous remarks. It seems both women have decided to lay down their swords — at least for now.
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