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BERLIN, Sept 6 (AFP) - The first woman tipped to become German chancellor has told a gathering of high-powered women that she is determined not to play the gender card and will look after the interests of all voters.
"I am not here for women only, but also for women," Angela Merkel told the meeting in Berlin late Monday, hoping to sidestep the hype around the prospect of her becoming Germany's first woman leader without losing the vote of those who have made her a reluctant role model.
It was the day after her television duel with outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and if Merkel seemed more relaxed than in front of 21 million viewers she gave the impression that she would rather be talking foreign policy with him than feminism with 200 power-dressers.
"Frau Merkel, what do you think of the statement that a woman who wants to be as good as a man has no self-respect?" hostess Ulla Kock asked, the first of many questions along those lines.
Merkel looked exasperated: "I find it trivial."
Then she softened, and spoke of her own experience, first as a scientist then as a politician who fought off party rivals for years and now looks set to win September 18 elections and unseat Schroeder.
Women have to work harder than men to succeed, and if they have children they will find it impossible to climb the career ladder as fast as male colleagues, said Merkel, who herself is childless.
"I am not only a woman but also from East Germany, so I belong to two minorities, but there is no point in crying in a corner because things are harder. If you do that you are at a handicap.
"But women should also not feel they have to have children and a wonderful career, and always be in a good mood and make it to the gym."
As the vote nears, Germans sometimes appear more intrigued by Merkel's gender, and her own lack of interest in the subject, than the nitty-gritty of a campaign centred on tax reforms and job creation.
"Why should we vote for you?" the country's leading feminist magazine Emma asks on its cover this week.
Editor Alice Schwarzer writes that as a woman who has made it on her own Merkel overlooks the plight of other women in a still conservative society.
"It is very obvious that this candidate is not at all used to taking the deep-seated differences that exist between the lives of men and women in our society seriously."
On Monday, Merkel wryly acknowledged that she was aware of the rift between expectations and her own response, and the importance of it all in an election where every vote lessens the likelihood of being forced into a grand coalition with Schroeder.
"Not all women understand each other just because they are women. But no, I cannot say that I do not want to talk about women's issues, how could I, I was minister for woman in Helmut Kohl's cabinet."
"I used to say that these are not issues that will win you an election, but without which you can lose an election."
On whether she had help on her way up from women's groups, Merkel simply said she found support from both male and female colleagues.
She quoted Sweden's late foreign minister Anna Lindh, who was murdered in September 2003, as having said that for a while rising to a top post was out of the question because she wanted to go home to her family every night.
Although the 51-year-old, twice-married Merkel has no children, her conservative Christian Democrats have promised to make life easier for working mothers.
Asked whether she would prefer women to opt to have children or not, Merkel said: "I would want them to decide to have babies. But every woman has to make her own choices."
At least one member of the audience found Merkel's ambiguity about being thrust into a sisterhood endearing.
"Every time the questions turned to woman's issues it was very clear that she would rather talk about something else," said Sabine Shirp, a freelance image consultant from Duesseldorf.
"But I understand her problem. I can relate to her because I have just started my own business and I did it all by myself. I am still uncertain and so is she, it is nice that it shows."
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