It happened at about 3pm on Saturday afternoon, in one of the conference rooms at Munich’s Bayerischer Hof hotel, where politicians from around the world had gathered for an annual security conference. The female defense ministers of Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands had all met at previous conferences, so they decided to welcome Ursula von der Leyen, their new German counterpart.
When Belgian Minister of Defense Pieter De Crem, spotted the group of women, he quipped: “Oh, I’ll better get out of the picture.”
That is when Dutch Minister of Defense Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert asked someone to capture the scene on her cameraphone.
“[Dutch politician] Neelie Kroes once said to me that old boys’ networks are the oldest form of cartels we have in Europe. She was right, but things are changing, and women can do similar things now,” Hennis-Plasschaert said.
Her tweet with the photograph soon went viral. To many, the image heralded a new era in which even the last bastions of male privilege were no longer closed to talented women.
Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, retweeted it with the comment: “True Power Girls” (and was widely criticized for the condescending tone).
“That’s how global peace can be reached,” another comment read.
Others felt the photograph was less indicative of a smashed glass ceiling than the diminished importance of the defense ministry in the post-Cold War era.
While all four women hail from liberal-conservative parties in northern Europe, their paths to their current roles differ considerably. Whereas Sweden and Norway’s defense ministers are already the third and fifth female politicians in their posts, their German and Dutch colleagues are breaking new ground.
Hennis-Plasschaert, 40, from Holland’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, entered the Cabinet after a short, but distinguished career in the European Parliament in November 2012.
On taking office, she famously said: “It doesn’t matter if you have a willy or not” and still denies that women have a common way of doing politics, or even a common experience of becoming politicians, purely because they are all women.
“I don’t think the military officers that we work with see us any differently than if we were men,” she said. “And if they do, they don’t show it, but there is a public debate about women taking more influential political roles, and that’s healthy.”
Sweden’s Karin Enstrom, 47, is the only one of the four women with professional experience in the armed forces. From an upper-class family and in office since April 2012, she still holds the rank of captain in the Swedish marines; her brother Henrik was once in charge of the small Swedish contingent in Afghanistan.
Ine Eriksen Soreide, 37, has been one of the rising stars of Norwegian politics since she was asked to lead the education committee at the age of 29. Having impressed observers and colleagues with her people skills, determination and work ethic, many believe the young politician from a humble background is destined for higher things.
In the case of Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, there is little doubt that a successful stint in the defense ministry would set her up as the obvious successor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The 55-year-old doctor, who has seven children, made her name as a strong supporter of parental leave during her stint in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. After elections in September last year, it was reported she insisted on taking the defense job; the male incumbent was swiftly moved to the interior ministry to make room.