As President-elect Barack Obama mulls over potential Cabinet picks,
women’s rights advocates are scrambling to make up for an unexpected
shortage of cash to fund a push for female appointees.
"It’s late in the game but we’re really confident we’re going to do
this," said Kim Otis, head of the National Council of Women’s
Organizations, an umbrella group of women’s rights groups in
The council has for many years worked with the National Women’s
Political Caucus to mount the Women’s Appointments Project, a public
relations campaign to pressure incoming presidents to put women in
But in an economically pinched year, funding has so far failed to
arrive, a blow at a time when hopes for gender parity in government are
higher than ever.
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"We are continuing to seek funding," Otis said. "It’s such an
important time for getting half the population to be represented in
this new administration."
One major backer has been the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in
Cambridge, Mass., a philanthropy that supports programs aimed at
increasing women’s representation in politics, public policy and the
But this year, Lee focused on electing–rather than appointing–women to office.
"It is my hope that President-elect Barack Obama is committed to
diversity in his appointments, including women in key and visible
administrative posts," she said.
Still Time to Secure Funding
Otis and other advocates have not given up; Obama was elected only a
week ago, and there is still time to secure funding for the
appointments project before he puts together his Cabinet and makes
hires for other key administrative posts.
But they are preparing a Plan B in case they don’t get funding. She
and other allies in the women’s rights movement plan to hash out their
strategy at meetings over the next week.
"Money is not going to get in our way," said Ellie Smeal, president
of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women’s rights lobby in
Smeal said women’s rights groups are more organized than ever and
have new communications tools at their disposal. One possibility would
be an online site that would collect recommendations from grassroots
women’s activists around the country.
Otis’ organization, an umbrella group in Washington, has
collaborated since 2000 with the National Women’s Political Caucus–a
political action committee in Washington, D.C., that works to elect
pro-choice women to political office–to oversee the project. Before
that, the Women’s Caucus led the effort on its own.
The first appointments project came after the resignation of Richard
Nixon, whose 31 Cabinet positions were all male, according to a history
gathered by the two groups that oversee the project.
Project Re-Launched Every Four Years
Advocates have re-launched the project every four years since then.
President Clinton set the standing record by appointing 10 women to
Cabinet-level positions during his two terms in office. Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno held two of
what are regarded as the Cabinet’s four most important posts: the
department heads of State, Justice, Defense and Treasury.
President George W. Bush asked eight women to serve in his Cabinet,
including Condoleezza Rice, the first African American woman to serve
as secretary of state.
Progressive political journal In These Times published a list of
Cabinet recommendations that was evenly divided among men and women
Author and activist Rianne Eisler and Linda Basch, president of the
National Council for Research on Women, a think tank in New York, have
also put out calls for gender equity in government appointments.
"As you roll up your sleeves and consult your most trusted allies
about creating a team to take this country into a more secure future, I
ask you to keep something in mind: the interests of the women who
played such a decisive part in your election," Basch wrote in an open
letter to Obama published on the online news site AlterNet.
Women Came Through for Obama
On Election Day, 56 percent of women cast their ballots for Obama
versus 49 percent of men, according to the Center for American Women
and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New
Smeal is confident women’s advocates will have a receptive audience in Obama’s team.
Policy advisers such as Karen Kornbluh, who is advising Obama on
women’s policy during the transition, "understand these issues from A
to Z," Smeal said. "They’re brilliant and there’s a real commitment."
Obama has not yet made any nominations for the Cabinet.
Two prominent women under discussion for the Treasury Department are
Republican Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation, which insures bank deposits up to $250,000; and Laura
D’Andrea Tyson, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and ex-Justice Department official
Jamie Gorelick are reportedly under consideration to head up the
Department of Justice.
News reports have also played up Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius
of Kansas as a possible head of the Department of Health and Human
Media speculation about the next national security adviser has
included the names of women such as Harvard professor Samantha Power
and foreign policy expert Susan Rice. Rice and Caroline Kennedy, who
headed up Obama’s vice presidential search, are also mentioned as
possible ambassadors to the United Nations.
Apart from Rice and Napolitano, women on Obama’s economic and
transition teams include long-time friend Valerie Jarrett;
ex-Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner; Michigan Gov.
Jennifer Granholm; Ann Mulcahy, the chair and CEO of Xerox; and Penny
Pritzker, CEO of Classic Residence by Hyatt. All of them could find
work in the next administration.
At the top of a short list of names that many women’s rights
advocates want removed is that of Larry Summers, the former president
of Harvard University who resigned after suggesting that women were not
as successful in math and science because of innate differences between
the sexes. He is reportedly under consideration for treasury secretary.
"Women played a large role in getting Obama elected," said Bernice
Sandler, a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education
Institute in Washington, D.C., who is known as the Godmother of Title
IX, the law guaranteeing equality to girls and women in sports and
education. "It just would be a shame if one of his first major
appointments was someone who said nasty things about women."
This piece was first published by Women’s eNews.