German sisterhood goes to war over 'macho man in a dress'

Rival biographies portray feminist Alice Schwarzer as a champion of the women's movement - and a fame-seeking misogynist, writes Imre Karacs
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The Independent Online
CIVIL WAR has broken out among the dwindling ranks of Germany's hardcore feminists. From Stuttgart to Berlin, women's groups are aligning themselves along ideological fronts defined by their answer to the ultimate test of faith: is Alice Schwarzer, queen bee of the movement, a misogynist?

To outsiders who have followed Ms Schwarzer's dazzling progression from militant feminist in the 1970s to today's media stardom, the question makes as much sense as inquiring about the Catholic inclinations of the Pope. She has been instrumental in emancipating a generation of women. Her seminal book The small difference, published in 1975, sparked the sexual revolution in Germany, much as Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch shook up the male-dominated society of the Anglo-Saxon world. And Emma, the magazine she founded 21 years ago, remains the most important feminist publication in German, selling 60,000 copies an issue.

None of her achievements are in dispute, but the means she applies and the end for which she strives have come in for vitriolic criticism. According to a new biography that has been lobbed, like a grenade, into the tinderbox of feminist politics, Ms Schwarzer "despises women", tyrannises female colleagues, and is far more interested in the advancement of her career as a celebrity than in the cause.

The book and the allegations it contains hurt, because they are an inside job. Alice Schwarzer: A Critical Biography was written by Baschka Mika, a senior journalist of the trendy FAZ newspaper, and past winner of the prize awarded by Emma magazine for services rendered to feminism. Ms Mika is careful to pay lip-service to Ms Schwarzer's achievements, but the positive aspects are carefully sandwiched between damaging innuendo, unflattering hearsay and, at one point, intrusive psychoanalysis of her subject.

The main thesis, according to one witness cited in the book, is that Ms Schwarzer is a "macho man in a dress". In her private as well as professional life, the 55-year-old feminist icon is capable only of domineering relationships with other women. She is described as ruthless, authoritarian and manipulative, whereas with men she gets on fine, though admittedly there is no room for them in her bed.

She is accused of running a "sect" in the "Women's Tower", her feminist information centre in Cologne. The movement, the ideals and fellow combatants are said to be subordinated to her single-minded quest for recognition. Criticism in her circle is suppressed, and any pretence that Emma is edited by a collective of equals has long since been abandoned.

Like an old-fashioned Stalinist, Ms Schwarzer is alleged to operate under the principle that "those who are not with us are against us". Dissenters are singled out for a vicious tongue-lashing and worse: life-long exile from the inner sanctum.

Ms Mika dwells at length on an open letter published several years ago by 32 former members of Ms Schwarzer's collective, complaining about her reign of terror. To these charges, and accusations that she had abandoned her left-wing principles and resorted to authoritarian methods, the boss then reacted with characteristic vigour: "Perhaps there is something specifically German in this extreme - I would almost say fascist - way of treating people," she countered.

Ms Schwarzer would not comment on the new biography herself but has arranged for others to do her bidding. For it so happens that a second book came out this month, and though it was triggered by the Critical Biography, it beat its rival by a few days.

With a title like The Moving Life of Alice Schwarzer, the reader knowswhat's coming. The book is what critics might call a "hagiography", and publishers a "spoiler". Inspired and commissioned by none other than Alice Schwarzer, it was executed to order in record time by a husband-and-wife team who are proud to count themselves among her friends.

"Yes, she is in some ways authoritarian," concedes Gert von Paczensky, the male half of the duo, adding that "Alice was more successful at expressing her views than anybody else". But the argument raging between the two camps, he says, owes more to substance than style of leadership. Ms Schwarzer personifies high-profile feminism that gets results, while left-wingers committed to ideological purity languish in their self-imposed ghetto. "Alice started the debates in Germany on abortion and women's rights," says Mr von Paczensky. "That focused much of the attention on her, and the other women's groups became jealous."

Disagreements about her leadership and goals go back more than a decade, but some grudges apparently do not age. "What we find disgusting in the other biography," says Mr Paczensky, "is that it uses sources who knew Alice 16 to18 years ago, were only with her for one year and of course know nothing."

Mr von Paczensky had the benefit of extensive interviews with his subject as well as her coterie, whereas Ms Mika was denied an audience with Ms Schwarzer and the present inmates of the "Women's Tower". It is also claimed that when the feminist leader got wind of the unauthorised biography she suspected a conspiracy and mobilised her network of powerful friends in an attempt to block it. Why she would go to such lengths is explained in personal terms that beggar belief.

"Alice in Paranoialand," is how the universally hostile media is treating the row. At the "Women's Tower", meanwhile, the drawbridge has been raised and the musty pages of Emma - which at 21 seems well past its prime - are filling with invective. Once again it is Alice against the world, and one suspects that she will again come out on top.