January 18, 2010
THE FEMALE FACTOR
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
NEUÖTTING, Germany — Manuela Maier was branded a bad mother. A Rabenmutter, or raven mother, after the
black bird that pushes chicks out of the nest. She was ostracized by other mothers, berated by neighbors and
family, and screamed at in a local store.
Her crime? Signing up her 9-year-old son when the local primary school first offered lunch and afternoon classes
last autumn — and returning to work.
“I was told: ‘Why do you have children if you can’t take care of them?”’ said Ms. Maier, 47. By comparison,
having a first son out of wedlock 21 years ago raised few eyebrows in this traditional Bavarian town, she said.
Ten years into the 21st century, most schools in Germany still end at lunchtime, a tradition that dates back
nearly 250 years. That has powerfully sustained the housewife/mother image of German lore and was long
credited with producing well-bred, well-read burghers.
Modern Germany may be run by a woman — Chancellor Angela Merkel, routinely called the world’s most
powerful female politician — but it seems no coincidence that she is childless.
Across the developed world, a combination of the effects of birth control, social change, political progress and
economic necessity has produced a tipping point: numerically, women now match or overtake men in the work
force and in education.
In the developing world, too, the striving of women and girls for schooling, small loans and status is part of
another immense upheaval: the rise of nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In both these worlds, women can remain trapped by tradition. Now, a social revolution — peaceful, but
profound — is driving a search for new ways of combining family life and motherhood with a more powerful
role for women.
Westerners are quick to denounce customs in, say, the Muslim world that they perceive as limiting women. But
in Germany, despite its vaunted modernity, a traditional perception of motherhood lingers.
The half-day school system survived feudalism, the rise and demise of Hitler’s mother cult, the women’s
movement of the 1970s and reunification with East Germany.
Now, in the face of economic necessity, it is crumbling: one of the lowest birthrates in the world, the specter of
labor shortages and slipping education standards have prompted a rethink. Since 2003, nearly a fifth of
Germany’s 40,000 schools have phased in afternoon programs, and more plan to follow suit.
“This is a taboo we just can’t afford anymore; the country needs women to be able to both work and have