Is America Ready for a Male Secretary of State?

Running Foggy Bottom is a tough job -- maybe too tough for a man.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Foreign policy has long been one of the last great bastions of sexism. But as glass ceiling after glass ceiling is shattered in Washington, the time has come to ask when one of the last great barriers will be overcome: Is America ready for a male secretary of state?

From a theoretical standpoint, there is no real reason that a man couldn’t do the job. But in the salons of Georgetown and the halls of Foggy Bottom, there continues to be a steady undercurrent of chatter that a man just wouldn’t be up to it. Right or wrong, here are some of the justifications foreign-policy insiders cite when they make the case that appointing a man as the highest-ranking diplomat in the land would be an overreach.

First and foremost, many wonder whether a man would have the necessary endurance to do the job. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited more than 100 nations during her tenure, flown 897,951 miles, and spent 376 days abroad. By making it to 110 countries in just one term, Clinton broke the previous record for most countries visited by a secretary: 98, held by Madeleine Albright. And although Condoleezza Rice visited fewer countries, she did log more than a million miles in the air. Not many men can point to those kinds of frequent flyer miles.

But beyond just the raw stamina needed to robustly represent the United States at home and abroad, others wonder if a man would simply bring the same skills to the table as does a woman. In numerous studies, women have been ranked as more emotionally intelligent than men while enjoying a greater ability to empathize with their interlocutors. Both men and women consistently rate women as better listeners than men. While some level of stereotyping is likely at work in these findings, there is much to argue that women are more culturally attuned and adept at interpersonal skills than their male counterparts. What skills could be more important for a good diplomat?

The pro-women camp doesn’t just hang its hat on the touchy-feely side of diplomacy. Certainly, when thinking about secretaries Clinton, Rice, and Albright, there are many who have questioned their policies and abilities from both the left and the right. That comes with the territory. But one would be hard-pressed to find someone who argued that any of these three secretaries was too soft for the job. I don’t mean to be too blunt about it, but are there any men out there right now who would bring the same level of toughness to the position? Because of a desire for political correctness, can we risk appointing a man to this job when we are unsure if he will be tough enough to stand up to tyrants in Iran, North Korea, and Cuba?

It is also important to note that secretaries Albright, Rice, and Clinton have all been able to give total commitment to their jobs, at some level of personal sacrifice. Albright was divorced long before her diplomatic career reached the highest levels. Rice never married or had children. Clinton enjoys the relative freedom of being married to a former president of the United States, who is a very active globe-trotter himself. Putting it delicately, some wonder whether a man with more "traditional" family commitments simply would have the time, energy, and focus required to be fully effective as secretary of state. As many a family-minded man has learned, in the demanding and competitive world of modern diplomacy, you just can’t have it all.

And there is the great intangible: star power. Is there any man out there right now who could inspire the "Texts from Hillary" feed that generated 45,000 followers on Tumblr in just a few days? Does anyone recall a senior male diplomat who is a good enough concert pianist that he would be comfortable performing for Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace the way Rice did in 2008? Can we imagine the Smithsonian displaying the accessories of a male diplomat and how they were used to deliver subtle but powerful diplomatic messages the way Albright used her pins and broaches?

Maybe as Mitt Romney struggles to gain traction in the presidential race, he will be tempted to engage in some classic special-interest politics and promise to appoint a man as secretary of state. The move would certainly be welcomed by American men who often feel aggrieved and underappreciated in the workplace. And certainly men remain an important minority when it comes to presidential voting (they constituted 46 percent of voters in the 2008 elections).

We just hope a man would be up to the task.

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