The XX Factor

Why Isn’t Obama Appointing More Women?

Just one of the guys

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

In a glorious moment of the mindless, hypocritical point-scoring conservatives so adore, yesterday Mike Huckabee gleefully accused President Obama of not appointing enough women to his Cabinet and insinuated that female voters who supported Obama were too snookered by promises of “contraception and free abortion” to notice his unwillingness to put women in leadership positions. Huckabee, who routinely refers to ovulation suppression as “abortion” and believes wives are obliged to submit to their husbands, is not convincing anyone who actually cares about Cabinet diversity that he does, too.

Still, as disingenuous and opportunistic as Huck and his allies may be, it is disappointing to see Obama hand one prominent second-term appointment after another only to men. Feminist groups have taken notice, and the Women’s Media Center has started a petition demanding more female appointees to the upper echelons of the executive branch, starting with the Federal Communications Commission chair.

The New York Times crunched the numbers and found that while Obama unsurprisingly has done much better than the Bush administration, he hasn’t bettered the Clinton administration, even though it’s reasonable to expect that the bench of potential female appointees is much deeper now than it was then. (It also seems reasonable to expect that, after giving so many high-profile jobs to women last term, from Hillary Clinton to Susan Rice, the trend would continue.) Women represented 43 percent of both Obama and Clinton’s appointments but only one-third of Bush’s. With Secretary Clinton being succeeded by John Kerry, the percentage of women in the Obama Cabinet is about to drop even lower; if Obama replaces Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who resigned yesterday, with a man, he’ll be at Bush levels.

While I’m not privy to backroom decision-making, part of the problem seems to be Obama’s notorious reluctance to engage in the sort of ugly, hair-pulling fights that Republicans routinely threaten him with, often just for the hell of it. Obama had Susan Rice on tap to replace Clinton, but instead of telling John McCain to stuff his feigned outrage, Obama allowed/encouraged Rice to withdraw her name rather than endure the confirmation process. Previously, Obama shut down the possibility of appointing Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even though she helped create it, seemingly because he just didn’t want to have to get her past hysterical Republican opposition. At the time, Barney Frank described Warren’s congressional opponents as sexists, saying, “Ms. Warren encountered from some people, maybe unconscious on their part, the notion that very strong-willed women with strong opinions might have a place, but not in the financial sector.”

Face-offs between uppity women and belligerent conservatives do turn into the kind of messy brawls that No Drama Obama hates, but by avoiding them, he’s being a coward. No one said getting more women into positions of power was going to be an easy process, but it’s one that has to be undertaken all the same.