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  • Victoria Cornelio

Influential Women Series: Ursula von der Leyen

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

In this series of Cheat Sheets, we are celebrating the lives and achievements of influential women, as chosen by our writers.

Today, Victoria looks at Ursula von der Leyen's journey to becoming President of the European Commission.

Influential women, Ursula von der Leyen

Who is Ursula von der Leyen?

Ursula von der Leyen, born Ursula Gertrud Albrecht, is a German politician who has revolutionised European politics ever since she decided to run for office in 2003. She was elected in December 2019 as the President of the European Commission.

She studied Economics and graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She then returned to Hannover, Germany, to study medicine, graduating in 1987. She specialised in gynaecology and married Doctor Heiko von der Leyen. She moved to Stanford, California with her husband for four years, before returning to Germany in 1996 and joining the Department of Epidemiology, Social Medicine and Health System Research at Hannover Medical School until 2002, receiving a Master’s degree in Public Health from this institution.

How did a doctor become President of the European Commission?

She joined the Christian Democratic Union of Germany in 1990, and upon returning to Germany after living in California, she was in the Committee on Social Policy of the Union in Lower Saxony from 1996. In 2003, she was elected to the Parliament of Lower Saxony, and appointed Federal Minister of Family Affairs and Youth in Chancellor Merkel’s 2005 cabinet. In 2009, she was elected to represent Hannover at the German Parliament and chosen Minister of Labour and Social Affairs. She was elected twice as deputy for the Merkel administration, and in 2013, she became Germany’s first female Minister of Defence.

Interestingly, von der Leyen received much criticism from German politicians on her management of the armies and defence corps, while receiving much praise from international politicians for her decision-making. Angela Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is von der Leyen’s number one critic, calling her work as Defence Minister insufficient and “not good enough”. However, German newspaper Die Welt reported that Ursula von der Leyen is highly respected by the defence ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the point that she was considered as the successor for the position as Secretary General of NATO. Nonetheless, in 2019, the European Council, specifically French President Emmanuel Macron, proposed Von der Leyen as their candidate for the President of the European Commission position, and since her victory they have worked closely to “regenerate Europe.

The 3Gs challenge

Ursula von der Leyen must face the 3Gs: Germany, Gender, Global.

Many of the actions that von der Leyen has taken, from the retreat of German troops from Afghanistan as defence minister to her coronavirus security roadmap as President of the European Commission, seems to be praised by everyone except Germany. Current and former members of the Ministry of Defence “describe her management style as distant and defensive,”. It is believed that in a male-dominated area like the Defence Ministry, many of her male counterparts tried to discredit her and would block her proposals and requests.

This brings us to our second G, gender. As a woman in politics, she was targeted for being too emotional and soft, being called Germany’s weakest minister by President Martin Schulz. During the recent Sofagate, she was left standing during a summit with President Erdogan and President Michel. In true von der Leyen fashion, she used this situation to reinstate her efforts for women equality and protection, and indirectly called out Turkey for backing out of the Istanbul Convention. And this is where the third G comes into play, Global. Although she is viewed as a prominent politician, she is also challenged by international leaders who continue to oppose her efforts to “regenerate Europe”, and many times, criticise her portfolio and agenda as delusional.

Legacy of Ursula von der Leyen

Despite the controversies and PR attacks on her image, von der Leyen continues to pave the way for gender equality in the Commission, and in European politics. She defends women in the political world and continues to state her support for female involvement in a male-run sphere. Her fight for a gender-balanced Commission opens the door to more women’s participation in decision-making and policy drafting, which helps create a fairer world where everyone is included and seen. In her own words, “I am convinced that the pursuit of freedom defines humanity..

Head to our Gender Issues & Feminism section to read about the other women who have inspired A News Education's writers.

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