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Simona Guerra

March 8th, 2024

From leadership to oblivion? Käte Strobel’s European experience

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Simona Guerra

March 8th, 2024

From leadership to oblivion? Käte Strobel’s European experience

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Käte Strobel of the German Social Democratic Party was one of the first women to sit in the early European Parliament. Simona Guerra explores the impact she had at both the national and European levels.

“Women will prevail and achieve [their goals], if you give them the chance and they give themselves and devote themselves to this task with firm conviction.” These words from Käte Strobel of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) reflect her political career both personally and as a mentor for younger members of her party once she retired.

Strobel joined the European Assembly on 27 February 1958 as a representative from the SPD, together with her German colleague, Maria Probst, from the Christian Social Union of Bavaria. Before them, the only other woman to sit in the assembly had been Marga Klompé, who sat as a Dutch member in Strasbourg at the first meeting of the Common Assembly in 1952.

Strobel strongly believed that politics had to reflect ideas, interests and circumstances across different people and sexes, and that social affiliation did not have to affect people’s life experiences. In Europe and in Germany, solidarity, consumers, sexuality and politics became her mission and visible themes in everything she did and supported.

A great politician

Across the thirty women who joined the European Assembly before it became a directly elected institution in 1979, Strobel had the lowest level of education. After attending the primary and technical school in Nuremberg, where she was born, she joined the SPD when she was just 18 years old. She was elected to the German Bundestag in 1949, where she remained until 1972, becoming a member of the party’s leadership in 1958, the same year as her European office.

At the national level, Strobel sought to address pressing problems for women, but she also fought to engage people with issues relevant to the politics of the time (in the 1960s), notably in relation to the economy and foreign policy. As with Nilde Iotti a few years later, concerns close to internationalist socialist ideas led to proposals and speeches about a possible dialogue across regions that could be achievable with the active role of a united Europe, although she held critical views on the Community’s economic policy.

Loyalty to the party meant that sometimes Strobel had to shift her position on some issues. She voted against her convictions for Germany’s general law on conscription in 1956 and later advocated working with non-parliamentary groups on women’s issues. She was well ahead of her time in understanding intersectionality and sought to close the distance between different classes.

When she was 65 years old, after leaving both European and national politics, Strobel returned to Bavaria to help the SPD campaign. It is in these last few years of her political experience that she tried to create opportunities for different generations to work together and improve and promote cooperation between older and younger SPD members.

All of them, in particular those she personally supported and advised, remember Strobel as a great politician who always gave her best to support and advise young members. In 1980, Nuremberg made her an honorary citizen, the first woman after 38 men, and, today, a street in her hometown is dedicated to her.

Strobel in the European Parliament

Most importantly, Käte Strobel stands out across thousands of historical documents as one of the most brilliant and clear-cut members of the European Assembly. While the political groups in the 1950s and 1960s were not the groups that we know today, in June 1953, the Common Assembly unanimously passed a resolution that established the rules to form a political group and helped to institutionalise them. The first three groups emerged at that time, the Christian Democratic Group, the Liberal Group, and the Socialist Group.

Strobel served as the Chair of the Socialists between 1964 and 1967. She remained the only female leader of the Socialists until 1994, when Pauline Green from the UK was appointed as Chair. Iratxe García became the third woman to do so when she became the leader of what is now the Socialists and Democrats group. The fact that only three women have held this position shows how even European institutions can be resilient and hostile to women via unwritten rules and unfavourable practices.

Strobel also served as Vice-Chair of the Committee for Agriculture, sometimes chairing it. She became a key influence on the agricultural reform led by the Commissioner for Agriculture, Sicco Mansholt. These reforms were shaped by regular meetings and presentations to the Committee for Agriculture, where Strobel was always one of the first to push for reflection, definitions, and cooperation across the institutions.

In May 1966, Robert Marjolin, Vice-President of the Commission of the European Economic Community (1958-1967), took the floor at the regular meeting with the European Parliament, addressing Strobel by name while stressing how challenging it had been to create a common agricultural policy in the absence of political unity:

…it is already almost a miracle that we have succeeded, step by step, in creating a common agricultural policy without a European federal structure… taking extremely difficult decisions about agricultural prices, agricultural funding, aids… I want to say to each of you, and in particular to Mme Strobel, speaking for the Socialist group, that the Commission, much more today compared to yesterday, does not have any intention to give up its responsibility. (May 1966)

Within each policy dimension, Strobel engaged with the role of the founding Treaties and the tension between the process of European integration and the changing role of the main institutions. During debates or in the Committee for Agriculture, she repeated on several occasions that she was sceptical of the role of the Commission and thought that it seemed to go beyond the institutional framework established by the Treaties. As she stated:

We congratulate the Commission that has found its authority with the Council. Mr President, it seems that the spirit strived to restrain the role of the Commission has already been overcome. We wish and expect that the Commission always use the rights that are inscribed in the Treaty of Rome and fully respect the obligations that the same Treaty is imposing. We strongly hope that the Commission can find the courage that has animated its work in the past in the current proposal and reflections. (May 1966)

Strobel’s interventions on Mansholt’s agricultural reforms addressed both the reforms and the internal developing dynamics across the institutions:

But I do not think that you, Mr Mansholt, you have realised what you said in the moment you said that. We [European Parliament] have always said, in these sessions, that we are against the taxation of margarine. We said it while you were present… The Commission has maintained its position, and it is true that it had been assigned this task on the institutions of taxes by the Council of Ministers, at the time of that marathon-like session. The Council of Ministers has taken that decision instead of the Parliament and the Parliament was opposing it… This highlights the delicate question of the action of the Council without consulting the Parliament. Specifically, it has asked for the [Parliament’s] avis. The Council of Ministers can take decisions without taking into consideration the Parliament’s opinion… But we cannot talk about an abuse of the founding principles of the Community… These issues actually are threatening the democratic development of the Community (applause among socialist members) (June 1965)

This battle between the young European Parliament and a Commission that was implementing important reforms was one of the main institutional challenges for the Community at the time. Joseph Illerhaus, a colleague of Strobel from Germany representing the Christian Democratic Union, talked about an “obvious lack of community spirit”. While the Commission launched a new Common Agricultural Policy in 1962, the dialogue between members of the Parliament – particularly Strobel – and Sicco Mansholt and Robert Marjolin characterise this decade.

A significant figure

It is challenging to find accounts of women playing a major role in European integration during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet it is important to realise that some women were important players during this time. Käte Strobel is one of those who embraced the challenges of both the domestic and European political arenas.

While she halted her studies and started to work when she was only 16 years of age, Strobel made good use of what she had learned and what she was learning. Coming from Germany and being supported at the family and political levels allowed her to gain more confidence and challenge the Commission as a member of the early European Parliament.

She was more successful when she could lead, as a rapporteur, Chair or leader for the Socialists. Time and context helped her as the European community and the emerging common agricultural policy provided a window of opportunity. Strobel seized this opportunity, using her personal and institutional support to succeed with her energy, enthusiasm and assertiveness. She thus merits consideration as a significant figure in European political history.

Simona Guerra thankfully acknowledges the European Parliament Research Service for the research opportunity that supported this project, and Ms Silvia Waleska Diaz Blanco. This article is part of Simona Guerra’s project “CAROLINE”, supported by the University of Surrey ESRC and A&H IAA funding.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image: European Parliament, Kate Strobel during a session in Strasbourg, France, June 15, 1964.

About the author

Simona Guerra

Simona Guerra is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey.

Posted In: EU Politics | Politics

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