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Squandering our emancipation

Heike Faller wonders whether, with all its ironic jokes and apron fantasies, her generation hasn't frittered away its feminist legacy.

When did I start thinking about feminism again? It must have been last year, after a man told me in disappointment that he'd imagined me differently. I was a career woman, why was I suddenly talking about having a family? I hadn't realise this terminological apartheid still existed. I'd thought society had accepted that women try to combine both (at their own risk). The last time I'd heard "career women" used non-ironically was in the 1980s after a parent's night, when the housewife mothers of my fellow students used it to refer to our French teacher, who read Cosmopolitan, did body-building and constantly nagged her husband.

When that relationship came to nothing, I returned to the world of career and profession. It was the year of my sixth male boss in a row. No, that's not true. There was one women, a stand-in, who went on maternity leave almost straight away. Then she came back to work half days, like pretty much all German mothers.

It was the year when a friend of mine, a high-earning investment banker, came back from an office party in tears because a colleague had said to her, 'I'd like to humiliate you,' and the next day was not fired by his boss, not even given a talking to, despite being still on probation. It was the year when another friend, an art director, was told it would be better if she worked on a day-to-day basis. Maybe she simply wasn't good enough. Maybe her boss thought: she's got a husband, what does she need all that money for?

It was the year when I realised I was letting my hair grow long. The year in which a program called "Desperate Housewives" became a television hit. In which a girlfriend was refused part of her daughter's child support because the father "didn't see why he should pay her for being a mother."

Maybe I've been a little uptight recently. Maybe this has nothing to do with gender. Maybe it's just like with the black roommate I shared an apartment with in the 90s in the US. Whenever he experienced a let-down, he attributed it to his skin colour. If he didn't get an apartment or a job or if a woman turned him down, he explained things away on an abstract level (skin colour) rather than looking for concrete reasons, in himself. That was less hurtful for him and it saved him having to struggle. That was his advantage and, at the same time, his disadvantage. White, heterosexual, middle-class men can only blame themselves when they have problems. Maybe that's why more men kill themselves than women. We members of historically disadvantaged groups can always retreat to the victims' corner and be mad at the world. Maybe I'm generalising something that is, in fact, only my problem. Maybe I just had a bad year.

After all, we have a female chancellor! A strong signal for women in Germany, as the German president said after the elections. What he probably meant was: you've made it, everything is possible, roll up the sleeves of your shoulder-padded career-woman blazers. Or maybe he wanted to say: you see, it's possible, what more do you want? Now you can finally stop yammering.

I don't see any positive signal in the vote for Angela Merkel. I think her success is the long-term consequence of the anti-bourgeois image of women in the former East Germany. We shouldn't expect much more of the kind from the West – just like with the female hundred-meter sprinters. The vote for Merkel is no signal for anything, it's an improbability, a fluke of nature. It doesn't fit with the other signals we're receiving these days, with what intellectuals call discourse and what I prefer to call a feeling. More like a bad feeling.

Sometimes I ask myself if we've frittered feminism away. My generation wasn't especially aggressive. On the contrary. We actually enjoyed not being aggressive. If someone held the door open for us, offered to pay the bill or said after three glasses of wine that he found us attractive, we were somehow proud that our mood did not immediately blacken, as the previous generation's presumably did, feeling that they had - how did they put it? – been reduced to their bodies. We just sat there smiling in our push-up bras. There was a perverse little pleasure in not being so aggressive, so uptight. It's back in fashion to be able to say that you like to cook (and can!), at best heavy German roasts, granny's recipe. In the same way that, 15 years ago, it was cool for a woman to say she was a rotten cook and on top of that, a vegetarian. But we don't have to overreact, those are just games, responses to what came before. Sometimes it seems to me that, along with henna hair, drooping breasts and dungarees, we have abolished equality – that 19th century idea that women and men should have the same rights because they have the same abilities. And that similar lives should result.

But then something slowly changed. It started about seven or eight years ago and at the beginning it was utterly charming. Does anyone remember the raunchy texts Katja Kessler wrote to describe the topless girls in the Bild Zeitung? She became famous by breaking this taboo – a woman and trained dentist, describes the bodies of other women in a playful, macho way. Nobody objected. I didn't either. It was somehow... refreshing. Then came the gossip columnist, Christiane Hofmann, who manages in her daily Bild column to see the world through men's eyes, to describe other women as though she were some heavy-breathing boob-macho or at least wanted to slime up to one. "Her tanned, gazelle-like body, clear eyes... Kate Moss (31) is back... Bum out! So Pam doesn't fall on her face... the miracle-bust gives us a graphic lesson in gravity: the more silicon force you have up front, the more you have to compensate in the rear. The equation: XXL mega-boobs x double ass power = a firm stance."

I believe my French teacher would have called that turning women into sex objects. And had us write an essay on it. At 14, I could have got all excited about that, but later, as a university student, an intern, an editor, it wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest. Which may have to do with the fact that young women have a much easier time entering the professional world than men, at least that's what I've observed. All the prerequisites for a smooth start – good grades, curiosity, social skills, flirting skills – are more likely to be found in a 23 year old woman than a man of the same age. Perseverance, a fighting spirit, the right balance of strategy and opportunism and sometimes brutality, only come into play further up the ladder. And there the men are at an advantage – and remain so until they've become general director of the Skoda. You only come to understand that at 30, 35. For a long time I thought women had it easier in their careers. Sweet, isn't it?

