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Merkel puts gender back on the agenda

It would have been a rash soul when Angela Merkel was first elected Chancellor of Germany in 2005 who placed a bet on her winning a second term of office, never mind a third.

Her Christian Democratic party had begun the 2005 campaign with a 20% lead in the polls, only to scrape victory by a whisker when it came to the election.

Eight years and one eurozone crisis later, however, she has decisively trounced her opponents (and former allies), winning office for a third time with more than 41% of the vote and finding herself only five seats short of an absolute majority.

Ms Merkel's victory is precisely that - hers rather than her party's. The Christian Democrats built their campaign around her and her reputation for prudent leadership, using her nickname "Mutti" (Mummy) to stress her appeal as a reassuring, reliable figure who would make everything all right in the end. Ms Merkel was once patronisingly looked upon as the token East German woman in Helmut Kohl's cabinet. He called her "mein mädchen" (my girl); she helped finish off his political career over a slush fund scandal. Now, with her calm, assured handling of the eurozone crisis she has become only the third post-war German leader to win a third term of office and has in the process secured her place in the pantheon of Europe's most significant postwar leaders, alongside the likes of Adenauer, De Gaulle and - arguably - Thatcher.

For those worried about the relative lack of high-profile women in politics both at home and on the international stage, the continuing presence of Ms Merkel is obviously good news. Why, though, should world-class female political leaders emerge only once a generation? Merkel is not completely alone in Europe in running a country while in possession of a uterus - Denmark has a female Social Democrat Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Norway will soon have a Conservative one, Erna Solberg, and Lithuania and Kosovo both have female presidents - but as the head of government of such a powerful economy, the German Chancellor has no peers of her own gender, with the exception of the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (and perhaps, in time, Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president). At international summits Angela Merkel must feel hardly less conspicuous on account of her skirt suit than Margaret Thatcher did.

Baroness Thatcher and Ms Merkel have often been compared and it is no accident that both women, once they gained power, proved so adept at holding on to it. While mediocrity does not disqualify a man from aspiring to the highest political office, it still disbars a woman; only truly exceptional females reach and retain the top spot.

That may help explain why even in 2013, Ms Merkel, as a female leader, is so unusual. Unfortunately, exceptional individuals do not necessarily make life easier for the merely competent. Margaret Thatcher famously convinced old school chauvinists that a woman could do the man's job of governing the country, but not that women in general could. Her impact on British politics did not bring about an improvement in the gender balance at Westminster. It has taken other measures, most notably a willingness by Labour to embrace all-women shortlists, to achieve that, though with only one-quarter of MPs being women the job is only half done. Around one-third of members of the Bundestag are female and it remains to be seen whether Ms Merkel's legacy will be an improvement in the male: female ratio.

There is almost certainly another reason, though, for the paucity of females in summit line-ups, namely that - whisper it - women are less likely to wish to give their lives to the all-consuming maelstrom that is politics in the first place. Ms Merkel was 35 when she entered the fray and had no children, which must have made her devotion to politics less problematic than it might have been otherwise. But having domestic responsibilities is only one factor putting women off. Alienating male-dominated political culture is another. Seeing Cabinet meetings full of middle-aged men, many women simply conclude that politics is not for them.

That is understandable, perhaps, but it poses an awkward question for women. Just how many could-have-beens are there who never reached their potential simply because they never tried?

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