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If only women voted, what would Germany look like?

March 7, 2024

What would be different in Germany if only women voted? Which parties would be in power and which major decisions might have gone another way?

Illustration of three women in front of the Bundestag, one putting her ballot into a ballot box
If women (and only women) had their say, what would go differently in Germany?

It has been more than 100 years since German suffragists won the right for women to vote. That was back in 1918, during the Weimar Republic era in Germany.

So women in post-World War II democratic Germany have always had an equal right to participate in elections. Today, voter turnout among women is virtually the same as men's.

Which parties do women vote for?

Women's party preferences have changed quite a lot since Germany's first postwar parliamentary elections, then held in only West Germany.

For many years, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, was more popular among women than men. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than half of all female voters chose the party. This might be due to its focus on Christian and family values, Elke Wiechmann, who researches the representation of women in politics at Hagen University, told DW.

"As religion, family and home life became less central to women's lives, this changed," Wiechmann said. "We think that for a while, Angela Merkel might have still given the CDU a bonus with women, despite the party's policies. When Merkel's era ended, that was over."

When Angela Merkel didn't run for office again in the most recent, 2021 election, the CDU almost entirely lost its edge with female voters.  

What if only women had elected the German parliament?

"In the last election, women voted more progressive," Wiechmann said. If only women had had their say in 2021, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Chancellor Olaf Scholz would have had one percentage point more, as would the environmental Greens. Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) would have lost seats.

This is down to the parties' political programs, Wiechmann told DW.

"Women's lives still look different to men's," she said. "They still carry more responsibility for children, for the home, in addition to work and career."

"Women might be more likely to, for instance, value better public transport over a new highway," she said, leading to their voting for progressive parties — like the SPD, Greens or Left — which tend to promote gender equality, even without the explicit label.  

However, with their votes, women in the broader population can only hope their chosen party will implement the changes they would like to see. Female representatives in parliament wield more direct power.

Are there enough women in Germany's parliament?

In past decades, the share of women in the German parliament, or Bundestag, has hovered at only around a third, even though women make up a little over half of the German population.

"In order to represent the breadth and diversity of women's experiences and perspectives, you need a certain number of women from different backgrounds in parliament as well," says Elisa Deiss-Helbig, a research fellow at the University of Konstanz who focuses on party politics and political representation, particularly the representation of politically marginalized groups.

Women might introduce topics into the political agenda that could be overlooked by a male-dominated parliament, she told DW.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to women's rights: In 1957, when fewer than 10% of parliamentarians were women, Germany voted on whether husbands should continue to have the last say in all marital affairs (the so-called "Stichentscheid" of the husband). It was women's votes that ended this discriminatory law: A majority of male parliamentarians would have kept the law, while 74% of the women voted to repeal it.

Some changes required a much larger share of women. For example, it took Germany until 1997 to criminalize rape during marriage. That was the result of a decades-long, cross-party effort led by female legislators. Multiple draft laws brought to parliament since the early 1980s had been rejected. 

Ulla Schmidt from the SPD, one of the initiators of the reform, said in an interview: "We finally had more women in parliament. With fewer than 10% of women, any cross-party campaigning lacks the basis needed to exert pressure"

More than 90% of female parliamentarians voted in favor of the new law. Among the men who voted against it were multiple prominent politicians, including current CDU party leader Friedrich Merz.

Which parties do female legislators belong to?

Of the 736 seats in the current parliament, just over a third (263 seats) are held by women. Most of them belong to parties on the political left: 70 are from the Green Party alone, while the far-right AfD only has nine female representatives in the Bundestag.

"There is definitely a difference in ideology behind this," Deiss-Helbig told DW. "Left-leaning parties tend to place greater emphasis on gender equality. So they were the first to introduce quotas."

The Greens, for instance, self-imposed a mandatory quota of 50% women on all political mandates in the 1980s. The SPD currently has a 40% quota. The CDU recently introduced a gradually rising quota as well, while the FDP and AfD still reject gender quotas entirely.

What if only the female parliamentarians voted?

In Germany, members of parliament typically adhere to strict party lines when voting, which is known as "Fraktionsdisziplin," or party discipline. This makes it difficult to determine how women legislators would vote if they followed only their own conscience.

However, there have been some historical decisions made without party discipline being exerted, particularly on morally challenging issues. These show that female parliamentarians can hold different opinions than their male counterparts, even within the same party.

  • Marriage equality: In 2017, only 54% of male MPs voted to open marriage to couples of all genders, compared to 76% of women.
  • In 2023, reforms aimed at regulating and decriminalizing access to assisted suicide failed, with 375 against to 286 in favor. If it had been only up to female parliamentarians, the law would have passed with 105 against to 128 in favor.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament was debating whether to mandate vaccination for people aged 60 and above, with compulsory vaccination counseling for anyone over 18. The law would have passed with 62% of valid votes if only female parliamentarians had voted. As it stands, it failed with only 44% in favor. Vaccination remained voluntary in Germany, with the exception of certain health care professions.

Research by a Swiss-German research team also found that female MPs tend to advocate more for gender equality issues throughout their whole careers, making significantly more parliamentary inquiries related to gender than their male counterparts.

Edited by: Timothy Jones and Nancy Isenson

Data and code behind this story can be found in this repository.

More data-driven stories can be found here.

This article is part of the Towards Equalityprogram, a collaborative alliance of 16 international news outlets highlighting the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality, which is led by Sparknews.