Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Angela Merkel, not Michelle Obama, should be role model for the girls of Northern Ireland

Angela Merkel doesn't do style, but she does do substance - and that makes her a better role model for girls than Micehlle Obama, writes Michael Wolsey.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel  speaks to U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama at a dinner at the Orangerie at Schloss Charlottenburg palace on June 19, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama at a dinner at the Orangerie at Schloss Charlottenburg palace on June 19, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama, the wife of the US President Barack Obama, speaking at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, ahead of the G8 Summit. Photo Paul Faith/PA Wire
Michelle Obama, the wife of the US President Barack Obama, speaking at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, ahead of the G8 Summit. Photo Paul Faith/PA Wire
Ex-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Ex-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Aim high, work hard, there's nothing you cannot achieve. That was the message Michelle Obama brought to the young people of Ireland.

"Neither of my parents went to university,'' she told students at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. "There were plenty of people who doubted that kids like us had what it took to succeed ... people who told us not to hope for too much, or set our sights too high."

She delivered the same message to an enthusiastic young audience at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, emphasising that she had come up through a tough neighbourhood on thpsni

e south side of Chicago.

"I want you to dream really big,'' she told them. "Because if you work hard enough ... if you believe in yourself ... you can make yourself into anything – anything you choose.''

The audience whooped and cheered, as well they might, for it was an inspiring message, brilliantly delivered.

It was clear that many of the young women, in particular, saw Ms Obama as their perfect role model.

Her message could have been written by Disney, but she herself looked straight out of Hollywood – beautiful, dressed to perfection, articulate and charismatic.

No one would say those things about the other woman who starred in the G8 visit. The cameras didn't linger long on Angela Merkel; we heard none of her speeches and nothing about her upbringing in a tough neighbourhood in communist East Germany.

But it's Ms Merkel – not Ms Obama – who should be the role model for the girls of Northern Ireland.

When Michelle Obama, having wowed them at the Waterfront, was lunching with Bono and tapping her Jimmy Choos to Riverdance, Angela Merkel was at the Lough Erne table, negotiating a trade deal and new tax rules that could transform society.

Michelle Obama did, indeed, lift herself through hard work. She is an extremely intelligent woman, who was a top lawyer before she went to live in the White House.

But she doesn't owe her position to her effort, or her intelligence. Her talent was to marry the right man.

"Dream big,'' is an inspiring message. "Dream of meeting Mr Right'' wouldn't go down so well nowadays.

But that's what did the trick for Michelle – just as it did for Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy. Their way into the White House was on the arm of a successful man.

No one walked Angela Merkel into the Bundeskanzleramt. She made her own way to the Chancellor's office through the male-dominated ranks of German politics. She has won elections, formed governments and shaped their policies.

She doesn't do style, but she does do substance. She is a leader of the free world and the achievement is all her own work. She dreamt big and made the dream come true.

I do not mean to denigrate Michelle Obama in any way, for I am as bound by her spell as the rest of the world.

She is a great First Lady, who helped her man become president and makes his job easier, being accessible where he is detached, warm where he is aloof.

But First Lady is a strange job, useful yet by no means vital. No one calls Angela Merkel's husband the First Gentleman. In fact, few people have even heard of Joachim Sauer, a professor of chemistry, who shuns the limelight and is comfortable with his own achievements.

There is no title for the husband of a female leader, because there is no such job. Denis Thatcher was, by all accounts, a great support to his wife when she was prime minister.

But we knew him only through a misleading spoof in a satirical magazine. He had no official function and Mrs Thatcher got on very well without that sort of assistance.

The same could be said for every female leader, great or small, and there are some questions, therefore, that no one ever asks.

Who is the partner of Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia? What fashion label is preferred by the husband of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina? Who made the suits for the husband of Mari Kiviniemi, when she was prime minster of Finland?

And what about the partner of Johanna Sigurdardottir, the first woman prime minister of Iceland? Good-looking? Sharp dresser? Even in Iceland, few people know. Or care.

So when we cite Michelle Obama as a role model for young women, what are we suggesting they aspire to be? Pretty partners to a powerful man?

Hillary Clinton played that role, when she was First Lady and abandoned it when she decided to pursue her own political ambitions.

Coiffed hair and high heels are not requirements for a secretary of state, or a president of the United States.

A woman who attains those positions is a real role model, not a fashion model.

Angela Merkel is the most powerful woman in the world and with a seat at every table where the tough decisions are made.

A table for two with Bono may be more glamorous. But I have two young granddaughters – and I know which model I'd like them to follow.

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