By the end of your twenties when you're a little further along in your career, you can look down at the world from as high up as you've made it, like the dumbest workies used to do. Women like Verona Feldbusch, Ariane Sommer and Cora Schumacher fit in perfectly here. They live from their looks, they play with the fact that they're not particularly bright, they like to pose half-naked, they have large breasts or they have their breasts enlarged, and no one forced them to do it. They've made themselves into sex objects. And we, their rather squarer older sisters, let them do it. Not because we wanted to rebel against feminism. But because for a while we thought it was meant ironically, a joke at our own expense that we laughed at because it was the superior thing to do. Proof that feminism had attained its goals, that we no longer considered ourselves the victims of a major injustice. But sometimes I now think perhaps it's just the opposite. Maybe all this really signifies that feminism is dead. Or as the American journalist Ariel Levy put it in her book "Female Chauvinist Pigs," Just because we're post, doesn't mean we're feminist by a long shot. Yeah. It looks as if while we were busy buying shoes and taking cooking lessons, we blew the advantages feminism had secured us.

The rate of employment among women in Eastern Germany has been on the wane since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Women still earn – for the same job! - between 30 and 40 percent less than their male counterparts, depending which study you read. None of the mothers I know would even think for a minute that both partners should evenly divide working and raising the kids. Because the men always earn more (they're mostly four or five years older, and at that age those years are crucial, or they're better paid. And if all that still doesn't help, even in the same job and at the same age they earn the statistical 30 percent more). So she stays home. That's not new, but 20 years ago, as I imagine things, at least it was a bit embarrassing. Today you don't even have to explain, and then the kids go to kindergarten and the women are 36 and no longer serious job contenders. In the meantime Mr. Right has become an operating thetan, of course he can no longer work part time.

And we have to make yet another decision. A TV ad for Vorwerk vacuum cleaners shows this all too clearly. Two women meet at a party. One is a career woman who chatters about her management tasks. Of course she's alone. And what do you do? she asks the other (whose husband is standing next to her). The snappy answer: I manage a very successful small business with three children, a husband and five pets. Why do I always get into a bad mood – very untypical for a post-feminist – when I see this ad? Not because I disdain housewives, I swear I don't (sometimes I even imagine such a life could be quite nice). But because it gets us right back to the old apartheid system, as if you had to make a choice. Housewife (but fighting for recognition) or tough-nut careerist (but alone).

You also see this in fashion. The billboards are thick with naked breasts. And the women walking back and forth in front of them are straight out of 1955. They have neck scarves, knee skirts, blouses and long hair. And all that, of course, is no accident. The subtext, half seriously, half in jest: I'll stay home, I promise, even if it's in some dreary provincial town. And I can cook, too. When my husband's boss comes for dinner, I astound him with toast Hawaii! At least in the 50s these women had a private life. Today they just masquerade as someone's wife, as if there were a husband in the background who doesn't want them to have to work. In the worst case they have neither career nor family. The TV host Harald Schmidt once summed it up quite brutally in an interview in Die Zeit: "Take most of the childless women in my profession, that sexual media proletariat. With luck they can have a one-night-stand with a lighting technician, so to speak the last-ditch effort as far as kids go. The 25-year-olds are waiting in the wings and things are going to get bitter. That's the truth – as women who've had children early will tell you in no uncertain terms."

Ouch. That's enough to wake even post-feminists out of their 15-year waking coma. The question is, which is worse, the situation or the way it's described?

Ah, yes. Like in every orderly discourse, there is now even an intellectual foundation to back up all the apron fantasies. Biological explanations for gender-based behaviour have been back in fashion for years. But until now these were used to explain differences in parking patterns or extramarital affairs. Then last year Larry Summers, then president of Harvard (so, symbolically, the brain of the world), said he was gradually starting to wonder if there really were inborn differences that prevented women from making absolutely first-class contributions to the natural sciences. Because decades of equal opportunity programmes had failed to produce any top-notch women researchers. Of course no subject is out of bounds for consideration. And it is interesting to throw new light onto the old question of biological (and therefore unavoidable) differences (the same thing is happening with Afro-Americans). But can it be a coincidence that it's happening right when the post-feminists have lost track of feminism?

Regardless, what should we expect now? Larry Summers has just lost his job, which has something to do with the fact that at least at American universities old-school & deeply unsexy feminism has not died out altogether. You can only blame Summers so much. Even he wants to say something new from time to time, that's probably the academic equivalent of the revival of knee skirts. And he's an academic, not an activist. His job is to defend the truth, not women.

But perhaps women should consider if this really is the time to play at being neo-bourgeois, or to change your name when you get married. Perhaps we should start asking ourselves if it isn't time to – wait a sec, what was it called again – get committed to equality once more.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on April 20, 2006.

Heike Faller, born 1971, worked as a freelance journalist in New York
in the 90s. In 1997 she was awarded the Axel Springer Prize for young journalists. Since 1999 she has been at the "Leben" desk at Die Zeit.

Translation: nb, jab. - let's talk european