The never-ending story of equal rights

30 September 2020

She was the first State Commissioner for Women in Rhineland-Palatinate and the first politician of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to be appointed Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees, and Integration. She made important contributions as a Minister of State in the cabinet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and in the Federal Foreign Office, acted as National Chairwoman of the Frauenunion, the CDU's women's organization, and today is President of the German Commission for UNESCO. From her years at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), where she started studying in 1968, she has taken with her important impulses for her later public offices and tasks.

Professor Maria Böhmer stands on the tower of the old Mainz anti-aircraft artillery barracks. Although it doesn't rise particularly high into the sky, it still affords a fine view out over the Gutenberg Campus, its surroundings, and the region. Böhmer points to a nearby building: "As a student, I lived over there in the Newman House," she recalls. "On my floor lived an Indian medical student, my tennis partner came from Lebanon, and there was a student from Zagreb who cooked us all delicious goulash. It all seemed perfectly natural to us that we should live together. This easy-going interaction between different nationalities was one of the defining components of my time as a student – and it has stayed with me for all these years."

Back in 1946, the former wartime barracks became the nucleus of the reopened JGU. Mainz native Maria Böhmer would enroll here 18 years later; she had just passed her university entrance qualification exam and wanted to study teacher training. She enrolled for Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, and Education. The first two in particular were a conscious choice. "I had attended an all-girls school. It had been my fantastic good fortune to have outstanding teachers in Mathematics and Physics, also in Biology. They encouraged me to pursue my interests."

Too few women in the natural sciences

At that time, the natural sciences were even more dominated by men than today. "We were precisely two female students in Nuclear Physics, while in the Education lectures it was 80 to 90 percent women. When I left Mainz University in 1982, women held just one in ten professorships." She then asks: "What is the situation today?" JGU actually fares quite well in national comparison, with roughly 25 percent of postings currently held by women. "Even that is not enough. This topic is so important to me that I have been focusing on it over all this time."

When heading down the narrow staircase, out of the tower and on to a more wide-ranging conversation, Böhmer is curious about the Forum universitatis as a whole. She is interested in details, asking about what became of the university's Old Canteen and the former Inter I student dormitory. She clearly has strong feelings for her alma mater.

"I met my husband while studying Economics at JGU," she recounts. "We both earned our doctoral degrees at the same time." When the pair recently visited the campus, they passed by the Natural Sciences building that, among other things, houses JGU's Center of Data Processing. In the early 1970s, Böhmer spent much time there as a guest. "I wrote an empirical dissertation on compulsory elective subject choices at secondary schools and analyzed my data in the Center of Data Processing. At the time, something like this was still completely new, especially for a student of Education."

From 1972 to 1979, Böhmer worked as a research associate in JGU's Institute of Education. There she met Miriam Ben-Peretz, an Israeli educator from the University of Haifa, who was a frequent guest in Mainz. Her family originally came from Wrocław, but had managed to flee to Palestine in 1935 just ahead of the National Socialist takeover. The two women remained close friends until the passing of Ben-Peretz in early 2020.

University partnership with Haifa

"We founded a partnership between our universities even before Mainz and Haifa signed their sister city agreement," Böhmer remembers. "Miriam was the motor, she approached me. At the time, she was a member of the Haifa city council." The connection led to a brisk exchange between the two universities, and between the two friends. "We pushed each other constantly to keep moving forward." A few years ago, Ben-Peretz wrote to Böhmer: "I view our friendship as a victory of love over hate, and as the most important expression of the human capacity to overcome historical tragedy and to create new worlds of cooperation."

Both women received their post-doctoral professional qualifications in Education: Ben-Peretz at the University of Haifa, where she was appointed to a professorship in Education in 1990, and Böhmer in 1982 at JGU. That same year, Böhmer requested a sabbatical and took up the office of the first State Commissioner for Women in Rhineland-Palatinate.

"Equal opportunity is a never-ending story," Böhmer claims. She herself has authored several of its 'chapters'. As State Commissioner for Women, she initiated the first computer courses exclusively for girls. "If we want more women in the natural sciences, then we have to start in the schools," she says. "Women tend to take a different approach to science and this can potentially open up entirely new horizons. We need to bring the diverse vantage points of men and women together. This is a strong plus in any field of research."

Böhmer joined the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 1985 and has been a member of the party's Federal Executive Board since 1994. Among other things, she served in the leadership of the CDU Germany, which is an extensive organ for the decisions made by the federal management committee, and as Chairwoman of the CDU's Frauenunion, which has since elected her honorary chairperson. From 1990 to 2017, she was a member of the German parliament. In 2005, she served as Minister of State under German Chancellor Angela Merkel and as Federal Commissioner for Migration, Refugees, and Integration. In 2013, she became Minister of State in the German Federal Foreign Office. Two years ago, she was named president of the German Commission for UNESCO.

The topic of equal opportunities has been ever-present in her career. "For example, I decided to look very closely at our pension system because women receive significantly smaller pensions than men. I championed a system that accounts equally for the lifetime work of men and women, with childrearing included in the pension calculations. The older generation received just one year added in, the younger generation did receive credit for three years of childrearing. I tried to get that changed too. It was difficult, but I was persistent and was able to win over many people to my point of view. We have since changed how pensions are calculated. That is one issue that would not have moved forward without women and our experiences."

Talking with each other, not about each other

Back when she was named the Commissioner for Migration, Refugees, and Integration, Böhmer asked herself: "What is the significance of the fact that I'm the first CDU politician in this post? What can I contribute? I found that it was my experiences at university that would help me bring something unique to this office. Deciding to place an emphasis on dialog, I developed a motto that would later become kind of a winged word: We must talk with each other, not about each other. In the beginning, I often experienced that migrants simply did not have the chance for sufficient involvement in the framing of integration policies." Böhmer's initiatives helped bring to life the Integration Summit at the German Federal Chancellery, the German National Action Plan for Integration, and Germany's Recognition Act of Foreign Professional Qualifications.

Again and again she sees ties the topics of equal opportunity, women, and migration to the larger question of educational opportunities. As President of the German Commission for UNESCO, she is currently very involved with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations and its 17 major goals. Goal 4 involves the promotion of 'Quality Education'. "To date, the educational programs of the UN have concentrated mainly on teachers, schools, and primary education. But that is not enough," emphasizes Böhmer. "I have long been a proponent of lifelong learning and equal opportunities, and also of the opportunity to have access to quality education." At the same time, she is also aware that many girls and women lack access to education of any kind.

Böhmer always comes back to this never-ending story, the first pages of which she became aware during her school and university years. "We have made progress," she states. "But new problems and issues are constantly arising. It was my own experiences at university that helped me achieve changes." She looks out the window toward the courtyard of the Forum universitatis and concludes with emphasis: "I remember and cherish many things I learned and experienced here at JGU. It influenced me with regard to many of the issues that are still important to me today."