A Little Frau With Your Bonus?

O politics, you are the gift that keeps on giving, and maybe especially to those who keep an eye out for language.

Last month the German race for Chancellor took an unexpected linguistic turn. The candidate Peer Steinbrück complained that Chancellor Merkel, who is running for reelection, enjoyed a Frauenbonus.

By deploying the term Frauenbonus,  Steinbrück means (I assume)  that Merkel has an advantage in being a woman since a) women would vote for her because she is one of them, and b) since she is beliebt (loved, popular, favored), this must in some sense derive from her being female.

Where there’s a frau, there’s usually a haus, too. The online Oxford Dictionaries page defines hausfrau as “a German housewife” and gives as an informal definition “a woman regarded as overly domesticated.” Hausfrau dates from the end of the 18th century, which would I suppose make it an unintended consequence of the Enlightenment.

The term hausfrau  might be translated as housewife or, with the exaggerated politeness of a door-to-door salesman, as the lady of the house. These days there aren’t too many door-to-door salesmen, and not too many ladies of the house, either.

Readers of a certain age may remember that a midcentury American male (enlightened or not, and probably not) might have referred to his wife as his frau—the German word for wife or lady, but in American usage possibly also a shortened version of hausfrau. (That same speaker might also have referred to his spouse, without apologies to Louisa May Alcott, as the little woman.)

Hausfrau has faded away in colloquial American usage, but not without leaving a gap in self-determination for the woman who is not employed outside the home. She who keeps the house (in order, together) is not a housekeeper, since a housekeeper is a professional employed by the lady of the house. Homemaker and domestic goddess take two approaches to naming the task of keeping a house and, as is most often the case, raising the kids, too.

The concept of the Frauenbonus has been otherwise described in American discourse, often with more specificity. So-and-so is polling strongly with the Latina vote, black women are persuaded that this candidate’s platform speaks to their interests. When the candidate is female, an observer (most likely an opponent) might choose to dismiss that bump in the polls as a Frauenbonus. 

If the term Frauenbonus does seep into English usage, both halves of the word may raise eyebrows. In the Occupy-Zeit  of the American present, the word bonus is as out of fashion as that dated usage of frau. Bonuses make the world go round in the heady land of Mad Men, the hit television show that brings the corporate culture of the sixties to life. My thanks to the blogger Andrew Hammel for posting a photo of a German ad for Mad Men. The text runs roughly “Behind every successful woman there stands a man checking out her behind.”

While bonuses still play a part in the 1 percent’s compensation packages, the term bonus is rarely invoked now except to  identify the recipient (head football coach, university endowment officer) as being paid too much.

Steinbrück, however, isn’t grousing about excessive compensation—on the contrary, he’s reportedly of the opinion that a chancellor should be paid more than Merkel is, a view that has created another awkward moment in his political candidacy. No, Steinbrück is complaining about something more important than compensation, something intangible—and something unfair.

The unspoken and unspeakable bonus that derives from being a woman is one of the legendary subjects of ressentiment.  Since she won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, the film director Kathryn Bigelow has been the subject of one of the ’Net’s least interesting questions: “Did she win because she was a woman?” Hatte Bigelow einen Frauenbonus?

Asked about his own wife’s role in the forthcoming election, Herr Steinbrück indicated that Frau Steinbrück would remain in the background. According  to the online edition of Der Spiegel, Steinbrück said that he and his wife Gertrud didn’t want to get involved in “American style” electioneering.

Given the grisly display of spouses (almost always wives) in American political contests, the Steinbrücks have a point. But Gertrud just might have provided the Frauenbonus—if such a thing exists—his underdog candidacy needs.




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